SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – Back in the stacks – bracketed by shelves filled with copies of “Where The Wild Things Are” and “My Friend Rabbit” and beneath an oversized cutout of Babar, the elephant king – the elder statesman has again found an audience.

Or maybe it’s the audience that has again found him.

The air outside the book emporium tonight is cut by the first October chill. Inside, George McGovern must compete with the din unleashed by a gaggle of preschoolers ignoring the grandfatherly figure for the store’s wooden train set. But as customers fill the metal folding chairs set before a microphone, the man one longtime friend calls “Should’ve-been-President McGovern” sticks with his quietly fervent sermon, drawing knowing laughter and grim nods of approval.

And now, a generation after he was ridiculed and rejected for a similarly resolute call to abandon another unpopular war, McGovern is one unshakable stride ahead of naysayers – certain that time and a nation’s reflection have proven he was right before.

“We were told that even though it had been a mistake to go to war in this little tiny jungle strip 10,000 miles away, it would be a mistake to leave,” the long-ago senator and Democratic presidential nominee tells all who will listen. His voice, more professorial than pastoral, quavers slightly as he recalls the morality trap set by Vietnam. “Now I see the same thing happening in Iraq.”

It is a most unlikely setting to deliver a message about the evils of war. And at 84, nearly half a lifetime after his Quixotic quest to replace Richard Nixon in the White House was buried under what one documentary labels “the mother of all presidential landslides,” McGovern might seem an unlikely man to still be delivering it.

At least that might be the conclusion of someone who doesn’t know McGovern, friends and observers say. In fact, he has never been a man to slink away or to fester. It’s just that, for much of the time he’s been speaking his mind, not enough people have been listening, they say.

Now, as a new generation of politicians wrestle with the painful choices forced by the war in Iraq, McGovern is again interjecting his view, projecting himself as one who knows better.

But the politician who years ago railed against “old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in,” is an old man himself now. And, he is arguably a left-wing relic. Does a society that uses the word “liberal” as an insult and reveres youth above all, have any place for such an elder statesman?

McGovern – who can appreciate better than most the hazards of being defined by others – isn’t waiting for someone else to answer.

The McGovernites have come home.

Many were just kids during that 1972 campaign. But they’re still here for the prairie orator, scattered through the crowd of a few thousand who have flocked to the main quad at Dakota Wesleyan University in McGovern’s hometown of Mitchell, to pay tribute under an azure sky.

They include a pair of middle-aged women sporting matching “I Voted for George” T-shirts. And people like Mark Evans, long ago the chairman of Buffalo State Students for McGovern, who has flown out from upstate Avon, N.Y., to see his icon and peddle buttons touting “McGovern for President 2008.”

“I just think he’s been vindicated by time,” says Evans, a 54-year-old retired librarian.

“We were all there and we still are,” a formerly obscure Texas campaign worker, one William Jefferson Clinton, tells the crowd gathered on the newly seeded lawn bordering McGovern Avenue. “I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat. Senator, the fires you lit still burn.”

McGovern smiles broadly, shaking every hand offered, autographing innumerable copies of his many books and posing for picture after picture. These are his people.

But they were not enough then and they are not enough now. McGovern still yearns to reach the many others – the ones who voted against him, their sons and daughters, the ones he is often blamed for driving from the Democratic Party fold. Now, though, it’s a campaign of one.

The Monday morning after dedicating the library Dakota Wesleyan has built in his and wife Eleanor’s name, the crowd’s adoration is a memory.

McGovern pulls the door of his modest gray-brown ranch house behind him and crosses the street alone. He fishes for his office key in his suit jacket pocket and lets himself in. When the dentist’s office calls to confirm an appointment, he’s the one who answers. Asked to parse the past, there are no aides or handlers to deflect the question, just a thoughtful man alone with rumination.

“Don’t believe McGovern or you’ll lose 49 states,” he says, summing up the prevailing thinking of his party for the past three decades. “The Democrats have been running away from it ever since. But even Jesus Christ had some of his disciples run away from him.”

Much about the past still troubles McGovern.

Each time he walks past the polished black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., he finds a place to weep among nearby trees, he says, in part because he failed to persuade the nation to leave the war sooner. It irritates him that he was marginalized, and still is, by those who misunderstood or mischaracterized his views.

Even now, McGovern’s name is invoked – as it has been in a closely watched Senate battle in Connecticut – as a symbol of Democratic extremism.

But McGovern, admired as a gentle soul in a profession that often seems to find civility irrelevant, has never been an angry man, and he is far from bitter now.

“I’ve been assailed for as long as I’ve been in politics,” he says. “But you have to find a way to steel yourself.”

His solution has been to craft a different kind of political life, finding common ground with unlikely allies. In the 1980s, he met for quiet talks with Nixon, attended his funeral. He tours college campuses with former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who led the Republican National Committee during the 1972 campaign, and counts him as one of his closest friends. Recently, he invited a one-time foe, Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, to join a council of elders he is forming.

“I just don’t want to see these older heads consigned to the scrap heap,” he says. Not least, his own.

He is on the road a few days every week, delivering talks. Just finished with one book – he plans to learn how to use a computer soon, but for now does all his writing on a yellow legal pad – he has already signed up to write another.

“Now I don’t have to worry about pacing myself,” he says. He straightens his body from the sofa it has been draped across, undoing the top button of his shirt and pulling back the collar to display the bulge of a pacemaker implanted in his chest. “Because that does it for me.”

As he takes on the war in Iraq, he is certain plenty of others agree with him – even if they don’t acknowledge it. For McGovern, used to being considered on the fringe, the notion that those who agree with him might not want to do so openly, is hardly troubling. What bothers him, he says, is that they seem reluctant to speak for themselves.

“For people who have never been near a battlefield … to accuse critics of being soft on national security and soft on Communism and soft on terrorism, I think is preposterous,” he says, recalling a favorite speech by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower warning the nation of letting militarism go unchecked.

“Now a five-star general can say that without being accused of being soft…but I suppose a liberal Democrat – which I am – is not allowed to say that.”

It’s clear that McGovern didn’t believe that 34 years ago, clearer still he can’t abide it now.

Joe and Frances McGovern taught their children many things. But politics was never one of them.

Their son, George, was born in tiny Avon, S.D., population 600, in a home defined by prayer. Joe was a Methodist minister who built the churches where he preached. He and his much younger wife, stern, thrifty and conservative folk, raised their children to follow suit. It wasn’t until George was 12 or 13 that he learned his father had once played baseball for a St. Louis Cardinals farm team – an experience recounted as a parable for vices and temptations to be avoided.

The McGoverns moved to Mitchell when he was 5 and he later attended Dakota Wesleyan, the Methodist school not far from home. He met and married Eleanor – they are still together 63 years later, but he despairs that she is ailing – shortly before shipping off to Italy as the pilot of a B-24 bomber in the final year of World War II. McGovern guided the Dakota Queen through 35 combat missions over Europe, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

He returned home, briefly trying seminary school and life as a minister before becoming a history professor at his alma mater. He ran for Congress in 1956 and won, climbing to the Senate six years later.

McGovern’s early politics were mostly about supporting farmers, and his grassroots style was well-suited to a state where voters still expect to look each of their would-be representatives in the eye.

“If he saw you once and saw you three weeks later, he’d remember you,” says David Kranz, longtime political columnist for Sioux Falls’ Argus-Leader. “That’s magic for a politician.”

McGovern saw his popular support at home plummet when he became an early opponent of the war in Vietnam, and he was passed over for his party’s presidential nomination in 1968. But he surprised most observers by claiming the nomination in 1972, pledging to pull the U.S. out of a war in which it had lost its moral compass.

His campaign, though, quickly lost its way. And in November, McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, a 520-to-17 electoral vote thrashing that prompted many in his own party to reject him.

McGovern became “a symbol of a kind of Democratic failure … crystallizing the Democratic Party’s alliance with, or tolerance of, a leftism that most Americans couldn’t abide,” says David Greenberg, a professor at Rutgers University who has written about the Nixon presidency.

McGovern embraces the reality but disdains the description.

“How the hell do you get elected in South Dakota for 20 years if you’re a wild-eyed radical?” he asks.

After losing to Nixon, McGovern returned to the Senate and ran again for president in 1984, falling in the early primaries.

In the years afterward, he stepped away from politics to teach, try running an inn in Connecticut and a bookstore in Montana. The loss of daughter Terry – an alcoholic who froze to death on a Wisconsin street after a night of drinking – haunted McGovern, who found release by writing about her battle with addiction.

He returned to public life in 1998 when Clinton named him ambassador to the United Nations food program and later was named the U.N.’s global ambassador on hunger.

And McGovern has continued writing. The Bush administration’s conduct in Iraq unleashes a frustration in McGovern – outlined in articles and a new book co-authored with Middle East expert William R. Polk calling for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops by the end of this year – that is bound to draw detractors. They’ll say McGovern wants to cut and run again, he acknowledges.

He’s probably right. But what critics may miss is that, rather than being stuck in a time warp, McGovern’s observations are crisp with vitality, built on an urgency that needs an outlet.

Hanging on the wall just outside his office in the new library is a carefully framed and beautifully scripted copy of a familiar prayer. As he enters, he pauses to extol the artwork, then rejects the sentiment.

“God,” the prayer begins, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

“No,” says McGovern, when asked if the prayer represents a personal credo. “I keep trying to change them.”

He is a man at peace, McGovern says. But that does not mean he has to make peace with all he sees around him.

Conversation with McGovern is served in measured portions, gravelly reflections rather than barbed soundbites. But there are moments when he bristles, nearly always at politics in the present tense: That the Bush administration conspired to hide the truth from Americans in its determination to invade Iraq, that demagogues have been allowed to depict God as a neoconservative ideologue…

“What I resent, you know, is that the Bible warns us against false prophets,” he says, “I don’t believe in the manipulation of religious faith for these narrow, extremist, partisan positions.”

The difference, according to this man who says he tries, with mixed results, to live up to the words of the Sermon on the Mount, is that he does not pretend to be speaking for anyone but George McGovern. But there are those who see it differently.

Inside the bookstore, they line up in front of the wooden table where McGovern is seated, bringing him copies of books to sign, to seek hugs and handshakes, to tell him how their stories have intertwined with his own.

“You’re the first person I ever voted for,” Victoria Watson of Sioux Falls confides. “My son is in Iraq now. Thank you for continuing to speak out.”

McGovern smiles gently and takes Watson’s hand, an offer of comfort and of thanks.

The elder statesman is glad to be of service.

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