George McGovern on health care: liberal icon was talking Medicare for all before it was cool

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
McGovern with staffers Berniece Mayer, left, and Judy Harrington-1974

Seven words. That’s all it would take, George McGovern liked to say, to really reform our nation’s health-insurance system:

“Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans.”

Pretty simple, huh?

Of course, simple to write and read doesn’t mean simple to pass into law, simple to implement or simple to pay for. And McGovern’s version of Medicare for all, which he proclaimed in conversations with reporters more than a decade ago and in a book a year or two after that, would have been a challenge in all three areas.

Which is pretty much the trifecta of hurdles facing today’s Democratic progressives as they promote Medicare for all, in some cases as key parts of their presidential campaign platforms. 

They’re a little late to the dance, of course, since McGovern was hearing the music and working on his steps back even before the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a gleam in Barack Obama’s eye.

And some, especially Sen. Bernie Sanders, who take credit for elevating the idea to prominence, typically do so without acknowledging that a liberal icon of the Democratic Party and former South Dakota senator, was pushing Medicare for all long before Medicare for all was cool.

But who would be surprised by that? It’s kind of the way George McGovern liked to operate, out on the edge of things, a bleeding-heart-liberal who wore that presumed pejorative as a badge of honor.

Heart on his sleeve? You bet. But a fire in his belly, too.

Which is what Judy Harrington loved about the man from the first time she heard his soft, slightly nasally, professorially inflected voice on TV back in the late 1960s. 

“I’d say I met him through television,” says Harrington, a Nebraska native and former McGovern staffer who is retired and living in Sioux Falls. “He was doing all those Sunday talk shows. And I’d hear him talking and somebody would say, ‘That’s that McGovern from South Dakota.’ And he was saying exactly what I thought and felt. And that was 10 miles from the Republicans I worked for.”

Those Republicans were a couple of congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. I’m sure they were capable folks. But they didn’t offer the kind of inspiration to a budding young political aide with left-leaning sensibilities like McGovern did.

“I was never really comfortable on The Hill until I met George,” Harrington said.

George McGovern had a way of making you feel comfortable, as long as you weren’t opposing him on some piece of near-to-his-heart legislation or challenging him on a debate stage or operating in unfriendly ways near a military target in a World War II war zone.

The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern dabbled in preaching during college years but settled on history, earning an undergraduate degree from Dakota Wesleyan University in his home town of Mitchell before studying his way through to masters and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University.

He was both a student of history and a maker of it, teaching at DWU after earning a Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting 35 bomber missions, most of them in a B-24 named Dakota Queen for his wife, Eleanor. Much later, after he led the rebuilding of the floundering Democratic Party in South Dakota, McGovern mixed the war hero’s spirit with the professor’s demeanor to win two terms in the U.S. House, three terms in the U.S. Senate and his party’s presidential nomination in 1972.

Somewhere in there he managed run the Food for Peace Program for President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, feeding millions around the world and earning praise from international leaders, including Pope John XXIII.

The beating McGovern took from Richard Nixon in the general election of 1972 didn’t diminish his standing as an icon among liberals. In some ways, it burnished it. So it’s logical to consider McGovern and his ideas when considering today’s progressives and their ideas, for the academic exercise and our own entertainment, if nothing else.

Seven years after he died, I still miss the guy, but not to the degree Judy Harrington does. She was on his staff in campaigns and as South Dakota state director for 12 years, beginning with preparations for a presidential bid in 1972 and running through the loss of his Senate seat to U.S. Rep. Jim Abdnor in the 1980 general election.

The official McGovern era of governance in South Dakota ended with that defeat. But McGovern never stopped being the relevant, amiable, articulate icon of the liberal left, someone reporters sought out for opinions on current events and political skirmishes.

I did some of that seeking myself. And if McGovern were still alive today (he died in October of 2012), I’d likely have asked him about the new progressives in his party and some of the key points of their agenda, including Medicare for all, tuition-free college, the Green New Deal and immigration-law reform and need for more humane border policies.

Without a direct line to McGovern, I made a couple of indirect-but-meaningful calls, the first to Harrington. And she said the old liberal icon who inspired her decades ago would be out front in supporting much of the “progressive” agenda.

“In terms of being with the progressives on immigration reform and, certainly, Medicare for all and doing something about college-student debt, he’d be right there,” Harrington said.

McGovern probably wouldn’t have pushed for completely free tuition, but he would support meaningful cost-reductions and student assistance, Harrington said.

“He would totally be against this debt that kids have to leave school with and would put more weight on the fact that an educated society is to all of our benefits and that we shouldn’t discourage kids with financial hurdles,” she said. “I could see him making tuition fair but not free, maybe tied to a modest amount of national service, doing something for your country. I could see him putting that together.”

To continue my McGovern conversation, I made another call, this time to his grandson, Matt, a 47-year-old lawyer from the Milwaukee, Wis. Matt’s legal work is focused on energy issues, particularly solar development, and municipal government. And he said there’s no doubt his grandfather would be an advocate for the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal was introduced in April by Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a first-term congresswoman from New York, and first-term Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Ocasio-Cortez in particular can be a bit of lightning rod, a role she seems to embrace and more moderate leadership in her party sometimes seems to resent.

Matt McGovern thinks his grandpa would have loved AOC and others speaking out on issues including racism in America. And he would have been with her 100 percent in the Green New Deal, Matt says.

The Green New Deal a throw-back in relevance to the New Deal, the relief-recover package of the early 1930s inspired and overseen by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Matt McGovern says. And given the international and potentially cataclysmic impacts of accelerating climate challenge, it could be just about as essential to national security interests, he says.

“As a historian, my grandpa would refer back to Franklin Roosevelt and what he did, bringing electricity to rural areas and infrastructure like dams and all the projects that were putting people to work not just to create jobs but to create lasting wealth that still helps us today,” Matt says. “I think he would have very much appreciated the historical foundations of the Green New Deal. Right now it’s just a resolution, but it fits very much into what we’ve done before.”

In 2012, Matt McGovern found something that fit into what had been done before in his family when the Democrat ran for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission. McGovern, who was living in Sioux Falls at that time, was joined on the campaign trail by his grandfather, whose political advice — according to a story I wrote that year — for his grandson included “always speak your mind even when you know people will disagree with you. And talk to as many people personally as you can.”

Matt McGovern lost that race, as most statewide Democratic candidates have done in South Dakota over the last 50 years. But he got to spend more time with his grandfather, traveling the state and soaking in his knowledge and history and perspective, along with his love.

The conversations confirmed what Matt McGovern already knew: His grandfather was a man of history who examined the past, but also a man of future concerns, including the changing climate and its impacts.

“He was very much paying attention to the science on climate,” Matt McGovern says. “And I think he would have appreciated all the attention that is being paid to it now.”

I think McGovern would have appreciated all the attention being paid to Medicare for all now, too, a decade after he pushed the issue into public view but never into public prominence.

The idea is as simple to read and write and understand — and as complicated to put into law and practice — now as it was back then.

But it would be hard to be the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for complications. And there was nothing simple about it.

When Obamacare was signed into law in March of 2010, it covered more than 2,300 pages. About that same time, George McGovern was supporting the Affordable Care Act while also offering that seven-word option.

I was inspired to look back at McGovern’s feelings on health-care reform and other prominent issues by a column in the Rapid City Journal by my friend and former farm neighbor back in Lyman County, Noel Hamiel. Noel wondered how McGovern would feel about the progressives of his party today, and their policy priorities — none more important than health care.

Since I read Noel’s column, I’ve been piecing together bits of recollection and other more reliable sources of information on McGovern’s health-care ideas. My first stop on the memory trail was a conversation I had with the senator here in Rapid City about the value of liberal politics and his frustration with the euphemism “progressive.”

He preferred “liberal,” and called himself one — proudly.

McGovern was, of course, a great admirer of President Barack Obama and a supporter of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But he was even more fond of the simplicity of extending Medicare coverage to all Americans.

I wasn’t breaking news when I reported some of that in the Rapid City Journal political blog, Mount Blogmore, which I helped moderate for almost a decade on the Journal website. McGovern had already said the same thing to my wife, Mary, who was then — like me — reporting news for the Rapid City Journal.

Mary’s story ran in the Journal on Aug. 19, 2009. I know that because current Journal reporting stalwart Seth Tupper found a copy of it for me online, something I was unable to do (go figure). Here is Mary’s lede from that story: “If former Sen. George McGovern were still in Congress and writing health-reform legislation, it would be a one-page bill.”

After that came a quote from the former senator: “I would have written a bill that said, ‘We hereby extend Medicare to all Americans.’ That would have been my solution. At least the public would understand it.”

Mary caught the former senator during a West River leg of a book tour about his biography on Abraham Lincoln. And about that time, Obama was battling to win approval from his health-insurance reform package.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell had already pledged to make Obama’s presidency a failure and was working hard toward that eventually unrealized goal. Republicans were uniformly recalcitrant about the health-insurance-reform package, and even some moderate Democrats — including South Dakota’s then-U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin — found enough wrong with the package to vote against it.

Some of what Herseth Sandlin worried about, and what constituents in the business community and elsewhere warned her about, in the ACA have proven true. It was massive package of much good and many imperfections. But much of the failure of parts of the program can be blamed on Republican opposition to needed fixes and to actual budgetary and legal assaults on the ACA that have made it worse in practice than it might have been.

McGovern said a decade ago that he was surprised at the extent of the opposition to something that was so clearly needed in the only industrialized nation in the Western World without universal health care. And he wondered if Medicare for all would get around some of the opposition and get to the problems sooner. 

That was 2009. And McGovern was at work on another book, which would be published a couple of years later under the title: “What it Means to be a Democrat.” In that book he accepts the “bleeding-heart-liberal title” preaches passionately to the choir of “progressives” outlining the principles of his heart and urging left-leaning Democrats to be true to their liberal ways.

George McGovern would be pitching that same message if he were alive today. And he’d almost certainly be doing it with a tone and demeanor that would be strikingly different from what is common in Congress and especially in the Oval Office.

McGovern tried to focus on arguing issues and criticizing policy rather than attacking people.

“He took strong positions, but he would never speak of people or speak of cities or speak of countries the way this president does,” Harrington said. “He was a preacher’s son. He had an open heart and he knew people had values. And he had values, of course. And those values meant you didn’t call people names.”

McGovern certainly tried to avoid hateful political rhetoric. He wasn’t perfect. And he admitted — as you might expect from a preacher’s son — some of his own failings in that regard.

Politics is a rough game, and your emotions can get away from you. McGovern used to say he didn’t like the way his emotions sometimes got away from him. He pointed in particular to his 1960s challenge of incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Karl Mundt, one of the most powerful and successful politicians in state history.

Along with political differences, McGovern had deep personal animus toward Mundt, in part because of Mundt’s connections to Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy’s aggressive and sometimes misguided tactics during a high-profile hunt for Communist sympathizers in the federal government earned him a Senate censure and spawned the term “McCarthyism.”

They also earned the Wisconsin senator the enduring antipathy of McGovern. He admitted as much years later, noting that he “lost his balance” because of his hatred for Mundt, and it affected his rhetoric and tactics in ways that didn’t make him proud.

But just imagine that: a national-level politician who examined his actions, acknowledged his failings and sought to do better.

More of that in today’s politics might make America a healthier place, with or without Medicare for all.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.