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Kevin Woster

Kevin Woster

When friends start a sentence with things like, “back when I was in the Marines,” I can’t help but feel a little envious.

Past service in the military, especially in war zones, bolsters anyone’s credentials, especially in conversations that veer toward patriotism. All I have in that regard is “back when I was in the Cub Scouts,” which doesn’t carry much punch.

No politician I’ve covered had better military creds than George McGovern. He could have begun sentences with “back before I won the Distinguished Flying Cross piloting a bomber in World War II.” He didn’t, but those creds came in handy when his liberal political views got attacked as being “un-American.”

Notice I didn’t say “progressive” political views. That’s because McGovern was a liberal and proud of it. When the euphemism “progressive” crept into the Democratic lexicon, McGovern didn’t like it. He believed liberal policies put people ahead of things and compassion ahead of self-interest, so the name should be proclaimed.

McGovern thought party leaders sometimes shied away from saying what they believed and being who they really were, leaving a message gap that Republicans filled by labeling “liberals” as tax-and-spend elitists.

Today, McGovern would probably have to accept “progressive” in describing the left-of-center part of the party he rebuilt in South Dakota, the one that chose him as its presidential nominee in 1972.

I voted for McGovern that year. And I still consider it my proudest moment as a voter, the shellacking he took against Richard Nixon notwithstanding.

I’ve been thinking about that vote and McGovern and his party since I read Noel Hamiel’s column on this page last week. As you might know, Noel and I are former Lyman County neighbors who decided early in life to leave the farm and cultivate the fields of journalism. It was a good choice for both of us.

Outside of journalism, Noel is a pretty staunch conservative. I consider myself a left-of-center moderate. What’s that mean?

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Well, I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart, and if you aren’t conservative when you’re old, you don’t have a brain. I was pretty far left in my 20s, but I’ve drifted closer to the center over the years.

And what of the party of McGovern? Last week Noel wondered what the liberal icon of the ‘60s and ‘70s would think of a Democratic Party that seems to be veering farther left under aggressive pressure from today’s “progressives.”

And there are powerful forces at work in the party, led by the charismatic first-term New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, pushing it pretty hard left. There are also powerful forces at work in the Republican Party, and in the White House, sometimes pushing the GOP in a direction that would make Ronald Reagan seem moderate.

How would McGovern fit in his party today? The question was worth sharing with someone who knew him well: his grandson, Matt. Now a lawyer in Wisconsin working in energy law and municipal government, Matt McGovern says his grandfather would stand with those most true to the party’s core philosophy.

And George McGovern would call that a liberal philosophy.

Matt McGovern believes his grandfather would be enraged by border policies of “separating families, locking up kids and mass deportations,” and would be on the front lines with some of the most vocal, most energized, most controversial Democrats.

“I think if he were here today, my grandpa would love Ocasio-Cortez,” Matt says. “Look how she got elected: knocking on doors, getting young people involved, promoting change.”

Call it liberal or progressive, it sounds like McGovern to me.

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Kevin Woster writes a blog and offers radio commentary for South Dakota Public Broadcasting. He can be reached by emailing kevinwoster@rushmore.com.

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