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George McGovern was a politician Americans could be proud of

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April 18, 2009: In this file photo former Sen. George McGovern delivers remarks at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. (AP)

The death of former Sen. George McGovern has triggered a flurry of well-deserved tributes to his class, his humanity, his integrity, his faith, his civility and his service to his country as a World War II bomber pilot, as well as a politician. 

Yet sadly, like most good politicians these days, he had to wait until his death for much of the news media to say good things about him.

Starting with Watergate, reporting something positive about a working politician has become a journalistic no-no. Political reporters who praise a politician they cover run the risk of being labeled a softie, or worse, a biased partisan. So the name of the game is to ignore the good and report all the bad. Little wonder then that most of the public think all politicians are bums, some just more than others.

In my 2006 memoir, I recounted a little-known story about McGovern’s compassion that I reported in a 1993 Gannett News Service column. Here is how it appeared in the book:

"It took a really big man like George McGovern to show that even in the battle-scarred world of big-time partisan politics, there’s still room for decency . . ."

 “One of the classiest politicians I met is George McGovern, the former South Dakota Democratic senator who ran for president in 1972, only to be soundly trounced by Richard Nixon. He has a gentle way about him and a voice that is soothing, even when he is being critical. He is a throwback in today’s high-voltage political world where voices always seem to be raised and grudges never seem to go away. McGovern never held a grudge against Nixon for the drubbing he took at his hands – 49 states to one.  Despite the humiliation he suffered in ‘72, and his rival’s subsequent demise in the Watergate scandal less than two years later, McGovern never publicly gloated over what many saw as his vindication. Instead, he was one of only two Democrats to attend former first lady Pat Nixon’s funeral when she died in 1993. The other was Washington lawyer Vernon Jordan, President Clinton’s official representative at the funeral.  The Clintons, who were in the White House at that time, did not attend.

 “Very few news outlets made note of McGovern’s attendance at the funeral in Yorba Linda, Calif., but the New York Post did. I saw the item and decided a few days later to call McGovern and ask him why he bothered to make the cross-country trip from Washington to California to pay his last respects to the wife of his one-time bitter rival. Clearly, the soft-spoken former senator was not one to hold grudges. And it was in a spirit of good will and reconciliation that he said he made the journey.

 “’I can’t tell you I knew Mrs. Nixon well, although I had met her and talked to her briefly on several occasions. But I admired her,’ McGovern told me. ‘She was a very unpretentious public figure. She kept her own counsel, and she didn’t seem to be engaged in a lot of fanfare or phony public gestures. She maintained her own sense of personal integrity. I wanted to be part of a public ceremony honoring her.’

 “But as he continued, it was clear there was more to his attendance than just honoring a former first lady whom he admired.  ‘I think this country needs some reconciliation efforts,’ he said.  ‘There’s just too much intense partisanship, sniping and back-biting. As somebody who has locked horns with Richard Nixon over the years, I thought showing up at that would show some level of reconciliation.’

It did, and then some. The Nixon family was overwhelmed in appreciation for the thoughtful gesture of an old political opponent. The gratitude expressed to McGovern by Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Cox and Julie Eisenhower, touched him deeply.

“That alone made the trip worthwhile,” he said.

“After the services, a grief-stricken Nixon spoke privately with the guests.

“'George, nice of you to come,’ he said, according to the New York Post.

 “’Well, she was a great lady,’ McGovern replied.

“”She was a South Dakota girl,’ Nixon said.

“McGovern said he was puzzled by that one, conceding later he was not aware of Mrs. Nixon’s South Dakota connection. A check of her biography found that her father met her mother in South Dakota, and they were married there before moving to Nevada, where Mrs. Nixon was born in 1912. The absence at the funeral of any official members of the Clinton administration, not the usual protocol when a former first lady dies, was viewed by some Republicans as a way of snubbing, or at least trying not to be tainted by associating with Nixon, who was disgraced. ….”

 “But as I wrote back then in a column for the Gannett News Service, ‘It took a really big man like George McGovern to show that even in the battle-scarred world of big-time partisan politics, there’s still room for decency, kindness and a thoughtful gesture -- even toward one-time enemies.’ After that column appeared, McGovern called to thank me for the kind words. It was a gesture in true keeping with his character.”

George McGovern was a politician of whom we can be proud. There are others. We in the media just need to tell people about them. We would all feel a lot better about the system.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at Georgetown University.  As a reporter, Benedetto covered every presidential campaign since 1984. 

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