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Portrait of a Statesman: Feeding on Dreams



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One time presidential candidate and long-time United States Senator (D, SD), George McGovern, died at 90 on October 21st. Since Senator McGovern was involved in the first presidential contest in which I took a profound and, shall I say, more informed, interest while a high school student (and not yet eligible to vote), I was particularly fascinated to see how the press would remember him and his life-long efforts on behalf of his nation. I was therefore intrigued to read how often he was recalled as a man of humility, gentleness, deep compassion and moral courage. Nonetheless, more than one commentator referred, too, to his supposed idealism, to his dreams of “the impossible” and to his absolute lack of guile. Most made those comments with an arched eyebrow, presumably to imply, “we are more sophisticated now.”

The Economist, for example, while generally laudatory in its obituary, nevertheless observed,

Politics never seemed quite the right career for him. He believed in the ideal and the impossible. His best advice was ‘Never say anything that, down inside, you think is wrong.’

Indeed, the English newsweekly concluded its remembrance by remarking on his career-long steely determination to address widespread hunger and malnutrition and to assist the poor in the United States and abroad. The writer noted McGovern’s detailed books on the topic, but also suggested:

The only report he left behind, besides his work on election rules, was one advising Americans on what they should eat: less fat and sugar, more vegetables. And, with that, the thought that they should also give up war, hunger for justice, and feed on dreams.

Whatever else might be said, and however nuanced in its juxtaposition of McGovern’s unblinking belief in the “impossible” to the “practical,” this is a lovely way to be remembered. And I find myself wondering as I watch the tableau of the current campaign, concluding with the election tomorrow, how far we have moved away from such noble aspirations as a people. Some Americans are now displaying false depictions of their President bowing to Arab terrorists on billboard advertisements, while others are claiming that any public support of the poor or exercise of compassion in the name of the public good constitutes “moral weakness” and breeds “dependency” and still others are arguing stridently that helping millions achieve some access to health care constitutes a profound deprivation of their liberty (and presumably that of those assisting as well). These individuals contend, too, that government and its now hated taxes constitute an a priori deprivation of personal liberty, rather than a vehicle for serving the nation’s collective aspirations, however difficult such challenges may be.

In place of Senator McGovern’s plainspoken calls for shared efforts to realize justice and goodness and moral courage, we now increasingly evidence a politics of truncated moral possibility, privatized claims and rent-seeking, infused by ever more strident ideologies bent on demonizing and/or scapegoating those who may disagree. In the face of such an unabashedly privatized and cynical politics of posturing and plaint, George McGovern appears a throwback to a different time when the word hope could be used with meaningful and compassionate intention, not said sneeringly and with derision to criticize and disparage. For my part, I do hope that we may again see leaders such as George McGovern, unapologetic and unbowed in their ideals and aspirations for their nation and world. Indeed, I must so hope. I hope, too, that Senator McGovern now rests in well-earned peace.

Publication Date

November 4, 2012