It’s a good final memory of George McGovern, and I am grateful for it now, a year after his death.
I was covering a Public Utilities Commission candidates’ debate at the 2012 South Dakota State Fair – that’s me, Mr. Big News – and McGovern was in the front row of the small crowd. We were gathered under a tent on a typically blazingly hot day at the fair.
McGovern, a two-term congressman, three-term senator and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, was there to cheer on his grandson, Matt McGovern. The younger McGovern was one of two Democratic candidates for the PUC, and he was facing an uphill battle against a Republican incumbent. George McGovern had been battling health issues for more than a year, but he headed to Huron to show his support for the man who called him “Grandpa George.”
The old senator was 90, but he looked damn good. Despite the heat, McGovern was wearing a long-sleeved light violet shirt, and the color looked great on him. He greeted friends and supporters with the same bright smile that South Dakotans had seen since his first campaign in 1956.
That’s why it’s a great final memory for me. I grew up seeing McGovern’s face in newspapers and on TV, and first heard that flat, nasal voice at SDSU when he delivered a detailed speech on a topic close to his heart, world hunger, on Oct. 25, 1978.
I covered his 1980 Senate race, in which he was swept from office by Rep. James Abdnor during the Reagan Revolution. McGovern, a peaceful man who studied to become a minister like father, was livid that Election Night. He cooled down quickly, of course, and remained very active on the world stage.
One reason I’m so glad I saw him at the State Fair was it replaced an ugly memory.
McGovern was seriously injured after he slipped outside the McGovern Library on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in Mitchell, S.D., on Dec. 2, 2011. He was shuffling across the street from his home to appear on a C-SPAN show about his 1972 campaign when he fell and struck his head on the sidewalk.
I was working for The Daily Republic then, and heard the police call. I rushed to the campus. McGovern was seated by the back door of the library, blood covering his proud head. He was wrapped in a pink quilt before he was placed on a stretcher and taken away by ambulance.
He missed the C-SPAN interview, of course, and when he recovered he was clearly weakened. But at the PUC debate, McGovern listened closely, and when it concluded, most of us were ready to escape from the steaming tent.
But McGovern jumped up, and I can hear his voice clearly right now. “Mr. Chairman! Mr. Chairman!” he shouted. Finally, the moderator stopped putting away the microphone and handed it to McGovern.
He then delivered an impromptu speech, admitting he had never paid much attention to the PUC before, but the issues-heavy debate had been both informative and entertaining. He was in his element, speaking before a crowd.
Sadly, McGovern didn’t get to cast a vote for his grandson, who lost the race and has since moved to Washington, D.C. McGovern grew gravely ill in mid-October, and died on Oct. 21, 2012.
I covered both the memorial service and the funeral in Sioux Falls, and both were impressive for the people who attended — Vice President Joe Biden, several current and former senators and others who knew, liked and admired him — and the wonderful tributes that were paid to his long, good life.
But I’m glad the last time I saw him, he was surrounded by South Dakotans, talking politics and enjoying every second of it. That’s how I will remember George Stanley McGovern.