I only really spent time with him once. Well, no, that isn’t entirely true. I also met him briefly when I was a child, trying to fish for rainbow trout one summer morning in the Black Hills. He was a stranger, coming down the stream in hip-waders, green rubber overalls, but he stopped to help unsnarl my line from the dark pines that overhang Rapid Creek.
I remember liking him—a pleasant, soft-spoken man—and we walked together back toward the cabins for lunch. I thought, in fact, he must be a professional fisherman, with his fancy rod and his willow-woven creel, and we talked about fly-fishing on narrow streams (small movements, he told me: Use the wrist, not the arm) as the pale dust of the dirt road trailed up behind us.
Then my grandmother called out from the cabin door, thanking him curtly and hauling me inside. “We don’t talk to that man,” she explained, stiff and unhappy. And we didn’t talk to him, apparently, because he was George McGovern. And because political memories are long and bitter in a small state like South Dakota. And because George McGovern, the prairie Democrat in the U.S. Senate, had somehow progressed with enormous speed from opposing the Vietnam war to representing “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid”—had somehow gone from holding a reasonable if unusual position for a plains senator to being the figurehead for all the turmoil and agitation of the nation.
It was as though he had set up a snow fence, one of those droopy, temporary things of wooden slats and wire, across a narrow patch of prairie. And every tumbleweed and piece of litter, every stray political cause and unattached reason for social unhappiness, came piling against it—driven by the strange eddies of those times, till the detritus towered above the fence, out on the empty plains.
A political analyst might say, of McGovern’s legacy, that the political winds of America would quickly blow the whole thing over, scattering its pieces to kingdom come. The man lost the 1972 presidential election, after all, in one of the greatest landslides in history: 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that he won the Democratic nomination that year by, in essence, handing the party over forever to representatives of all those drifting causes—interest groups, we call them now—ripping it away from the city bosses, blue-collar Catholics, labor leaders, and Southern senators who had treated it as their private reserve since Franklin Roosevelt’s time. And that new-formed party of McGovern’s didn’t go away. Not by a long shot. In the years since he sat back to watch the circus of the 1968 Democratic convention and figured out how he would ride the protesters to the next cycle’s nomination, the party he created has held the presidency 16 out of 44 years. Not great, certainly, but hardly proof of eternal repudiation.
Over that same time, for that matter, the Democrats have controlled the House for 30 years and the Senate for 28: not Roosevelt’s sort of dominance, but not peanuts, either. In truth, the Democrats have won just often enough since McGovern that they have not had to redefine themselves in any fundamental way. Oh, the three Democratic presidents after 1972—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—all campaigned in certain ways against their McGovernite origins, representing themselves as outsiders and triangulators and healers of national division. But whether or not they meant it, their administrations rapidly silted up with the usual run of activists, community organizers, racial analysts, feminists, and class-action lawyers.
With Democrats, in other words: true-believing members of the party that still resides where George McGovern left it in 1972. The founder and definer of that institution of the permanent revolution, McGovern remains more consequential in American political history than Woodrow Wilson or maybe even Barry Goldwater. He belongs in the elite class of politicians that includes, in this country, the likes of Andrew Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt.
Not that he wanted to talk about it when, as an adult, I met him again. The encounter was unplanned. I happened to run into him at a Washington restaurant, where we both were about to sit by ourselves. But we spent an hour and a half talking—and talking and talking: among the most enjoyable lunches I’ve ever known. Enjoyable enough, anyway, that we visited again a time or two before the relationship drifted away.