A patriot, a war hero–during the Second World War, he flew 35 bombing missions, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross for a safe landing after anti-aircraft fire had destroyed one of his B-24’s engines and engulfed a second engine in flames–and a figure altogether kind, gentle, and humane (for this assessment of McGovern’s character I rely on the testimony of William F. Buckley, Jr., who became close to the former senator from South Dakota during his own final years). But, as I learned interviewing him for Uncommon Knowledge in 2003, George McGovern remained an unreconstructed liberal. To wit:
Peter Robinson: Senator, you attribute the success of conservatives to “huge campaign war chests and clever propagandas.” You think then that the conservative ascendancy is primarily, in part–I’m looking for weights here–a result of superior control of the levers of politics. They’re just better at the technical aspects of it?
George McGovern: I think they’re better at the propaganda aspects of it and less constrained by ethics or by respect for historical tradition. Let me make clear, I don’t have any anger towards old-line conservatives. I got along fine with Goldwater and Bob Dole and always admired Eisenhower, people of that kind. I don’t like these conservatives who bash every single liberal idea, which has been happening over the last 30 years in American politics. If you were against the Vietnam War, you had to convince about half the electorate you weren’t sympathetic to communism. If you were for Civil Rights, you had to campaign in the South where that subject was political suicide. Republican conservatives and some Democratic conservatives orchestrated those fears, fears of communism, fears of the Civil Rights revolution.
Peter Robinson: So what you’re saying though is that the liberals lost the country.
George McGovern: I think they lost the propaganda war. My guess is that most Americans favor the liberal agenda. Can I just tick it off very quickly?
Peter Robinson: Of course.
George McGovern: Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, minimum wages, rural electrification, guaranteed bank deposits, I think that’s the liberal agenda and I think most Americans favor that agenda.
Thirty years after he lost the 1972 presidential election in a landslide, George McGovern was still talking as if Franklin Roosevelt had never died and Ronald Reagan had never been born. The nation had simply passed him by.
Until today, when it pauses to remember that, even if obdurately and willfully mistaken, George McGovern was a good man.