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'What if' Lingers Over a Good Man

George McGovern? He's that liberal fellow who lost so badly in the presidential race of 1972 that he delivered a blow to liberalism from which it has never really recovered. That's the way so many Americans think of that gentlemanly, quiet-voiced man - in the few moments they may think of him these days - who recently returned to public life as the presidentially appointed US permanent representative to the Rome headquarters of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

But that isn't the way I think of Mr. McGovern. I got to know George way back when he was John F. Kennedy's adviser on agriculture matters. And I followed almost every step he took on his road to the Democratic nomination and in his campaign against Richard Nixon.

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And, frankly, I thought then and I think now that McGovern was one of the most decent public figures I have ever known.

I was reminded of this the other day as McGovern - some years older but, as some reporters were saying, "still looking good" - dropped by to have lunch with the Monitor's press group.

So many politicians are stiff, egocentric. Not George. He walks up quietly and says, "I'm George McGovern" to a journalist he does not know. Or, for any of us reporters who followed him along that long, and sad, campaign trail of years ago, he has a warm handshake and pat on the back.

In talking to the public or the press George McGovern was always able to make himself one of the gang. People instinctively liked this modest fellow who never talks down. And they still do.

This is a kind man, a forgiving man. His father was a minister and he, himself, studied for a while for the ministry. He told us how he had gone to the funeral of Richard Nixon, a president who spoke with contempt of McGovern during the campaign.

More than that, he said that during the Reagan years he had once visited with Nixon at his apartment in New York City. His objective: To persuade Nixon to join with him in trying to prevail upon President Reagan to travel to Russia in the quest for peace.

McGovern said that after talking it over, the two of them decided that they would have no influence with Reagan who, indeed, did later on finally discard his stated view of the Soviet Union, as "an evil empire," and undertake summitry with the Soviets.

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"It occurred to me recently," McGovern told me after the luncheon as we walked out together from our Carlton Hotel meeting room, "that Nixon would have been a lot better off if I had beaten him. He would have had a one-term presidency that might not have been all that outstanding - but he would have avoided the Watergate scandal that destroyed his presidency."

Here McGovern added: "You know a poll was taken just one year after the election - of Nixon against me - and I beat him badly." This was after Watergate surfaced.

Oh, yes, back to my high regard for McGovern.

In addition to my feeling that I shared with everyone who got up close to him - that he was a "good, decent fellow" - I also thought he would have been a good president. Would he have been an outstanding president? Who knows? But he would have been honest and fair and hard working.

And even if those attributes led only to a mediocre record, McGovern would have saved us the Watergate scandal from which we still are having to recover. It is quite evident that there has been an intense public suspicion of politicians - and, particularly, of presidents and presidential candidates - since Watergate. Indeed, it's more than suspicion: There is an atmosphere of hostility. Reporters so often sound angry at press conferences; voters so often express hatred when interviewed.

I think that if the public had chosen McGovern this climate of mean-spiritedness could have been avoided.

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