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Between Friday's news of the passing of Walter Cronkite and tomorrow's anniversary of mankind's first steps on strange world, another milestone may be overshadowed.

On this date in 1922, in the tiny Plains town of Avon, South Dakota, George Stanley McGovern was born.  His father, Joseph, had worked in the mines and played professional ball for the St. Louis Cardinals, but had heard the call to preach and took a position as parson of the Avon Wesleyan Church (now the Avon Museum).  Joseph's wife, Frances, managed the family's affairs.

A shy child, embarrassed to speak in class, George nonetheless was happy, with a loving family and good friends, both in Avon and in Mitchell, where the McGoverns moved when he was six.

In his sophomore year at Mitchell High School, George's teacher, Rose Hofner, tapped him for the debate team, where he overcame his childhood shyness and developed persuasive oratory talents.  Later, at Dakota Wesleyan University, he won a statewide oratory contest for a speech entitled, "My Brother's Keeper," on the individual's responsibility to humanity.

He won a second prize debating, though it came by losing.  In high school, he had been beaten in a debate by the smart and attractive Eleanor Stegeberg, from Woonsocket.  While in University, they courted and were married on October 31, 1943.

In college, George was convinced by his friend, Norman Ray from Custer, to take flying lessons as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program.  After Pearl Harbor, that experience expedited his entrance into the Army Air Corps, where he learned to fly PT-19s, AT-17s and, eventually, the massive B-24 Flying Fortress bombers, instructed by none other than his old friend Norman Ray.

Assigned to the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group, George flew 35 missions over Europe, some of them quite harrowing.  On one occasion, a hit from anti-aircraft fire blew out the brakes and hydraulics on his plane, the Dakota Queen.  On another, his number-two engine flamed out and he was forced to land the plane on a runway built for small fighters, under heavy fire, in what is now Croatia.  Calm throughout the ordeal, he called to his crew, "Resume your stations, we're bringing her home."  That episode earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

His proudest missions in the Corps were flown after the war's end, when he helped ferry food and supplies to war-ravaged civilians.

He finally completed college and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946.  He studied for a year at seminary, then transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he earned a PhD in American history and government.

Soon after the war, his interest in politics and policy bloomed.  He worked for Henry Wallace's 1948 progressive third-party campaign.  He fought Rep. Richard Nixon's bill, co-sponsored with South Dakota's Karl Mundt, to register communists.  Working for Adlai Stevenson, he developed the South Dakota Democratic Party into an electoral powerhouse, which elected George McGovern himself to the U.S. Congress in 1956.  

Already skeptical of Cold War theorists who used the Soviet Union to justify American meddling in the world's trouble spots, his very first roll call vote in Congress was against the so-called ""Eisenhower Doctrine," a prototype of later declaration-free authorizations of military force.

In 1960, after running and losing against Mundt for a Senate seat, he was tapped by President Kennedy to run the Food for Peace Program, distributing America's agricultural surplus to hungry developing nations, a fitting continuation of his post-conflict humanitarian flights in the Air Corps.

He was elected to the Senate in 1962, and became the following year the first member of that body to speak out against America's growing involvement in Vietnam, beginning the political battle that would define his career.  From his arrival in the upper chamber to the war's end in 1975, no senator was more determined to wind down U.S. involvement in Vietnam, even dispatching Pierre Salinger to Paris in 1972 to meet with North Vietnamese negotiators and determine their policy regarding the release of American POWs, an issue used by the Nixon administration to justify further bombing and incursions into third countries.

McGovern is, of course, best known as the Last Candidate Standing against Richard Nixon after the brutal campaign of dirty tricks, break-ins and sabotage practiced against Democrats in the long election of 1972.  But his career by no means ended on election night.  McGovern was appointed a UN delegate by President Ford in 1976, and later President Carter named him a special UN delegate for disarmament issues.  He left the Senate in 1980, six years after Nixon resigned from the presidency in disgrace.

His Senate career was marked not only by his opposition to the war, but his dedication to economic opportunity and nutrition assistance for the needy, both in the United States and around the world.  Not for nothing did Robert Kennedy call him "the most decent man in the Senate--as a matter of fact, he's the only one."

Since retiring from public service, George McGovern has lectured at over 1,000 universities and colleges and authored books ranging from personal memoirs to reflections on the meaning and responsibility of American citizenship, notably his 2004 defense of liberalism as the defining spirit of the republic, The Essential America.  His most recent work is his biography of Lincoln for the American Presidents Series.

His greatest legacy may well prove to be the George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University, a center for study of public policy and service, founded by George and his wife, who passed away at their farm in Mitchell in January of 2007.

From a shy little boy born in a county perhaps best known as the American arrival point of the tumbleweed, George McGovern grew to become a great orator, a genuine war hero, an educator, a loving husband and father, and a voice for people around the world striving for peace, justice and opportunity.

Senator, I hope this is a wonderful day.  For the rest of us, it cannot help but be a happy occasion, for it reminds us of how very, very fortunate we have been to have heroes like you among us.

As we and the world continue to age, there are many too many things to remember.  Today is also the birthday of my friend the pianist John Autin, who Sen. McGovern enjoys hearing at the Monteleone Hotel when he is in New Orleans.  

Still, 'midst all the commemorations, my toast today shall be, "Senator George McGovern."

Some sources:

Biography--Dakota Wesleyan University site

S. Clayton Moore, "The Outspoken American: Aviator, Senator and Humanitarian George McGovern"

George McGovern on myspace

Further reading:

Grassroots:  The Autobiography of George McGovern  (1977)

"The Wild Blue : The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45"--Stephen Ambrose (2002)

Nixonland:  The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America --Rick Perlstein (2008)

"Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail"--Hunter S. Thompson (1973)

Originally posted to Crashing Vor on Sat Jul 18, 2009 at 09:15 PM PDT.

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