George McGovern was in Arkansas last week, and at 82, he seems to be the same likeable, kind and liberal American that he has always been.
He flew 35 missions at age 22 in a B-24 Liberator bomber in Europe in World War II, earned a Ph.D from Northwestern University, was elected to the U.S. Senate for 18 years by the people of South Dakota, chosen by the Democrats to be their candidate for president in 1972, was appointed the first director of U.S. Food for Peace and was named by two other presidents as an ambassador to the United Nations in the U.S. and Italy, and awarded the nation’s highest honor, the Medal of Freedom.
McGovern was invited to be a speaker in the Walton Arts and Ideas Series at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. Then at the invitation of an old friend, Carl Whillock, he came to Little Rock the next day to talk to the Political Animals Club breakfast. The turnout at 7 a.m. was more than 150.
He said he opposes our invasion of Iraq because it didn’t do anything to us and believes that the way to stop terrorism is to root out its causes. But the rest of his talk was light, often funny. He became a Democrat as a young man when he was asked to run the Democrat Party tent at a fair in South Dakota. He saw that the Republican tent had a real elephant to attract people, so he quickly persuaded a farmer friend to lend him a donkey, which McGovern picked up in his car. Unfortunately, when the donkey got to the tent, it began tearing it up and even the Republicans came over to help McGovern corral it — cooperation that you don’t see in the Congress these days, he said.
McGovern now is involved with food. He told about his arrival in Italy on a troop ship during the war and seeing hungry children trying to get on the ship to get food. Twenty-five of them drowned. Now he says 300 million children go hungry every day in the world, so he has organized through the United Nations to provide at least one meal a day for them. “Hunger,” he said, “is something we can handle.”
So that it wouldn’t be just a Democratic project, he got a partner — Bob Dole, a Republican friend of his when they were in the Senate. “I kept expecting Dole to give me some of that Viagra that he was promoting on television, but he told me that I was too old,” McGovern said.
He resents the personal attacks the Republicans used on him in 1972 and the attacks both Democrats and Republicans are using now. He admires former Sen. Dale Bumpers, who refused to do such things. “The two traditions of American politics are conservatism and liberalism, and neither is being used now,” he said.
I asked McGovern what he thought about the possibility of Bill Clinton being named United Nations secretary general in two years when Secretary Kofi Anna’s term is up.
“I think it would be a perfect job for Clinton,” he said. “He was among the three or four best presidents we’ve had in the United States. He gets along with everyone, would be welcome in any country and is shrewd on foreign matters.”
I stood in line with dozens of others to buy a book he has just written, “The Essential America,” and to have him sign it. Standing behind me was Hilda Perrott, wearing a fading T-shirt that said “McGovern for President” that her mother had worn in 1972.
The first and last time I ever saw and heard McGovern was in Miami in 1972 when he was accepting his nomination for president at 3 a.m. The Arkansas Democrat had sent me down there because the Democratic Party was in such turmoil that there was a chance that Rep. Wilbur Mills of Kensett, Ark., who served 38 years in the House of Representatives, might be nominated to run against Republican Richard Nixon. Of course, that didn’t happen, but neither did anything else that could have helped the Democrats.
Examples: For the first time, there were many women, blacks and young people who were delegates at the convention, and most of them really didn’t know what was going on. Even though McGovern easily won the California primary, those who didn’t like him convinced a judge to recall most of the state’s votes at the convention. George Wallace, the racist governor of Alabama, was shot two months before the convention, which made millions of people vote for Wallace’s American Party. Two weeks after McGovern chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his vice president candidate, Eagleton said that while he never told McGovern, he had been hospitalized three times for electric shock therapy and psychiatric counseling. McGovern then was turned down by four Democrats (who thought they ought to be president) to replace Eagleton. Finally after 26 days he selected Sargent Shriver, director of the Peace Corps and a Kennedy in-law, someone few people knew.
McGovern was considered a radical because he wanted to bring American soldiers home from Vietnam, redistribute the wealth, allow abortion and legalize marijuana and homosexual marriages. That’s why he got fewer votes than any other candidate in history except one.
My wife voted for McGovern, but I hate to admit that I voted for Nixon.
Newspaper photographers never get much money or attention. I know because I got my first job as one in the 1940s. In 1957, a guy named Will Counts learned it when he made the best pictures of the desegregation of Little Rock's Central High School.