Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On a South Dakota St. Patrick's Day, I toast Sen. George McGovern and his populist legacy

Book jacket from the shelves of the
bookstore at the 
McGovern Center
at Dakota Wesleyan University.
When in South Dakota last weekend, I kept thinking of Sen. George McGovern.

Bomber pilot, U.S. Senator, anti-war presidential candidate, international champion of hunger relief, writer, friend of the working man -- Sen. McGovern has led a long, rich life (he'll be 90 this year) and remains one of my heroes.

I looked out on that yawning open pit mine in Lead and thought about McGovern's book on the West's coalfield wars, the era that gave us the Ludlow Massacre and strong labor unions. It's called "The Great Coalfield War" and represents McGovern's commitment to labor unions. McGovern was born in Avon and grew up in Mitchell where his father was a conservative Methodist minister (and a staunch Republican). He grew up with farmers and small town people and reflected their Prairie Populist values, honed during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. His World War II experience allowed him to look at the Vietnam War through a warrior's eyes and he didn't like what he saw. Nixon clobbered him in the 1972 election. I'm proud to say that I cast my first vote for president for McGovern. I lived in Massachusetts at the time, the only state (along with D.C.) that went McGovern's way. Boston is a long way from the West's wide-open spaces where I now make my home. But I still remember that day almost 40 years ago. The loss was tough but it felt good to be 21 and voting for someone you really believed in.

South Dakota is a bigger and more complicated place these days. I don't pretend to know the details, but Prairie Populism has turned to Tea Party Populism and the results aren't pretty. Still, there's a feistiness behind the Tea Party that one can see in the small towns that gave birth to McGovern and his family and his politics.

Before we leave South Dakota, I have a few things to say about Rapid City. We spent a couple days wandering around and I liked what I saw. The downtown is vital and filled with cool shops. On each corner is a sculpture of a president. That reflects its "City of Presidents" motto taken from nearby Mount Rushmore, the granite mountain that looks down on Rapid City. Funny to think that favorite son McGovern could have been one of the corner statues. Nixon is there instead. Someday, a statue to our first black president will rise from a corner.

Rapid City has the great Firehouse Brewery, home to the Smoke Jumper Stout that I quaffed on St. Patrick's Day. It's housed in what once was the city's main fire house. The food's good, too, and it boasts its own theatre for plays, comedians and musicians. When we were at the mall on Friday, we came upon the Black Hills Community Theatre. When the 43-year-old theatre company lost its old home, it found a new spot at the mall next to J.C. Penney and Radio Shack. The evening we were there, patrons were pouring in to see the classic "Our Town." The Firehouse Theatre's next play is "39 Steps" which, coincidentally, is the show that opens this weekend at Cheyenne's Historic Atlas Theatre. The Dahl Arts Center downtown offers a full slate or art shows and classes.I didn't get to it, but I hear that the South Dakota School of Mines has a nifty art gallery.

We spent Saturday at the St. Patrick's Day parade downtown, and then drove off to Mount Rushmore. You can see a long way from up there, all the way to the Dakota prairie, all the way back to McGovern's roots.

That night, over corned beef and cabbage at the Firehouse, I toasted Sen. McGovern. Here's to you -- one of the good ones. Your like may never be seen again.

1 comment:

larry kurtz said...

Thank you, Michael: sweet post.