WOSTER: Remembering special moments with George McGovernI listened as a public man became a grieving father remembering a treasured daughter who had been unable to shake the demons of alcohol.
As a news reporter for more than four decades, I showed up at many events where former Sen. George McGovern was a featured speaker or guest.
I’ve been thinking lately, as I suppose many others have, about some of those moments. As the medical news about McGovern continues its downward slide, I’ve looked back and considered how fortunate I was to have been able to cover a person who once held his national party’s nomination for president, who led a rebirth in energy and activity in his state party, and who will rank among South Dakota’s most influential figures.
I know many people in his home state who disagree with his politics. I know only a few who dislike the man.
I graduated from high school in 1962, the year McGovern won his first election for the U.S. Senate. I worked in the sports department at the Argus Leader in 1968 when he won re-election, and I remember one of the editors going to the newsroom window on that rainy November day and saying, “Well, this ought to keep the hippies away from the polls.’’
I have a couple of favorite memories of meetings with him in the years after that first public gathering. One involved a storytelling session with another of the state’s most successful Democratic politicians, the late Gov. Dick Kneip. The other involved an evening of soul-searching with only me as listener.
The storytelling started one afternoon, I believe in 1975, as I left the Capitol building. Kneip and McGovern were just leaving the governor’s second-floor office, and they asked if I’d like to join them for a drink. I may not have been the quickest political reporter in the world, but when a sitting governor and sitting U.S. senator issue that kind of invitation, it isn’t something to be turned down.
The conversation turned to campaigning. McGovern, less than a year past his third successful Senate election and not all that far past his unsuccessful presidential bid, said he had to force himself to meet and greet people when he began his political career. Kneip said that was the part of running for office he always loved most.
Each told funny stories about mishaps on the campaign trail. One I’ve never forgotten from McGovern involved a trip in a small airplane from Rapid City to Pierre for a campaign event. The wind was fierce that day, McGovern said, and he wondered if the trip would be scrubbed. Not to worry, the pilot said.
According to McGovern, he was assigned to hold the wing strut and trot alongside the aircraft until the plane gained a little speed and was able to fight the wind. The senator’s tale of his tie smacking him in the face as he ran along and of boosting himself into the passenger seat of the airplane had both me and Kneip in stitches.
Was it all true? Sure seemed so at the time, and it does to this day.
The soul-searching evening involved a Missouri River ride on a houseboat arranged by Al Neuharth of USA Today fame. At some point, McGovern and I moved downstairs into the cabin while the others stood on the top deck watching an approaching storm. With distant lightning breaking the evening shadows, I listened as a public man became a grieving father remembering a treasured daughter who had been unable to shake the demons of alcohol.
When McGovern’s daughter Terry froze to death in a parking lot in Madison Wis., in 1994, I wrote a column that talked about the person I’d met a few times during political events many years earlier.
Having my own alcohol demons, I was, I suppose, gentle in my treatment. I wanted to be. She seemed such a gentle soul.
Somewhere in a file in the basement, I have a hand-written note from McGovern thanking me for remembering Terry and telling me that “the whole McGovern family loves you’’ for the column.
That evening on the houseboat all those years after Terry’s death, the father talked at length about his daughter, the disease of alcoholism and the mix of emotions he felt at his powerlessness to help his own child. An intelligent and learned man, he knew guilt was unwarranted. A father, he couldn’t help feeling what he did.
I’ll remember the story telling afternoon fondly.
The soul-searching evening? That I’ll cherish as long as I’m around.