I had two encounters with George McGovern when I was young, close enough to get a clear impression of the man. He was one of the reasons that I became a journalist.
It was popular then, in Richard Nixon’s years, as now, to paint liberals as soft, wimpy, malleable and muddle-headed. That didn’t describe McGovern.
McGovern was liberal, for sure, but he was as tough as tungsten. A B-24 Liberator bomber pilot who flew 35 missions over Europe in World War II, McGovern reminded me of my father’s generation of grizzled combat veterans — steely, confident, taking no guff. These were men touched deeply by the war but also made more humane by it. They took joy in life and appreciated humanity’s foibles, and they were personally tolerant and kind. George H.W. Bush is in the same mold.
My first encounter with McGovern came in 1971, at a conference that I and my best friend attended as a reward for doing well in our volunteer work. We were in high school in Southern California, co-chairing the local chapter of what was then called the American Freedom From Hunger Foundation.
The foundation — McGovern and Sargent Shriver served on the board — trained and mentored high school and college students in the early 1970s to organize 25-mile “hunger walks” to raise money for, and awareness of, anti-hunger programs at home and abroad.
Our chapter, amazingly, raised about $20,000 over two years — a lot in those days. It split the money between a domestic and a foreign anti-hunger project.
We funded and built a central kitchen for a group of Head Start centers in Compton and Watts, in urban Los Angeles, so they could feed the kids hot meals. Abroad, we funded an innovative family-planning program in Lucknow, India.
We were young activists, although we didn’t think of ourselves that way. We saw ourselves as doing charity work. But some of the authority figures we encountered in setting up our hunger walks, whether school principals, local politicians or police, viewed us warily, as somehow a leftist protest group. We had to constantly overcome that as we organized the walks.
We talked about that with McGovern when we met him at the Hunger Foundation conference. He chuckled over this and told us a couple of war and political stories, the moral of which was to have the courage of your convictions, to have a stiff spine and a good argument, to be respectful and to laugh off, later in private, some of the sillier objections we received. He bucked us up with his backbone, warmth and sense of humor.
After our group completed its second hunger walk in as many years, in spring 1972, many of us segued directly into McGovern’s primary campaign for the presidency. I wore out a pair of shoes canvassing neighborhoods. We met a lot of voters who were surprisingly receptive to our pitch, given that Southern California was pure Nixon country. We also had a lot of doors slammed in our faces and bore the hectoring of people whom Nixon was then calling the Silent Majority. They didn’t seem so silent to us, mainly just rude.
I met McGovern again, just days before the June 6 California primary, after a rally we helped organize in our neck of the San Gabriel Valley. The rally was huge, way bigger than we expected. McGovern was peaking and enthusiasm was running high, but the candidate, as usual, was late, about 21 / 2 hours late. Still, the crowd stayed until he appeared.
After the rally, McGovern met with some of us volunteers. It was after midnight, and he was tired, but he was unchanged from the man I had met a year earlier. Though he was on the brink of winning the California primary, which gave him the nomination, he had a kind and inspiring word for everyone. He primed us for the long, and ultimately losing, fight in the fall.
I turned 18 two weeks after the November election. I never got the chance to vote for him.
It was my experience as a charity and campaign volunteer that ultimately turned me toward journalism. I wanted to tell the stories of those kids in Compton and Watts, and to write about what politics and politicians are like, the good and the bad.
Journalists, like activists and politicians, encounter many great people in our work, but we also meet with a great deal of resistance and opposition. People are always telling you no, you can’t have that information. People sometimes lie to your face. And they are only too ready to denounce the media as the cause of all society’s ills.
When that happens, I recall the advice and quiet strength of George McGovern. I’ll miss him.
Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at email@example.com.