Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

McGovern, a strong man who overcame defeat

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene lunched with George McGovern after the senator's failed presidential bid
  • He says McGovern wondered then whether his campaign had seemed doomed to reporters
  • He says some called McGovern soft, but he was a valorous WW II combat pilot; also a good guy
  • Greene: McGovern was surrounded by home, friendship when he died Sunday

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Pat Nixon had taken Mamie Eisenhower out to lunch. This was in the summer of 1973; the wife of one president and the widow of another talked quietly in the dining room of the United States Senate.

I had traveled to Washington to cover the Senate Watergate hearings, which of course centered on the first lady's husband, and I had unexpectedly been invited to lunch by the other person at my table, which was just a few feet from where Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Eisenhower were eating.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"What did you think?" George McGovern asked me. He drank a cup of coffee and waited for his omelet to arrive. "When you were riding the planes and looking at the crowds every day, did you think we'd lost it?"

George McGovern, an unabashed liberal voice, dies

Only one year before, he had been traveling the country campaigning nonstop, the Democratic candidate for president. He had hoped to be living in the White House. Now, in that summer of '73, having suffered a landslide defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon, he was a U.S. senator who had just come out of a routine and dreary agriculture subcommittee meeting which had lasted all morning and would resume after the lunch break.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"Did you think we never had a chance from the convention on?" McGovern asked.

Former Sen. George McGovern, 90, died on Sunday morning. McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. He ran against incumbent Richard Nixon and won only 17 electoral votes to Nixon's 520. He served in the U.S. Senate and House representing South Dakota before his loss for the top office. Pictured, McGovern attends the 2011 funeral service for Sargent Shriver, his 1972 running mate. Former Sen. George McGovern, 90, died on Sunday morning. McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972. He ran against incumbent Richard Nixon and won only 17 electoral votes to Nixon's 520. He served in the U.S. Senate and House representing South Dakota before his loss for the top office. Pictured, McGovern attends the 2011 funeral service for Sargent Shriver, his 1972 running mate.
George McGovern's political career
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Photos: George McGovern\'s career Photos: George McGovern's career

The Nixon-McGovern campaign had been my first. McGovern had done his best to get to know the people assigned to cover him, even the neophytes, so I had been pleased that a year after his defeat he would take the time to get a bite to eat with me.

He died on Sunday at age 90 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the same town where he had made his concession speech to Nixon on a cold November night 40 years ago. In the sometimes unforgiving world of political acrimony -- left vs. right, conservative vs.liberal -- it is easy to reduce national candidates to cartoon figures. But whatever anyone may have thought of McGovern's ideology, he was an awfully good guy. And for those who casually categorized him as "soft," as his political opponents sometimes did, I always offer the suggestion: Unless you flew 35 World War II combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe as the pilot of a B-24 bomber, as he did, and were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for your valor, as he was, maybe you ought to hold up a little bit before you offhandedly call a man like McGovern soft.

"Because it was the crowds that convinced me that the polls were wrong," McGovern was saying at lunch. "I simply couldn't conceive that the crowds could be so big and enthusiastic, and that the polls could be so drastically negative at the same time. That's the one thing that still puzzles me a little."

Opinion: McGovern ahead of his time

The setting for this conversation bordered on the surreal. McGovern had spent that whole doomed campaign trying in vain to convince the country that he, not Nixon, should be president. Now, in the Senate Dining Room, not only were Mrs. Nixon and Mrs. Eisenhower sitting across the way, but also at nearby tables having lunch were three men who were gaining enormous celebrity as members of the Watergate committee, which was in the midst of holding its nationally televised hearings in the Senate Caucus Room: Sam Ervin of North Carolina, Howard Baker of Tennessee and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. The country's eyes were riveted on them every day, on every broadcast network.

"No, I really haven't watched the Watergate hearings too much," McGovern said. "Oh, once in a while when I go into the Senate cloakroom the TV set in there is turned on, and I watch it for a few minutes. But I don't watch the reruns at night. It's kind of hard for me to watch the hearings anyway; I guess I feel a little more personally involved in what they're about than most people do."

The night before, he told me, he had been invited to a party at which President Nixon had also been a guest. It was the first time he had encountered Nixon in person since the election. In the receiving line, when the two had come face to face, both men smiled broadly, if uneasily, and news photographers snapped pictures of the moment.

"As soon as I was invited to that party," McGovern said, "I knew the situation was going to come up. ... I didn't think that was the picture they'd take. There was another time when Nixon and (then-National Security Adviser Henry) Kissinger and I were all going to be standing together, and I figured that was the picture they'd take. ... What did people expect me to do when I got to Nixon? Do this?"

Politicians pay tribute

McGovern scowled comically and began waving his finger in the air, as if scolding Nixon.

"Couldn't very well do that," he said, laughing.

The news stories about McGovern's passing said that death came to him at the Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls. When I saw that, I had a feeling. I looked it up.

A man named Bill Dougherty was one of McGovern's dear South Dakota friends. He had risen to the position of lieutenant governor of the state; he was with McGovern to offer consolation on that night in Sioux Falls when the election results came in.

Dougherty died in 2010; the hospice facility was named in his honor.

So McGovern spent the last days of his life back in South Dakota, within the welcoming walls of a building bearing the name of his old friend. Home, and friendship: sustaining and real in a way that vote totals and lofty titles can never compete with. If you're lucky, that is. George McGovern was.

Highlights of McGovern's life

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT