George McGovern never thought of himself as a hero, but I did. He was an honorable man who lived an honorable life until his death early Sunday morning at the age of 90. He had some tough losses, but he always faced them with courage...and a wry sense of humor.
In particular, I’ve always been impressed with George’s contention that he came to hate war while waging it. A World War II bomber pilot who won the Distinguished Flying Cross, he became one of the leading voices against American involvement in Vietnam, a principled stand that cost him dearly among the blood-and-glory crowd.
I’ve known the McGoverns since the late 1970s, when I was the statehouse correspondent in Pierre, S.D., for The Associated Press. George’s humiliating defeat to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race must have been still fresh and painful, but he never let it show.
I remember spending a day on the campaign trail with the McGoverns. Both were exhausted, but George would not leave an auditorium, a supermarket line or a street corner without shaking every hand. I also remember how his late wife Eleanor was vivacious and charming as she worked a political reception, then sagged when she was out of the spotlight.
I lost touch with the McGoverns in the 1980s after George was appointed the first United Nations Ambassador on Global Hunger and began a new career of challenging the world to feed the hungry at home and abroad. But I was deeply moved by his 1997 book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.”
When I called to offer my condolences, George told me a tragic story. He said that he and Eleanor went to see a counselor for advice on handling Terry’s drinking problem. The counselor told them that they were enabling Terry’s drinking by accepting her collect phone calls home, often late at night. So they took the counselor’s advice and basically shut her out. Then on a cold winter night, she stumbled out of the back door of a bar in Madison, Wis., fell into a snowbank and froze to death. George never forgave himself for what must be every father’s worst nightmare.
A few years later, I was writing my own series of stories on alcoholism, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. When Hazelden published the stories as a book, “Alcohol: Cradle to Grave,” I sent an advance copy to George, who responded with a ringing endorsement: “I feel enlightened after devouring this powerful book.”
So it seemed natural a few years ago when I was writing “Faces of Combat: PTSD & TBI,” to ask George to write a foreword. “I’ll do the best I can,” he responded. But it wasn’t to be. George had new American wars to oppose, and his remarkable strength was being sapped by his advancing years.
When I look back on George’s life, I’m struck by the courage he displayed in taking unpopular stands based on his principles. He displayed a sense of honor and courage that is increasingly rare in politics today.
That’s why I consider George McGovern to be a true American hero.