It was 1991, and the American economy was in trouble, and there was war and strife in the Middle East.
In other words, it was much as it is now. George McGovern, out of the Senate for a decade, was mulling one final run for the White House. President George H. W.
Bush was preparing to run for a second term, and his popularity was at an all-time high after the brief first Gulf War, so many prominent Democrats shied away from running.
McGovern, who had sought the presidency in 1968, 1972 (when he was the Democratic candidate), and 1984, was strongly considering one last run. So it was only natural that when he saw another veteran politician during a flight, he sought some advice.
That person was Richard Nixon, who had defeated McGovern in a landslide in 1972. Both men were World War II veterans, both were in public life for decades, and both maintained an abiding interest in the game after they left the arena.
McGovern spotted Nixon on the flight, and invited him to sit by him. Soon, McGovern and Nixon were side-by-side, discussing the 1992 race. McGovern, then nearing 70, confessed he was strongly considering one more run for the presidency.
George, do you have something to say that no one else is saying? That’s what McGovern recalled Nixon saying to him. Do you want to raise issues and ideas that no one else is, the old Republican fox asked the old Democratic lion. And would people listen?
McGovern thanked him for the advice. He continued to ponder the race before he decided against it. Instead, Bill Clinton, who jump-started his political career by organizing Texas for McGovern in 1972, ran and won.
McGovern did return to public life, as Clinton appointed him representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, and in 2000, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
McGovern didn’t forget his old rival, either, attending the funerals of Pat and Richard Nixon. George McGovern and Richard Nixon were not friends, but neither were they bitter enemies, at least not at the end of their lives.
When he told me this story in 2008 during an extended interview at the McGovern Center, McGovern laughed when he said he always wondered what other people on that flight thought when they saw the two of them together.