I will miss George McGovern. The former senator from South Dakota and Democratic presidential candidate in 1972 died in a hospice on Sunday, at 90, surrounded by family and friends who loved him.
Indeed, many of us did.
1972 was the first year I was old enough to vote in an election, and McGovern was the first presidential candidate for whom I voted.
To this day, I am more proud of that vote than most of the others I have cast since.
Some of McGovern’s people contacted me while I was still at seminary during the 1972 campaign. They wanted McGovern to have a chance to meet and talk with evangelical Christians, since his own Christian faith was very important to him — being the son of a Methodist minister and even having studied for a divinity degree himself for a while before deciding to go into teaching history. I agreed to help.
They couldn’t understand why most evangelicals at the time were for Richard Nixon, a man who turned out not to be one of the U.S.'s most honest, humble, or deeply religious presidents.
They asked if I could set up a meeting for McGovern with evangelical leaders and even a speaking event at an evangelical Christian college. Since I was attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area, I arranged a breakfast meeting with professors and leaders from the many evangelical schools and organizations based there.
I also facilitated McGovern being able to speak at Wheaton College, which was (and is) arguably the most prominent evangelical school in the country.
That proved to be a challenging and creative task, since at the time I was officially banned from speaking at Wheaton myself, along with another senator, Republican Mark Hatfield, because we were both against the war in Vietnam.
McGovern and Hatfield were close friends, and together led the bipartisan effort against the war in Vietnam, a move that was, in both cases, heavily influenced by their own personal Christian faith.
Wheaton invited both Nixon and McGovern to come. Actually, the Wheaton Student Council, which issued the invitations to both candidates, accidentally switched the letters, sending Nixon’s by mistake to McGovern. The accidental switch told McGovern that the student council had to invite his Democratic opponent, “but all of us here at Wheaton are for you Mr. President!”
Now more than four decades later, there still are some things I recall with crystal clarity from that leaders meeting and the Wheaton speaking event.
One was a question McGovern got from an aggressive professor of Christian apologetics who asked the senator how somebody who attended the liberal Garrett Theological Seminary could have an adequate view of the fallen state of human nature. McGovern surprised the evangelical leaders by giving a theologically knowledgeable and biblically balanced exegesis of the apostle Paul’s view of the human condition and then ended with a joke that broke up the house:
“So because I don’t fully subscribe to the theology of complete human depravity, and because Richard Nixon practices it, you’re going to vote for him?”
Both McGovern’s articulate theology and satirical humor impressed the group.
At Wheaton, I had asked the popular black evangelist, Tom Skinner, to introduce McGovern, because he was a strong supporter of the senator (and also, remember, I was banned from speaking at Wheaton.) In an embarrassing moment, the students almost booed Skinner off the stage. McGovern’s aides were astonished. When the senator finally came out, the Wheaton students booed him too — a candidate for president of the United States.
But McGovern quieted the crowd, first by saying, “I was very interested in coming to college here at Wheaton too, but my parents were of modest means and we just couldn’t afford it.” Then he said, “I see those signs in the back of the room, ‘Vote for Jesus,’ and I want to say that if Jesus were running in this election, I would today throw my support to him! But let me make something perfectly clear [which was a clever mimic of a phrase Nixon often used], running against Richard Nixon is not like running against Jesus Christ!”
McGovern then had the crowd and gave a speech that was perhaps the best I have ever heard about the relationship between Christian values and public life. I later learned that my dear friend, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, who was working for Mark Hatfield at the time, helped Senator McGovern draft that Wheaton speech.
Nevertheless, the evangelical vote nationally went heavily for Nixon. I was an early member of a group Ron Sider started called Evangelicals for McGovern, but it was not a large organization! After the Wheaton event, the McGovern campaign asked me if I would organize a local office for them; one where they needed an experienced organizer — which I was from my student movement days — but it had to be somebody who had no future ambitions to run for office in that particular town. I confessed I had no plans to ever run to be mayor of their key town of Evanston, Ill., and agreed to take my first political campaign job — the only one I have ever had.
I got the seminary students at Garrett, which is in Evanston, to be my volunteer coordinators and together we mobilized literally thousands of Northwestern University students, also in Evanston, to fan out over the northern suburbs of Chicago. We ran it like the anti-war campaigns I had run before, and we actually took Evanston for McGovern — the first time a Republican had ever lost there.
But, unfortunately, McGovern didn’t win many other places — only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — and Nixon won in a famous landslide, only to be impeached later for his “dirty tricks” in the Watergate scandal.
In one of his many class acts as a political leader, to the grateful surprise and delight of her family, McGovern flew across the country to attend Pat Nixon’s funeral, because he wanted to show some “reconciliation” not often seen in politics.
And that’s who McGovern was — one of the political leaders with the greatest integrity that I have ever seen.
McGovern’s two greatest concerns came straight right out of his Christian faith — poverty and war. He worked with political partners from across the aisle with life-long diligence and persistence to end hunger at home and around the world. And in 2008, he received the World Food Prize, along with his Republican friend and anti-hunger collaborator (and another losing presidential candidate), Bob Dole.
In the early 1960s, McGovern conceived the idea of the U.S. Food for Peace program, which gave foreign nations credit to buy surplus U.S. crops, and he was the program’s first director under President John F. Kennedy. He also played a key role building the United Nations’ World Food Program, which has provided food assistance to hundreds of millions of victims of wars and natural disasters around the globe.
McGovern later served as the U.S. representative to the U.N’s food program in Rome and as a U.N. ambassador on world hunger. And at home, the senator spent much of his political career working on effectively expanding the food stamp and school lunch programs for low-income families.
McGovern had the courage to call the war in Vietnam what it was — a moral wrong and political disaster. As young anti-war students, he was a hero to us. And I have seen very few politicians to this day who will tell the truth about the foreign policies of their own country.
McGovern was a decorated World War II bomber, but, like my own naval officer father, saw enough of war to make him always question its motivations and purposes. And, like my Dad, the senator opposed the many other wars that have followed WWII.
These two members of the “greatest generation” were vindicated in their opposition to Vietnam, Iraq, the continuing war in Afghanistan, and so many other U.S. “interventions” on the side of brutal military dictatorships during the Cold War. McGovern told the truth about war, and didn’t just try to prove that he would be “the strongest” commander in chief, as we just saw two presidential candidates do again in last week’s debate on foreign policy.
Clearly, telling the truth, admitting your own nation’s mistakes and misdeeds (and yes, apologizing for things that were wrong), doesn’t always get you elected to office. But it does win the hearts of many who long for such truthful courage. And it does get you vindicated by history.
So, in this week of remembering one of our greatest political leaders, let me just say, that like those gathered around his bedside last Sunday: I loved George McGovern, was proud to work for him, and sorely miss voices like his in our public life.
Jim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: A Guide for Economic and Moral Recovery , and CEO of Sojourners . His forthcoming book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is set to release in early 2013. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis .