DUFFETT: It all began here, at Mitchell and DWUThree talents may account for his meteoric rise.
By: Robert Duffett, President, Dakota Wesleyan University
Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, and South Dakota have lost a dear friend. George McGovern, age 90, DWU Class of 1946, died early Sunday morning, Oct. 21, 2012.
As a congressman, senator, and the Democratic candidate for the American presidency in 1972, he gained international fame. Rolling Stone magazine’s 40th anniversary issue said McGovern was one of the most significant people in the last half of the 20th century.
As I view his life, three talents may account for his meteoric rise. First, George was an exceedingly bright man. This was a gift of birth. Yet, he developed this gift by reading and writing — two habits that sharpen the intellect. We at DWU claim the importance of lifelong learning, recognizing no college provides a complete education. Rather, a DWU education is a springboard to a lifetime engagement with important ideas. George absorbed this lesson. He wrote books, articles and speeches almost to the very last day of his life. What nature gave, George developed.
By his own admission, he was shy — not the type of person attracted to debate or politics. Yet, through one he found the other. A teacher at Mitchell High School suggested this painfully shy boy join the extroverted debate team. He flourished, continued debate at DWU, and became a nationally renowned college debater. Later, as professor of history at DWU, he was the debate team coach. The discipline of debate strengthened his ability to research ideas, marshal arguments, present them in persuasive ways, and then next time, argue against what last week he affirmed. Debate was his second talent.
Love of history is the third talent. George himself said he had great history teachers at both Mitchell High and DWU. At DWU he was particularly influenced by Dr. James VanKirk. Van Kirk spent his entire teaching career at DWU. He, like George, obtained his Ph.D. in American history from Northwestern University. I have always thought this was George’s best talent. It set him apart from almost every politician. He knew instinctively that any contemporary political problem, issue or crisis had a trail of past events or factors. He could see that trail and context, which gave him portentous insight. For instance, George was no pacifist. He knew evil exists and war is sometimes the only way to counter it. He was a legitimate hero of what Studs Terkel called the Good War. He was against the war in Vietnam because the Vietnamese, like Americans in 1776, sought independence and autonomy. He argued American armies in Vietnam were analogous to and as welcome as the British Red Coats. He saw this sooner and more clearly than most due to historical insight.
Was it debate or history that pushed him to politics? I am not sure. What I am sure of is that these talents gave him a significant advantage on the campaign trail, in the Senate, and in his writings and speeches. History provides content, context and insight; debate the means to explicate ideas.
His religious faith brought together his three talents. The Wesleyan Methodist church of his father, the Reverend Joseph McGovern, called people to personal faith and activated them to do something useful in the world. For George, the useful part derived from the universal moral imperatives from Sunday School Bible stories:
* Feed the hungry;
* Clothe the naked;
* Do good to all humanity;
* Do justice;
* Learn war no more.
Due to the emotional excesses of zealous believers, George carried a lifelong reticence about personal faith. Yet, he built his world-shaping political career on social and humanitarian issues grounded in Christian ethics. Like an Old Testament prophet, he lifted our moral vision and summoned society to a higher ethical plane.
Some say George was the greatest humanitarian and peacemaker of our era. Rolling Stone magazine thought so. This is why we at DWU honor him by naming our library, Center for Leadership and Public Service and a museum for him. It all began here in Mitchell; his influence had worldwide impact.
Jesus’ words may be a fitting epitaph for his life: “Blessed are the peacemakers . . . they are the sons of God.”
Robert G. Duffett is the president of Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.