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McGovern on politics and integrity

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  October 21, 2012 07:33 PM

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The death of Senator George McGovern marks more than just the passing of a great statesman, World War II hero, and presidential candidate.

It also marks the passing of politics of integrity, although arguably that disappeared in 1972 when McGovern lost in a landslide to the soon-to-be-disgraced Richard Nixon and his plumbers.

On a more personal note, the 1972 McGovern versus Nixon campaign is etched in my memory as my first - and last - foray into electoral politics.

I was in the sixth grade. My older sister and I heard that a presidential candidate - McGovern - was speaking at the nearby college campus, so we walked over to watch. Tens of thousands of people were on hand to hear McGovern, who cut a heroic figure as he issued an eloquent call for peace in Vietnam.

Inspired, I decided to run the mock McGovern for President campaign at school. My friend, Christine, was running the Nixon campaign and, since her mom worked for the Republican National Committee, she was able to plaster the school hallways with slick red-white-and-blue Nixon signs. My hand-lettered McGovern posters, edged with rainbows and peace signs, were no match. When the mock election results came in, McGovern garnered only two votes - one was mine. The other was cast by a girl named Melissa, who confided in me that her parents wanted her to vote for George Wallace but since Wallace was not on the school ballot, she cast her vote for the only other Democrat.

I gave up political campaigns at that point and chose instead to become a journalist covering politics. Fifteen years later - in the mid-1980s - I met McGovern again when he visited the Des Moines Register newspaper, where I worked as an editorial writer. By then, Ronald Reagan was in the White House and McGovern was out of office. An editor walked through the newsroom announcing that McGovern was in town and willing to have lunch with anyone who was interested. I was the only taker.

For me, it was surreal to sit face-to-face with McGovern, since the only other time I had seen him was when he was a celebrity speaking to thousands of supporters. I asked him if he remembered that rally from 1972. Ever gracious, he assured me that he recalled that day with great fondness.

Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he remarked that fame and power are funny things - easily taken for granted and just as easily lost. I have never forgotten McGovern's lesson on the fickleness of power - especially political power - in America.

Upon hearing of his death, I am reminded that the true measure of our lives rests not on the power we wield, but the wisdom with which we wield it. By that measure, George McGovern was a great man.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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