Tonawanda News

October 24, 2012

DUVALL: Recalling George McGovern's lesson

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — George McGovern, arguably the worst major party presidential candidate in modern American history, died Sunday after a brief illness, his family said. He was 90.

His 1972 trouncing at the hands of Richard Nixon was among the most lopsided in American history. He won one state, Massachusetts. Nixon won the other 49. In his New York Times obituary, McGovern would come to joke that, “all my life I wanted to run for president in the worst way — and I did.”

But it wasn’t his failure to effectively address the nation’s ills a decade before I was born that interested me about George McGovern. It was a college road trip I took to Lake Placid as an impressionable and hyperactive 19-year-old that, to this day, changed how I view the world around us.

I had made some college friends who were active in local politics and they’d managed to lure me away for a weekend in summer 2003 for a conference sponsored by the state Democratic Party. Several of the party’s presidential candidates were scheduled to speak including John Kerry and Howard Dean. 

McGovern was the event’s keynote speaker.

We sat through some stem-winders meant to rally the base and engender grassroots goodwill in the early stages of the race to unseat President George W. Bush.

Unsurprisingly for a room full of dyed-in-the-wool liberals, Dean, telegraphing his meteoric rise in the polls that would come later that fall, won over a lot of hearts and minds with his forceful critique of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war. His message resonated and I dedicated myself to helping him win the nomination. I still keep the “Dean for America” sticker I got that day on display as a reminder of what it used to be like as a heady, idealistic college student.

So after the campaign speeches and a lunch break when we all settled down to hear the party’s one-time standard-bearer speak, I was expecting another devastating critique of Bush’s Blunder. 

Much to my surprise, what I got instead was a thoughtful, hour-long lecture on how one simple little thing could change the world: a nutritious school lunch. 

Not being from the Vietnam generation, I didn’t know much about George McGovern. All I knew of him was, as an early opponent of the war in Vietnam, he brought the peace movement off the margins and forced a recalcitrant Democratic Party to endorse it. Given the popular dialogue of the early 2000s about a repeat of those mistakes, I presumed McGovern would rally the base with some sage wisdom from days gone by.

I did not get what I came


My curiosity piqued, I set out to learn more about McGovern and some time later came across a campaign biography about McGovern at a garage sale, written circa 1971. The pages yellowed and the spine never cracked, I paid 50 cents and was the first person to read it — 30 years too late for the author.

And it was at this point, months later, that the school lunch lecture came into focus. Aside from his anti-war activism, McGovern spent a lifetime combatting poverty in America and abroad. He was an early ally of Robert F. Kennedy, the father of modern anti-poverty policy in the United States. The two men were responsible for filling thousands, millions of hungry bellies.

For a young partisan with blinders to history and eager — too eager — to fight the political battles of the day, it was an important reminder that not all politics is about shouting louder or making those who disagree look stupid. Beliefs are hard won and should be forged of genuine intellectual curiosity and an open-minded deliberation of our society and its ills. 

That afternoon in Lake Placid, there stood a man who had every right to stand up and say “I told you so.” History had proven McGovern right about Vietnam and that kind of genuine authority would have had the crowd on their feet in a self-righteous ferver.

Instead, he talked of hungry children and how better schools with better food being funded in the developing world are our greatest defense against terrorists.

It was an important lesson I learned that day, imparted by an improbable teacher.

In the context of another heated presidential contest, George McGovern’s passing serves as a reminder, at least for me, that not all politic@Body Copy Ragged:s has to be blood sport.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at