Life After Running For President, And Losing

Read Jill Callison's Piece, 'Elder Statesman'

Former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern died Sunday at the age of 90. A liberal icon, he made two failed bids for president, but remained active and worked for several organizations battling world hunger. NPR's Ron Elving and Jill Callison of The Argus Leader discuss McGovern's politics and legacy.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now the Opinion Page. You probably heard by now that former South Dakota senator and presidential candidate George McGovern died yesterday at the age of 90. Back in 1972, McGovern lost in a landslide against President Richard Nixon. He remained a liberal icon, tried again for the Democratic nomination in 1984. But what about life after politics? What's a former presidential candidate supposed to do? It's a question either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will have to consider come November 7. What do we expect from former presidential candidates? Give us a call. Our regular phone number is back up, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

In a piece for The Argus Leader, reporter Jill Callison writes about the legacy of Senator McGovern. She joins us now from South Dakota Public Radio in Sioux Falls. Good to have you with us today.

JILL CALLISON: Thank you.

CONAN: And I understand the senator was a bit of a legend in your household.

CALLISON: Yes, he was. Growing up, my father had attended college at Dakota Wesleyan. Senator McGovern was a professor, and my father was very influenced by his actions.

CONAN: And so what ensued?

CALLISON: When he was a senior in college, the roller rink in Mitchell, South Dakota, was segregated. And then Professor McGovern took several of the students down to talk with the owner and convinced them to open up to all residents of Mitchell. And my father never forgot that.

CONAN: So there were always stories about George McGovern in your house.

CALLISON: Yes. Dad was a Republican for probably until 1960 or so with John Kennedy. And my grandmother was appalled, but it didn't stop us from being faithful McGovern supporters.

CONAN: And I wonder, as you talk to people in South Dakota today, how do they remember George McGovern?

CALLISON: They remember him fondly. They remember him lovingly. And if everyone who said they voted for him actually had, he would be president.

(LAUGHTER)

CALLISON: He would be a former president.

CONAN: Or at least he might have carried South Dakota in that election.

CALLISON: Yes, at least, and that's always been kind of a bitter spot that his own state did not support him in that election.

CONAN: After his defeat, he focused a lot of his time and energy on world hunger and worked with another former presidential candidate, Bob Dole.

CALLISON: Yes. The two of them became very passionate about the cause, worked together well and showed that you can have different views on things but still want to govern for the good of others.

CONAN: You described in your piece for The Argus Leader today the dedication of the George McGovern library and a couple of the speakers there.

CALLISON: Yes. President Clinton was one of the speakers there. He had other prominent Democrats. It was a wonderful afternoon.

CONAN: And particularly, I think it was President Clinton who mentioned that George McGovern had worked so hard with Bob Dole on a world lunch program.

CALLISON: Yes. They talked about how many people he had fed so, you know, it's incredible. Millions of children especially and girls who would not have gotten to go to school, but they were allowed to go because they could get a free lunch.

CONAN: And these kinds of programs - I think it was Senator Tom Daschle, who was also at that dedication, who says, you know, you can look back with your legacy of getting this bill passed or serving that time in office. George McGovern could look back at a lot of people who got fed because of him.

CALLISON: He said while some of us can boast about winning an election or passing a bill, how many of us can say we fed millions of hungry people around the world?

CONAN: It's a legacy that, I think, any of us would be proud of. It's - there's also the record. It was interesting to read Bob Dole's op-ed piece that was in The Washington Post today where he said they were both shaped by a couple of seminal experiences growing up in the plains, and then their service during the Second World War.

CALLISON: I know. It's amazing the impact that had. I talked with Catherine Bertini, who, for I think about a dozen years, led the World Food Programme. And she had asked McGovern once why he was so passionate about this. And he talked about seeing a photo spread in Life magazine as a very young man and - talking about hunger. And he never forgot that, particularly in an agricultural state, where we pride ourselves on feeding people. He was always stunned that so many people had so much food and so many more people had so little food.

CONAN: And that experience in the Second World War where he served, of course, overseas, in the European theater, and saw plenty of people who needed food.

CALLISON: Yes, and saw the destruction of war and didn't want that to happen ever again.

CONAN: The service for Senator McGovern will be held when?

CALLISON: This Friday.

CONAN: Well...

CALLISON: There's going to be a public viewing on Thursday.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today.

CALLISON: You're welcome.

CONAN: Jill Callison, a reporter and columnist for The Argus Leader newspaper in South Dakota. Her piece on Senator McGovern appears at the argusleader.com. She joined us today from the studios of South Dakota Public Radio.

Ron Elving is here with us in Studio 3A. He, of course, is NPR's senior Washington editor.

Ron, always nice to have you on the program.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And the story of George McGovern and Bob Dole working together on a program after their political careers had ended - this was a different era of the United States Senate, a different era across party lines. But these were people who were frequently at loggerheads.

ELVING: Yes. And as Robert Dole has written in today's Washington Post, they had quite a good relationship in their later years, even though they had obviously been at loggerheads politically during the prime of their respective political careers. I think it's also fair to say - and I think this is another point made by Senator Dole - that there was a time when you could be hammer-and-tong with your political opponents on the floor of the Senate and still go out in the evening with them and have a good time, have a little time together.

And there were many, many occasions when they would have each other's families for dinner, even across party lines, and that they had real friendships, genuine friendships - hard as that may be for a lot of people to believe - that were completely apart from their political adversarial moments.

CONAN: It's interesting to point out that Senator McGovern did try again for the Democratic nomination back in 1984. It was unsuccessful. It seems now beyond the realm of possibility that a losing presidential candidate could ever come back and say, let me try it again. Let me be Adlai Stevenson.

ELVING: Well, Adlai Stevenson, of course, had lost in 1952, and then was nominated again in 1956 partly because people still like him a great deal and partly because people didn't think they had much chance to beat Dwight Eisenhower in '56, so they might as well go there again.

But there was really different kind of purpose about what George McGovern was doing in 1984. He was not, at that point, the spear on a - the spearhead of a movement for - in this particular case. In 1984, he was running against Ronald Reagan's second term, trying to get the nomination that eventually went to Walter Mondale, another northern, Midwestern sort of liberal minister's son sort of fellow, very much like him.

But he did not have, if you will, an organization, a movement behind him as he had had in 1972. He became the peace candidate, if you will, the beneficiary of all that energy from the '60s. All that anti-Vietnam war energy came to focus on the rather unlikely person, really, of George McGovern, who was the champion, who was willing to step out and say I am the peace candidate, and who eventually did get that nomination in 1972, but then, of course, was not elected in November of that year.

CONAN: And was the victim of the Watergate shenanigans, the scandal of the break-in and the subsequent cover up that would later prove disastrous to Richard Nixon. Nevertheless, it was, again, the post-career, post-politician George McGovern who made his peace not just with Richard Nixon, but with the - many of the people who carried out that operation.

ELVING: Yes. This does seemed to be a theme for a lot of people who have been at the highest levels of politics and been, in some cases, most unfairly characterized or even destroyed largely by character assassination, in some cases, or by dirty tricks or skullduggery - as in the case of some of the Watergate goings-on in '71 and '72 - making their peace not only with the general idea of what happened to them, but in an almost Gandhi-esque sort of way, going back and forgiving the people who had the dirty hands, the people who actually did it to them, put the knife in their back. This is, I suppose, a good thing. This is something that we should be glad we still have in our politics, because so much of our politics has gone the other way.

CONAN: We're talking with Ron Elving. What should we expect from former presidential candidates? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can start with Damon, Damon with us from Pinehurst in North Carolina.

DAMON: Hey. I think I kind of jumped the gun. My thoughts are more about those who have held office and not those who have run, but not held office.

CONAN: So it's different, you're suggesting, if somebody is an incumbent president and looses an election rather than somebody who's a challenger.

DAMON: Yeah. For me, I feel like - I don't think a lot about those who have run and lost, but I do have some expectations for those who have held office. For example, a couple of things I had mentioned to the former person was, for example, Jimmy Carter, who I think, across the board, is kind of looked at as a - or at least I hear him caused so many talk about as a failed president or a poor president. I feel like he is a true civil servant, and he has continued after his presidency to do really wonderful things.

And then somebody like Clinton, who I think across the board - or not across the board, for sure, but he gets a lot of praise for how effective a president he was. And he continues to be in the limelight, but I don't look at him as a real civil servant. I think he spends a lot of time doing things that build up his image...

CONAN: Well...

DAMON: ...whereas Jimmy Carter is a servant. And I wonder if being someone who really is a civil servant makes for an effective president, because - I don't know. That was kind of my thought.

CONAN: All right. Anyway, that's a little outside the ambit of this conversation, at least the way we constructed it. But, Ron Elving, Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has, well, the Carter Center that he developed has played an incredibly important role in many foreign elections, monitoring the fairness and the - of the vote.

ELVING: This is rather the modern model, if you will, of the former president or the failed presidential candidate. And he was, of course, both. He was a four-year president, and then he did get shellacked in 1980. So he left politics, having been a wild, overnight success, and then having been a rather egregious failure.

Therefore, he was, in a sense, the perfect test case: Which are you going to make of the rest of your life? And he went out, and he's been associated with many, many, many charities, Habitat for Humanity domestically, and as you say, his international work. He has become a symbol of peace. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been seen as somebody who was a counterweight to a lot of other American political heavyweights who have been so pro-Israel. And Jimmy Carter has come along and been a critic of Israel, gotten a lot of negative attention for that, and been a champion for the Palestinian cause and for the cause of Arab sentiments in the world, generally.

CONAN: Ron Elving is with us. We're talking about the roles of people who run for president and fail, whether they're incumbents or challengers. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's see if we can get Ashley on the line. Ashley's with us from Boston.

Ashley, are you there? I think Ashley has left us. So let's go instead to Jason, Jason with us from Grand Rapids.

JASON: Hi, Neal. Again, a big fan, third-time caller. I believe last time, it was with President Lincoln where you called me a racist and then apologized, a big fan of the show. I believe that a - I also jumped the gun like your other caller, and I was actually thinking about Jimmy Carter. But I believe after losing a race or no longer being president, you really have no responsibility unless you choose to go after another, you know, political position, et cetera. You've done your job, or you've tried and failed. And, you know, after that, it's whatever you really want to do. I don't see any actual responsibility that they need to have, whether it's going back to take care of your family or, like Jimmy Carter, going all over the world and helping causes of peace(ph), and that's all.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call. Just to remind what I said, what you said was racist, not that you were racist. But in any case, that's going back over old coals. And I think there is a distinction. John McCain is in the United States Senate after losing four years ago, and I don't think anybody blinked at the idea that John McCain would run for reelection. It certainly - you look at the example of Senator McGovern, for example. But somebody who's been president in the United States, another office seems outside the realms of possibility.

ELVING: It does. It just is hard to imagine. There was one example back in the 19th century where a former president came back and actually served in the House of Representatives. And we had Charles Evans Hughes, who was the 1916 Republican nominee for president, came very close to unseating Woodrow Wilson, and then became later the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. So there is life after a defeated Republican or a Democratic attempt at becoming president. It's not as though that has to be the last act.

And we have had John McCain, as you say, and John Kerry in 2004. After he lost, he went back to the Senate, is there today, is as powerful as he's ever been in the Senate and may be the next Secretary of State if President Obama is reelected. So he still has a lot of his career ahead of him.

Let's look at Al Gore, who had been vice president, ran in 2000, was narrowly defeated, winning the popular vote, losing the Electoral College, and he's gone on to be an international symbol and move and shaker for not only the environmental movement in global warming and climate change, but for the solar industry. And he's really moved on to an entirely different kind of level of operation. So he doesn't seem to really need to come back to politics, although many of them have tried in one way or another to get back into the Senate or to get back into some other kind of concomitant office.

CONAN: And then there's the subcategory - those who run for vice president and lose. And that does not seemed to block them from another attempt at the brass ring.

ELVING: That is correct; we have had cases of that. But we've also had vice presidents who more or less, saw their career, you know, really take a bad turn after they were nominated for vice president and didn't win; for example, Dan Quayle. You know, Dan Quayle essentially made his big move with George H.W. Bush in 1988, when he became vice president. And after that, he subsequently tried to get - sort of back into the lists, after they were defeated in 1992, but was never really able to get back into the presidential short list.

For example, Bob Dole in 1996 was, in many people's minds, not a big plus for Gerry Ford, who was running for a legitimate term of his own, having acceded to the presidency from the vice presidency. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Dole was on the ticket with Ford in 1976.] And yet, he was able to come back. It was struggle, but he was able to come back, eventually, and get the nomination in 1996. But it did take him that long. It did take him - what, 18 years, from - or 20 years, from 1976 to 1996, to get back up on the horse.

CONAN: And just briefly, Paul Ryan - this week, the cover of the New York Times Magazine: "The Right Man." He can't lose this election. Either he's vice president of the United States or he's, perhaps, the leading candidate for the presidential nomination for the Republican Party, four years hence.

ELVING: That's right. They said that about Edmund Muskie in 1968, when he ran.

CONAN: We all remember President Muskie...

ELVING: Well, and then he didn't do so well in the 1972 primaries. He got beat out in those primaries, by a fellow named George McGovern.

CONAN: Ron Elving, as always, thanks so much for your time.

ELVING: Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, we'll talk about the safety of our food, after a new report links many of the inspectors with the companies they're supposed to inspect. Join us for that conversation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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