After I turned eighteen, I cast my first-ever vote in the 1972 presidential election—and I cast that vote for Senator George McGovern. So I was saddened on Sunday, October 21, 2012, when I heard that Mr. McGovern had died at age ninety in a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, hospice.
In a book I co-wrote with my longtime writing partner Pat Williams, the co-founder of the Orlando Magic, Pat tells the story of meeting Senator McGovern. Here’s an excerpt from that book, The Ultimate Manual of Effective, Persuasive Speaking for Coaches and Leaders by Pat Williams with Jim Denney. Pat Williams recalls:
In October 1996 . . . I had dinner with George McGovern, the former senator from South Dakota who ran unsuccessfully against Richard Nixon in 1972. Senator McGovern is a humble man and a fascinating dinner companion. He told me stories about his many famous friends (including JFK, RFK, LBJ, and HHH), and a few of his political opponents. He even had some fascinating stories to tell about an eager young man he hired as his Texas state campaign director, a twenty-six-year-old up-and-comer named Bill Clinton.
A few years later, I reconnected with Senator McGovern and interviewed him for my book Coaching Your Kids to be Leaders. In that interview, I discovered that Senator McGovern learned early in life that public speaking is the key that unlocks the door to leadership. His speaking ability enabled him to be elected president of his class in college, and he won a statewide speaking contest with a speech called “My Brother’s Keeper.”
As a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II, McGovern flew thirty-five combat missions over Europe. On his final mission—a raid on the heavily defended oil and ammunition depots at Linz, Austria—McGovern and his crew braved flak so thick that it blew more than a hundred holes in the fuselage and wings of his aircraft. His waist gunner was badly wounded and his flight engineer completely paralyzed by fright. The plane’s hydraulic system was shot away and one engine knocked out. McGovern had to improvise a new way of landing the plane. He brought it down steep and fast, had two crewmen deploy parachutes from the rear of the plane to create drag, and ordered the rest of the crew to huddle in the tail section to keep the plane’s nose up. The result was a barely controlled crash into a ditch—but McGovern brought everyone through alive.1
McGovern was elected to the Senate from South Dakota in 1962, then reelected in 1968 and 1974. He credits his speaking ability for his years of successful leadership in Washington, D.C. “My high school English teacher told me I had a talent in public speaking,” Senator McGovern told me. “She introduced me to the high school debate coach. Debating transformed me from a somewhat shy and reticent student to a more confident and persuasive public speaker.
“The Roman orator Marcus Fabius Quintilian once defined an orator as ‘a good man speaking well.’ You must first become a good man or a good woman before you are worth listening to as a speaker. It’s the same way with other activities: A good teacher is a good person teaching well. A good coach is a good person coaching well. A good parent is a good person parenting well. I encourage people, especially young people, to become a good person first, then a good speaker. Then use that ability to help others be better people. The life well lived is its own reward.”
Those are wise words from a man who has lived his life well, spoken well, and used his skills as a public speaker to achieve his party’s nomination for president of the United States.
—Pat Williams, senior vice-president of the Orlando Magic; motivational speaker, bestselling author and radio host