Today the internet has featured some remarkable reminiscences of Senator George McGovern, from people who knew him well to people who were inspired by him to people who became a bigger part of the party because of his reforms to those whose ideas were baked in the cauldron his reforms brought to the Democratic Party.
I too was inspired by George McGovern. I was a 17-gonna-be-18-by-Election-Day year-old high school senior who learned McGovern’s new caucus system and, with others like me, swept Northern Virginia for Senator McGovern against a bunch of Establishment Democrats who thought Hubert Humphrey or maybe Scoop Jackson deserved a shot against Richard Nixon in 1972.
I was awed by George McGovern’s courage. Knowing full well the moment I read that Washington Post right after high school graduation that those burglars at the Watergate were probably Richard Nixon’s own idea, I watched Senator McGovern struggle with his own probable knowledge of Nixon’s complicity as he tried to help America understand the rot at the core of our government, in an ultimately futile presidential campaign that came to define him for many Americans.
I was struck by George McGovern’s politeness to every voter. Meeting his campaign plane at Dulles Airport, standing along the runway fence after he had won a Western primary (maybe Oregon?) with my mother and 70-something grandmother, I watched him shake hands down the line, but skip my grandmother’s hand. My mom, never shy with politicos, called out from behind her own mom as the weary but victorious candidate moved on: “Hey, George!” He turned back and saw my grandmother’s hand, still pushed through the fence. He stepped back to her, thanked her for coming to meet his plane in that distinctive midwestern twang of his, with a twinkle in his eye for my mom, to whom he called out, “Thanks!”
I was amazed at George McGovern’s peace with himself, even when he sought the Presidency again in 1984. As Sidney Blumenthal documents in “Our Long National Daydream,” the 1984 Democratic primary campaign was a contest of the inevitable (Mondale) and the unlikely (Hart, Glenn, McGovern). But Senator McGovern, having been the standard bearer twelve years before, had the seniority and the smarts to contain Mondale’s rivals’ criticism, calming the New Hampshire primary debate with this wisdom: “Sometimes, the frontrunner wins the nomination, gentlemen.” McGovern, a product of a deliberately skewed and rat-fucked Democratic party nominating process in 1972, knew not to provide Reagan’s campaign with more ammunition than they already had against Fritz, as a captive of party “special interests” — and Jimmy Carter’s Vice President.
But, more than anything else, I owe George McGovern the past fifteen years. He and his wife Eleanor suffered the unbearable pain of losing their child Teresa to alcoholism; she froze to death in Madison, Wisconsin. His book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism,” brought him to the McLean Community Center one evening for a book chat, which my parents attended. They had an estranged son struggling with addiction all the way across the country, who rarely reached out. They did not know how to help him. Hearing George McGovern talk about how he and his wife worked so hard to get Terry help meant so much to my parents. They were inspired by the McGoverns’ tragedy.
My mom went up to him afterwards and told Senator McGovern their own story, about how I had begun my national political activism in his 1972 campaign and was now trapped in a cycle of dependency and addiction far away in a world they did not understand. He listened carefully and comforted them, but he challenged them as well. “Three words,” George McGovern said. “I have only three words for you: Never. Give. Up.”
Shortly afterwards, my parents flew cross-country despite their own health worries, accompanied by my cousin, without whom they could never have made the trip. They challenged my grandiose addict’s world view with their love. They continued to reach out. They let me know I was cherished. They went home to Virginia without me; I had abandoned them practically at the airport gate. But they never gave up. They took George McGovern’s advice, enrolling me in a special United Airlines program for lost family members that required only a keyword to board a plane from anywhere in the United States, as long as it was bound for Dulles. They made sure I knew the secret keyword and how to use it at the airport.
I remembered that keyword; the next spring, I used it. The airline called my parents and told them what plane I would be on. They met me at the airport and took me to their home in McLean. My parents never gave up. Given their own challenges at the time, they had come very close to giving up on me. But when they heard George McGovern (whose personal hell wasn’t giving up but knowing he hadn’t and he still couldn’t save Terry) tell them not to give up, they acted.
Since then, after a long and painful mom-and-pop-based recovery, with helping hands from neighbors and then local merchants who took a risk on employing me, I regained my equilibrium. I still struggle with the self-destructive emotions and relentless anger that led me into various addictions, but I understand them better and know whereof they come. I was able to return to San Francisco, the city of all my unhappiness, and give back to my community there as an AIDS outreach educator certified by the state of California. Despite the best efforts of the Bush Administration to enforce the Helms Amendment (“Don’t talk about sex when you’re talking about sex!”) I worked hard day-in-day-out to reduce AIDS transmission in San Francisco. I made a difference for people.
I became a productive citizen again, thanks to the advice George McGovern gave my folks.
Thanks to George McGovern’s advice (“Three words: Never. Give. Up.“) my parents helped me to get alive again. Thank you, Senator McGovern, for all your leadership for America, but most of all: thank you for saving my life.