McGovern, Nixon and the 1992 race that wasn’t

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.

Washington Post: Romney should emulate Thune approach

The way to defeat Barack Obama is tied to South Dakota’s epic 2004 Senate race.

At least that’s the take of a Washington Post blogger. Chris Cillizza writes that Mitt Romney faces a problem this fall: People like Obama. Some people who disagree with his policies like him personally. So how does the presumed GOP candidate counter that?

Crillizza suggests looking at how John Thune defeated Tom Daschle in the most expensive, high-profile Senate race in South Dakota history:

“Thune and his campaign didn’t try to make the race about personalities. Instead of arguing that Daschle was a bad guy, Thune made the case that Daschle was a good guy with the wrong priorities for the state,” Cillizza wrote. “That, at the end of the day, everyone liked Daschle but that Daschle had lost touch with the perspective of average South Dakotans.”

If that was the reason, it worked. Thune defeated Daschle as South Dakota voters tossed aside the most powerful Democrat in the Senate, and a man who had served the state for 26 years.

Obama has a much shorter history with American voters. But Thune was a strong, talented campaigner fresh off a razor-thin loss to Tim Johnson in 2002. Voters knew and liked him. Romney hasn’t shown great style so far, fumbling and stumbling often.

Romney, whom Thune has endorsed and campaigned for, may follow the South Dakota Republican’s approach. If he does, will what worked in South Dakota be effective nationally?

And isn’t it amazing how that eight-year-old Senate race has lingered on the state and national scene?

Mitchell, McGovern and memories

George McGovern has returned to his hometown of Mitchell in recent years and is now a frequent sight in town. We see the world-famous politician, statesman and author at DWU, at the movie theater and at his favorite steakhouse.

After decades of politics and world travel, McGovern, 89, has reaffirmed his love for Mitchell. It shows in his latest book, “What It Means To Be A Democrat.”

In the slender book, McGovern discussed his beliefs on why Democrats have served America so well and how they can do more and better in the future. But he also shares stories from Mitchell throughout the book, which adds to its charm for local readers.

A personal favorite: McGovern and his wife Eleanor are dining at the home of some friends in Mitchell on Nov. 11, 1960, three days after he lost a hard-fought battle for the Senate to Karl Mundt. The phone rings and McGovern is told it’s for him.

The caller? President-elect “Jack Kennedy,” as McGovern refers to him, asking McGovern to come see him about a job in his administration.

McGovern is the best-known and most successful person to come from this small city on the prairie but as he shows in the book, he kept a lot of Mitchell with him through his life and journeys.

Here’s a link to my story on the book. McGovern, who is at his Florida house now, will return to Mitchell for the 2011 McGovern Conference on Nov. 14, where he will sign copies of the book.