News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 22, 2012

State of the Statehouse: South Dakotan families in parallel: The O’Connors and the McGoverns

Maureen Hayden

INDIANAPOLIS — With the November election just two weeks away, I’ve been thinking less about the candidates and more about my own family.

One reason: my smart and talented daughter who lives and works in Washington, D.C., is getting married soon to a smart and talented young man who’s last name is O’Connor. That’s my maiden name too.  We see it as a good omen – the “luck of the Irish” at work.

Another reason: the passing of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate George McGovern, who died Sunday at the age of 90. McGovern grew up in a small South Dakota farm community during the Depression, not far from the small South Dakota farm community where my father — an O’Connor — grew up during the Depression.

By the time McGovern ran for president in 1972, my father was long gone from the family farm, and his politics (conservative and usually Republican) were a long way from those espoused by the liberal Democrat McGovern.

I have a memory from childhood of my father’s mother (who married an O’Connor) saying she wanted to vote for McGovern. She liked the idea of putting a South Dakotan in the White House.  

I remember some of the conversation that ensued among family members who tried to dissuade her. Looking back now, I think they were wary of McGovern’s efforts to expand government social programs and they saw him as weak on the “war on drugs.” As devout Catholics, they also questioned how he could personally oppose abortion but be “pro-choice” on women’s reproductive rights.

I think they warned my grandmother that McGovern was a “bleeding heart liberal” – a term he later embraced as a compliment. In his 2011 book, “What it Means to Be Democrat,” he wrote: “My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad. A bleeding-heart liberal, by definition, is someone who shows enormous sympathy toward others, especially the least fortunate. Well, we ought to stirred, even to tears, by society’s ills.”

I don’t think the label mattered. My grandmother -- who worked so hard to lift her family out of poverty by insisting that each of her seven children go to college -- just saw McGovern as a decent man. (Voters in politically conservative South Dakota must have seen that, too, because they kept sending him back to Congress.)

I don’t know what my Grandma O’Connor ultimately decided when she went into the voting booth. Borrowing on her words, used about people she loved and lost: She’s in heaven with the angels, looking down on me.

I do know McGovern took a terrible thumping — losing every state but Massachusetts. And I do know what later came out: that McGovern was the target of an epic campaign of political dirty tricks that grew into what became the Watergate scandal that ultimately brought down his opponent, Richard Nixon.

Politics has always involved dirty business – on both sides.

But, because I’m thinking more about family and less about candidates these days, I’m thinking of my bright and beautiful daughter, a soon-to-be O’Connor, who lives and works in the nation’s capital because she still believes there are decent people in politics — on both sides.

And I’m thinking of how delighted Grandma O’Connor would be.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden