McGovern tributes: ‘He was an icon’Tom Daschle remembers lifelong friendship forged when he worked to re-elect McGovern to Senate.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
Tom Daschle was a college student when he met George McGovern in the 1960s. “The more I saw him, the more I admired him and the more I was inspired by him,” Daschle said. “It was a big part of my college experience befriending and getting to know him.” He reflected on the relationship last weekend as he checked on his friend’s condition and made plans to attend a funeral service. Daschle was one of several South Dakota and national politicians, as well as Mitchell residents, who talked about McGovern and issued comments after the liberal icon died Sunday at 90.
By 1972, Daschle worked for McGovern’s presidential campaign, and in 1974, he organized Brookings, Lake and Moody counties during McGovern’s successful bid for a third Senate term. McGovern easily carried all three, and Daschle’s political career moved ahead.
In 1978, Daschle was elected to Congress and for two years, he was a colleague with the man he idolized.
“As the years went on, the longer I served, the more fortunate I felt to have the mentorship and the friendship of George McGovern,” Daschle said.
He said McGovern was a steady force who endured personal and professional losses but kept moving forward.
“He’s always been able to come out on top of it,” Daschle said. “He’s shown such amazing resiliency.”
There’s a reason McGovern maintained such a high profile decades after leaving public office, he said.
“I think the answer is that George McGovern is George McGovern,” Daschle said. “He is a person who is passionate about public policy and passionate about making this world a better place.
“He’s just built that way,” he added. “He’s built to press ahead.”
Congressional delegation reacts
Sen. Tim Johnson volunteered for McGovern’s campaigns in 1968, 1972 and 1974.
He said McGovern’s legacy will shine in the coming years.
“George McGovern will be well-remembered,” Johnson said. “George McGovern inspired me and many others into public service. I feel privileged and honored to have known him over these many years.”
Sen. John Thune, a Republican in his second term in the Senate seat that McGovern and Daschle held, said he was proud to call McGovern a friend.
Thune was a rare Republican amid a sea of Democrats at a party for McGovern’s 90th birthday held in Washington, D.C., in July. In a statement, he said McGovern will be well-remembered.
“Senator George McGovern lived a life of exemplary service,” it stated in part.
Like Thune, Rep. Kristi Noem is a Republican, but she said McGovern treated her kindly.
“George McGovern was a South Dakota institution. He has inspired countless Americans to get involved in the political process and will be remembered for his passionate commitment to South Dakota and to the hungry of the world,” Noem said in a statement.
Former South Dakota congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin said she had grown close to McGovern in the past few years. She offered a tribute to him on her Facebook page.
“Today is indeed a sad day because this world is no longer blessed with the decency and humanity that marked Sen. George McGovern and his commitment to the common good and improving the lives of others,” it said in part.
President Barack Obama praised McGovern in a statement issued Sunday.
“When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger.”
Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a joint statement.
“As a war hero, distinguished professor, Congressman, Senator and Ambassador, George always worked to advance the common good and help others realize their potential,” it read.
Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication of the McGovern Library on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in 2006 in Mitchell.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, also issued a statement about McGovern’s death.
“George McGovern was a self-made man who served our nation, in war and in peace, with courage and conviction,” it read. “He worked hard on behalf of South Dakota, and made history as the only South Dakotan to be nominated for President. Linda and I extend our sympathies to the McGovern family.”
Ben Nesselhuf, chairman and executive director of the South Dakota Democratic Party, had this to say about the man who is credited with rebuilding the state party in the 1950s:
“George McGovern was a war hero, a statesman and a champion of those who are sometimes forgotten,” Nesselhuf said. “Simply put, he was a good man who always did what was right regardless of what was easy. He lived a lot of life in 90 years and will be held up as a role model for generations to come.”
Local, state reaction
Former longtime Davison County sheriff Lyle Swenson knew McGovern since the 1950s, when the fledgling politician stopped by his parents’ home in Mitchell. Swenson said the news, even though it was expected, was still hard to hear Sunday.
“It’s sad, a sad day for the McGovern family and for everybody in the country,” he said. “He was an icon and I’m proud that I knew him. I know that things came to a halt for him rather suddenly, but I think he was as ready for it as anyone.”
Swenson said he thought it was remarkable that McGovern returned to Mitchell for his final years and spent so much time here. It became almost routine to see him around the community, and Swenson said a lot of people took it for granted.
Bob Duffett, in his 13th year as DWU’s president, met McGovern before Duffett assumed the office and the men eventually became close friends.
They had dinner together frequently and also traveled “like crazy” to raise money for the McGovern Center and Library. Two roses were laid at the base of statues of George and Eleanor McGovern outside the library Sunday afternoon.
“I really enjoyed him a lot as a human being, and also as a historian,” he said. “He was a first-rate historian.”
Duffett said talking history with McGovern was fascinating both because of his knowledge, but also because for half a century, he was a close observer and participant in much of it.
“History will be incredibly kind to him,” Duffett said.
“He was a heck of a good guy, great sense of humor. He cared deeply for DWU and Mitchell, South Dakota. He was a flag-waving patriot, but he knew that there was more to patriotism than that, that it was more than going to war.”
Donald Simmons, DWU’s dean of the College of Leadership and Public Service and executive director of the DWU McGovern Center, was moved by the loss of his friend.
Simmons said they had discussed death in the last few years, and McGovern had admitted he was tired and realized the end of his life was near.
“He said he was looking forward to seeing Eleanor again,” Simmons said, referencing McGovern’s wife, who died in 2007.
Simmons said McGovern, a former DWU history professor, realized time had shown him to be right on many issues he championed.
“I think his place in history will improve over time,” Simmons said. “As a historian, I look back over time, so many of the things he advocated for have happened. History has proven he was on the right side of many of those issues.
“It brought him some satisfaction, and some sorrow that it took humanity some time to admit it made a mistake.”
Vet: ‘We loved him’
Bob Burns, the retired head of the South Dakota State University Political Science Department, said McGovern will be remembered as a “leading humanitarian” and one that truly cared about the plight of the destitute.
“We’re all blessed to have known him,” Burns said.
He and his wife became friends with McGovern in the 1970s, and he said McGovern will be well-regarded in the history books.
“His reputation and his accomplishments far outlived his time in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives,” Burns said.
Pat Ziegler, the commander of Mitchell VFW Post 2750, said McGovern was a proud member who often stopped by for a chat and a drink with his fellow veterans. The VFW appeared to be the first and perhaps only public place in Mitchell with its flag at half-staff by Sunday afternoon, after Gov. Dennis Daugaard asked for that honor on behalf of McGovern.
“We loved him,” Ziegler said. “And we’ll miss him.”
Al Neuharth, a South Dakota native who founded USA Today, The Freedom Forum and Newseum, said this:
“George McGovern was clearly one of South Dakota’s most outstanding public servants. The USA and the world would have been better off if he had defeated Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election.”
Another South Dakota native who became a major media figure, retired NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, issued a tweet about McGovern.
“G McGovern — a great man. War hero, teacher, congressman, senator, presidential candidate, and lifelong advocate for peace. God bless.”
Daschle said over the years, he and McGovern talked over almost every topic imaginable. They even discussed death, he said.
“We’ve had conversations about that. In some ways, I wasn’t totally surprised,” he said of news that McGovern had entered hospice care. “But you’re always saddened by this news.
“I guess I had mixed reactions. It’s devastating to hear somebody you love is going through such a thing,” Daschle said. “But we knew how frail he was.”
Daschle was struck by the “incredible life” McGovern led and appreciative of the warm bond that formed between them.
“I love George as a member of my own family,” Daschle said.