Many conservatives at the time believed in the "domino theory," that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, all Asia would follow. That proved untrue. McGovern was eventually vindicated in many minds about America's involvement in Vietnam.
I will remember him for something other than his politics. George McGovern was a friend.
After his Senate re-election defeat in 1980, McGovern and I debated on college campuses and in other venues. These debates were always civil because McGovern was a gentleman. After one debate at Butler University in Indianapolis, a fellow conservative invited me to dinner.
"Thank you," I said, "but George and I have dinner plans."
"How can you eat with a man like that?" he said with an equal mix of surprise and disgust.
"Easy," I said. "He's a friend of mine."
This is what is missing from our politics today. If we don't like a person's politics, we reflexively dislike the person.
McGovern practiced "family values" better than some conservatives who merely talk about them. Married to Eleanor for 64 years, until her death in 2007, he exemplified the "family man." Their daughter, Terry, was an alcoholic. When she stumbled out of a Madison, Wis., bar in 1994 and died in the snow, I went to the funeral home and subsequent service. Eleanor hugged me and said, "I'm so glad you came."
In 1998, shortly after President Clinton named him ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, George and I were having lunch at a Washington hotel when an aide arrived with a box of business cards. "Here," he said. "You get the first card from my new assignment."
McGovern understood war better than some conservatives who have never fought in one. During World War II, he flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. Perhaps that is why, having seen so much death and destruction, his view of war was "conservative." He believed America should only put American lives at risk when supreme national interests and security are at stake and diplomacy has completely failed.
Some called this "appeasement." McGovern called it humility, which is something that characterized the life of George McGovern. Honorable and principled are two others.
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