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What Might Have Been

In which George McGovern, the senior member of a rare and burdened tribe, reveals just how long it takes to get over losing the presidency

By Michael Leahy
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page W20

George McGovern's phone is ringing.

Unlike former presidents, the 82-year-old McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, has no Secret Service detail or government-funded secretarial help, so he picks up the phone and says in his soft, slow, nasally Dakota voice, "Hell-lo?" A big, black, preternaturally alert Newfoundland named Ursa looks up at him expectantly as he says goodbye to the caller and stands. "Come on, Ursa, want to go to a meeting and see Bob?" McGovern asks, in that singsong voice people generally reserve for pets and small children.

He puts on a brown overcoat, shuffling toward the door, then stops abruptly. Over his shoulder, hung in a hallway, is a framed photo of himself on the cover of what appears to be the November 13, 1972, issue of Newsweek magazine -- or a News-week from a parallel universe. The headline says, "THE GREAT UPSET." Beneath those words, alongside the candidate's beaming visage at age 50, is the cover's subtitle: "President-Elect McGovern." Newsweek prepared the cover, McGovern explains, just in case he beat the odds and won the '72 race. It is one more reminder for him of what might have been.

South Dakota's George McGovern, a prairie populist who lost badly to Richard Nixon in 1972. (D.A. Peterson)

He lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, who in turn fell to Watergate but whose name is immortal, synonymous with scandal and savvy despoiled, whereas McGovern's notoriety recedes with each passing year. Like most presidential nominees who never won the big prize, he has become less a major figure than an intriguing footnote for all but the most passionate political junkies, another answer to a set of trivia questions whose correct responses include the names Dukakis, Mondale, Humphrey, Goldwater, Stevenson, Dewey, Willkie, Landon, Smith, Davis, Cox, Parker, Bryan, Blaine and McClellan -- the good, the bad, the forgotten.

McGovern is walking at this moment to his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, directly across the street from where he and his wife, Eleanor, are living in his home town of Mitchell, S.D., population 14,500. Dakota Wesleyan, he believes, changed his life, transforming him from a shy, gawky kid to a self-assured, ambitious man. He strolls onto the small campus of about 700 students, a few of whom mutter hello to him on their way to classes. If he had become president, McGovern knows, it would be different. Students would crowd around him, and the Secret Service, talking into wrist radios, would be ready to pry off any huggers who wouldn't let go. There would be university officials to greet and maybe a political candidate hoping to squeeze into a photo op. "It would be hectic," McGovern says, not relishing the thought, "and it would be harder just to pick up a phone and walk over to somebody's office." McGovern, who has been helping university officials with the fundraising for a library to be built in his and Eleanor's names on the Wesleyan grounds, wants to establish a speech and debate program here. He called the university president just 30 minutes ago, and now he's headed over to discuss that and the latest news about the library, which is $700,000 shy of the $8.5 million officials say is needed to begin construction. The university is counting on the library to bolster Dakota Wesleyan's stature and to become a lure for everything McGovern -- more political scholars to discuss his legacy, more media attention and, in time, more politically conscious students interested in public service. The modest goal is a library befitting a president who wasn't.

In the university's administrative offices, McGovern is greeted by the president's secretary, Judy Wenzel. "Hi, George. You can have a seat," she says. "Bob is on the phone."

"Okay." McGovern looks around for a place to hang his overcoat.

"Hang it anywhere you want, George. Help yourself to a Christmas cookie, and Bob will be with you as soon as he's off."

McGovern sits down. Ursa eats a cookie. McGovern gets back up. "Judy?"


"Could you tell Bob when he's off that we'll be back in a few minutes?"

"Sure, George."

McGovern and the dog walk out of the office and down a long hallway, stopping at a rectangular glass case, which displays several of his '72 campaign buttons. He gestures at a button with a rainbow, reading its accompanying slogan: "TOGETHER WITH MCGOVERN." His blue eyes shine. "Isn't that a nicely done rainbow?" he asks. "Jesse Jackson left the impression that he created the rainbow -- the Rainbow Coalition. But we had the rainbow in '72." He reads from more sloganeering buttons, hears old reveries in his head. "Remember this?" he asks, pointing at a button that says, "COME HOME, AMERICA," a favorite McGovern antiwar theme during the searing debate over Vietnam. "We were the insurgent campaign," he says. "It was going well for a long time, but I've concluded that perhaps America wasn't ready for change."

He looks away from the buttons. "Better go see Bob," he says to the dog.

Bob is 50-year-old Robert Duffett, an ordained minister who became president of Dakota Wesleyan five years ago and inherited the university's mission to build the McGovern library. Nowadays, he sometimes hunts pheasants with McGovern and has the McGoverns over to his house for dinner. "I was not a McGovern supporter [in 1972], and I was not against him then, but I think almost everyone now recognizes that George was right" about Vietnam, Duffett says. Duffett, clad in a crisp dress shirt and blue tie, gives McGovern a warm handshake and gestures at a chair. McGovern is wearing a red corduroy shirt and khakis that are riding up his ankles, exposing pale flesh, a reminder that Gloria Steinem, once seeing the same thing, went out to buy him calf-length dress socks and a sun lamp.

"What I'd like to talk to you about, Bob," McGovern says, "is a possible forensics program here at the university -- a speech class, a well-guided debate team . . ."


McGovern speaks slowly. "A lot of kids don't enunciate clearly, Bob. They butcher the king's English; they get rattled. The biggest contribution this school made to me was teaching me how to debate the issues of the day." The son of a Methodist minister, who briefly was in the ministry himself as a young man, McGovern still talks with a gentle cleric's lilt. "It really is true that an orator is simply a good man who speaks well. I'm not looking for a job, Bob."

"But you would be wonderful at it," Duffett interjects.

"But if the university could work out a course," McGovern says, "that meets once a week for a semester, my job would be to assess those kids."

Duffett nods. A big man, a former high school linebacker with receding blond hair, Duffett has a dogged athlete's optimism. "A real debate program would add to the civility around here," he says. "And ideas need an institutional incarnation -- ideas like courage, responsible dissent, the kind of values that came through the life" -- Duffett points with a flourish at McGovern -- "of this guy."

Duffett goes on. "So of course we'd be interested, George. You're an incredibly bright man. God gave you a good brain. We want to make all the use we can of your presence."

"Thank you," McGovern says.

Duffett chooses this moment to make the case for donations to the McGovern library. He shrugs, as if to buffer what he is about to say. "I don't want to talk about your death, George, but after you're dead, we want to make sure more money is coming in, something for endowments."

"Yes," says McGovern.

They joke about their pheasant hunts for a moment, then shake hands as the meeting ends. Reflecting later on the fundraising challenges ahead, Duffett says, "Winning makes raising money [for a commemorative library] a lot easier. And some people don't want to be reminded of George's stance on Vietnam. If he had been president, those people would have been remembering something more about him."

He has heard McGovern talk about the What Ifs, particularly George Wallace, who was shot and paralyzed in Maryland during the 1972 campaign by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer. "What if Bremer had missed and Wallace had gone on? George wonders about that," Duffett says. "How could you not want to [rethink] history when you're a historian and the job you wanted most was the presidency?"

Back at home, McGovern excuses himself and walks into his small kitchen. It is Everyman's kitchen, with spots on the linoleum floor. McGovern comes out with a glass of water and a small plate of Oreos. He is ruminating over the Wallace What If. "If Wallace had not been shot, and had gone on to do well in the South [as a third-party candidate], I'm not saying I would have won," McGovern says. "But Wallace was at the height of his popularity and would have taken about 20 percent of the vote that year, nearly all of which would have come from Nixon's base. It would have been a different race. I think I would have carried several states, a strong enough showing that I would have been [viable] in a later [presidential] race . . ." He pauses, as if hearing himself, and then quickly adds: "But you see -- and I want to make this clear -- I don't live in the past. You move on; you need to do that."

And he resumes talking about Wallace.

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