COMMENTARY: Men who mattered: George McGovern and Dewey Bartlett
Published: October 22nd, 2012
OKLAHOMA CITY – The death of former U.S. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota triggered memories of him, and his Senate colleague Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma.
Early in college, I worked at the reception desk in Bennett Hall on the campus of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Over the course of several weeks, I met everyone living in the dorm.
I was canvassing for a U.S. Senate campaign. In September and much of October, I did short surveys of every registered voter I could identify among the students. It was interesting work, and among my formative experiences in practical politics.
What struck home after surveying several hundred students was that about 10 percent of the total sample expressed admiration for both Bartlett, an ardent conservative Republican … and McGovern, a liberal Democrat. That seemed contradictory to the underlying philosophy of each man. Intrigued, I began to ask people why they supported both of them.
Among that group, the most common answer to my query was something like this: “I don’t care about politics, but I respect both of them because they say what they mean, and because they are honest.”
McGovern first won his Senate seat in 1962 by less than 1,000 votes in his conservative state, then held the seat until 1980, when a Reagan tide swept him away.
In his prime, McGovern was normally temperate in style and measured in rhetoric, yet from almost the start he assailed the Vietnam War as contrary to U.S. interests. He condemned the Senate for sustaining the war effort on the backs of draftees, declaring, “this chamber reeks of blood.”
He was the peace candidate in ’72, a World War II hero (Distinguished Flying Cross) who gained the presidential nomination at a divided convention. That year’s gathering of Democrats was so factionalized that McGovern was unable to deliver his acceptance speech until the wee hours of the morning.
Tom Eagleton of Missouri was his first running mate. When Eagleton was forced out of the race after news reports of succesful electroshock therapy, Barry Goldwater of Arizona commented ruefully that it was ironic that the only certifiably sane man in Congress had been forced out of the race.
McGovern was not particularly eloquent, but he was particularly honest.
Still he had flashes of eloquence – How can you not like a guy who, after a speech late in the presidential campaign, sought out the rude Nixon supporter who had heckled him mercilessly, leaning over and whispering in the fellow’s ear, “Listen, you son of a bitch, why don’t you kiss my ass?”
Seriously, his public service was consequential. McGovern democratized delegate selection in his party, strengthened the function of primaries, and eroded the old caucus system dominated by partisan urban machines. After leaving politics, McGovern worked on hunger issues with a Republican pal who was also an unsuccessful presidential candidate – Bob Dole of Kansas.
In 2008, McGovern infuriated some liberals when he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal union activists were pushing to erode secret ballot protections in organizational elections at work places. That “card check” concept allows union leaders to get certification simply by checking union cards, without the bother of a competitive election with a secret ballot.
He opposed the shift because he believed it changed the equation unfairly, tilting things in favor of union leaders and against dissenting members and business people. He took a lot of rhetorical heat but stuck to his guns, insisting the proposal was “disturbing and undemocratic.” In advertisements, speeches and commentaries, McGovern said he would stand for the rights of workers “to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal.”
Bartlett, my first hero in the Grand Old Party, was the second Republican governor in Oklahoma history – and the first Roman Catholic ever elected to statewide political office.
After losing a bid for reelection as governor by less than one vote per precinct, statewide, he went on to win a U.S. Senate seat. He worked effectively with Democrats like Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, but served only one term, leaving office to concentrate on battling his final illness.
After Bartlett passed from this vale of tears in 1979, a glowing tribute to his personal qualities came from U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, a California Democrat.
Cranston told colleagues about an incident where he and Bartlett had crafted a major energy bill. The measure was ready for final passage in the Senate. In the course of leafing through hundreds of pages, hoping to have the measure cleared on schedule, Bartlett caught an innocuous seeming typographicial error. However, the effect of it would have been to put into law the exact opposite of a compromise he had negotiated with Cranston over energy regulation.
Bartlett pointed that out to Cranston, saying it would have to be corrected before the vote. Cranston was amazed the Oklahoma oil man would insist on clarification of something that ran contrary to his own policy preferences, and his own state’s interests. Bartlett said it was the right thing to do, so the measure reflected what was hammered out between the opposing sides.
In his words of farewell on the Senate floor, Cranston called Bartlett one of the noblest men he’d ever known.
Agree with them or not, men like McGovern and Bartlett are examples of an ennobling strain in American politics – they were firm in opinion, ethical in the arena, uncompromising in personal advocacy of decency, personally square, and endearingly unfeigned in discourse.
I’ve missed Bartlett for many years, and now I’ll miss McGovern.
Political eloquence is nice, but in measuring a man, a good inner compass is even better.