It was the first sunny day at the back end of a New York City winter in 1977. The Swedish ambassador to the UN had given a lunch for delegates working on world food issues and the group included a star: George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee for US president. McGovern had not been invited as a political celebrity but because of his long-time commitment to global food security. Back down at street level after the lunch, he asked me if I’d care to walk the 40 blocks back to the UN building, and I said “Sure.” That walk provided the first of many affecting conversations with the most thoroughly decent person I have ever known. “You see,” he said from behind sunglasses as he lowered the brim of his trilby hat, “walking in public in New York City is something I haven’t done since the election.”
As we paced off the Park Avenue blocks, McGovern dropped jokes about the failed national campaign. “Too bad the election wasn’t in 1974” was one I’d come to hear again. He had developed these one-liners to mask his traumatic experience of running for the presidency. His candidacy was built around stopping a ghastly and foolish war. But at a time when his country’s social, if not party, divisions were deeper than today’s — recall not only the daily body count of Vietnam but also racial conflict and a social and cultural revolution almost without precedent — McGovern’s straight talk was used by his opponents to portray him as an unpatriotic radical. That he could muster only 39 percent of the vote in trying to keep Richard Nixon from a second term stung him badly, and it was made worse when Nixon resigned in disgrace after quitting the Vietnam conflict, 25,000 American and many more Vietnamese lives later.
McGovern worried that his experience showed the impossibility of getting Americans to face any kind of truth about their country that isn’t rosy. Jimmy Carter also tried to level with Americans, telling them that their priorities and choices were becoming selfish and dysfunctional. He got thrown out of the White House by a sunny actor who promised a “morning in America.”
McGovern told me he assumed that I, as a Canadian, would get his meaning more easily. He cherished his own Canadian side, from his mom, who was born in Ontario and moved as a young woman from Calgary to South Dakota, where she met George’s dad. When George was three, the family moved back to Calgary to look after his maternal grandmother and stayed for three years.
Twenty years after our first meeting in New York, George and I were ambassadors in Rome at the same time. Bill Clinton had appointed George as ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program (which he had been instrumental in setting up as the first director of the US Food for Peace program in the Kennedy administration). Together, we constituted a North American “group” of two. He insisted we alternate as group chairman for the nice duties, such as calling on Pope John Paul II, who was obsessed with food security issues, and the more tedious late-night wrangles with semihostile negotiators from the UN’s “authoritarian internationale.”
But to me, our “group’s” priceless value was personal, the benefit of an ongoing tutorial about war and peace, poverty and wealth. George’s quest for world peace made him empathize with Canada’s traditional vocation for peacekeeping (perhaps more than we deserved) and our more recent championing of human security issues. His was not a quixotic quest. He was a robust peacemaker when needed, but he was no pacifist. When he saw the photos in 1999 of Kosovar Muslims being herded in huddled lines to waiting trains by guys with guns, he called for international intervention against Serbia.
It was the principled reaction of the man who volunteered for military service the week of Pearl Harbor and piloted 35 dangerous B-24 runs over southern Germany in 1944-45, flying out of Puglia in southern Italy. At about the time that NATO bombing of Serbia over Kosovo began, he told me he had given an interview for a documentary film for Austrian TV. The interviewer asked him how he could reconcile his antiwar position on Vietnam with his own Second World War duty as a bomber of civilians. He said he had no hesitation over the moral imperative to defeat Hitler with whatever it took. This was a collision of right and wrong at its starkest and most profound.
Was there no regret? “Well, maybe,” George softly allowed after reflection.
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He then told how in March 1945, flying back over rural Austria after a bombing raid in southern Germany, the flight deck heard from the bombardier that the crew couldn’t dislodge a very big bomb stuck in the bomb bay door.
“We sure can’t land with that damned thing hanging out,” McGovern agreed. He told his crew to hang on as he began to agitate his clunky big Liberator as wildly as its specs would allow. When, in a whoosh, the plane lifted, George looked down as the heavy bomb sped to earth, headed directly for a farmhouse below. He knew it was noon. He worried that a farm family was probably at lunch on that sunny day, out of the war’s way, and that they were going to be blown to pieces. “Yeah, I’ve always regretted that,” George told the TV crew.
When he got back to San Giovanni air base he was given a telegram, telling him that Eleanor, his wife, had given birth to their first child. “So,” he thought, “life is given, other lives blown away.”
After the documentary aired, George received a call from the Austrian TV producer. She had been reached by an elderly man who had seen the interview. He called to say it had been his farm the bomb had hit. The family had come in for lunch but heard the aircraft going through its crazy paces as it tried to dump the bomb, so they ran to a gully to take cover. The farmer wanted McGovern to know they had been unharmed. He agreed that getting rid of Hitler was what really mattered. “Now that’s redemption,” George told me.
In later life, McGovern went back to the United States, receiving the kinds of honours that come to elder statesmen when the view through the rear-view mirror turns nostalgic. It was premature. The invasion of Iraq aroused McGovern’s ire again, and he became a resolute adversary of George Bush’s invasion. His truest redemption came with the election of Barrack Obama, whose candidacy was built on opposition to another stupid and arrogantly launched US war, proof 36 years after McGovern failed that an antiwar candidate could become President.