This was partly because my friends and I thought he was really cute. But it was also because of what he stood for, and what kind of man he was.
I was fortunate to grow up in a politically-active, socially-aware family; stalwart Democrats. We were all-in for the "McGovern for President" campaign. Even at that age I was tuned in to the issues and loved the excitement of being involved. My siblings and I would pile in our station wagon and accompany our parents to rallies. We spent some Saturday afternoons passing out leaflets in shopping centers and neighborhoods.
McGovern was a national leader that I could look up to in real-time, not from a history book. His personality conveyed both depth and accessibility. McGovern exuded integrity, compassion, intelligence. As I kid, I was impressed with how confident he seemed in speaking out against war and for poor people.
And again, my classmates and I couldn't believe how much cuter he was than Nixon. I can't emphasize that enough.
So all of this added up to making him a hero to me.
McGovern was a fervent anti-war activist, and a decorated Army combat veteran. I always thought of that as an unimpeachable combination. As wide-eyed as he was portrayed to be, Senator McGovern came to his views on war from personal experience in the trenches.
Like a lot of peacemakers and complex social thinkers, McGovern was un-flashy and under-appreciated. He was done the same disservice as was eventually done to a string of very liberal Democratic Presidential candidates who came after him; Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis - serious, intelligent, caring, public servants who were successfully branded as laughingstocks - Don Quixotes, weak-minded, bleeding-heart doves. McGovern took the brunt of a powerful wave of scorn for leftist thought that created a real stigma around the word "liberal".
I will leave it to political scientists with more knowledge than me to explain the perfect storm of world and national; social and economic events that allowed that stigma to take root. But even then, even as a young, white, mid-Western, middle-class schoolgirl, I knew it was wrong. And I knew that my hero, Senator George McGovern, suffered for it; but that he kept his head up in the face of it, and continued to articulate the bedrock liberal values I have today. Back then we called it being for peace, for women's lib, and for equal rights for black people. We called it being against pollution, against religious judgement, and against police brutality. But most of the time we just called it "being Democrats".
I'm glad George McGovern stayed actively interested in politics and public service long enough to see a return of liberal pride. He had a chance to see his old colleague Ted Kennedy earn his rightful place as a vaunted Democratic leader. He got to see many advances in the fight for equal rights for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBT Americans. He got to support Hilary Clinton as a fiercely competitive presidential primary candidate, and then Barack Obama as a successful nominee.
I imagine he had concerns about rising threats to voting rights, choice, and our already fragile safety net. I'm sure he was disturbed by the ongoing attempt to demonize run-of-the-mill liberal theory as Socialism. I can imagine he saw the bristling, blustering conservative approach to foreign policy as chillingly ominous.
But hopefully he also felt - looking at those of us who have taken up causes he helped define in the modern era - that he was leaving the country in good hands.