This week, as journalists updated their obituaries of George McGovern, they focused on the usual things: His lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. His heroism as a World War II bomber pilot, followed by his staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. His outstanding advocacy of agricultural and nutrition issues.
I focused on the Super Bowl Sunday I spent with him, at the inn he owned.
Once you’ve served as a U.S. Senator from South Dakota, plus lost the presidency by an overwhelming margin to a guy who later resigned in disgrace, there’s not much else to do with your life except buy the Stratford Inn.
That was the name, though it was as close to an “inn” as, well, George McGovern’s politics were to Tricky Dick’s. The Stratford Inn of 1990 was actually an old, 1950s-era motel, located — you can’t make this up — just off the Merritt Parkway. Right across the street from the Sikorsky helicopter plant, which McGovern must have remembered well from both his World War II and anti-Vietnam days.
Anyways, Sunday afternoons being a bit slow up in Stratford, the new innkeep must’ve decided he needed a hot marketing ploy. He came up with the idea of monthly forums. He’d sit down with guests and friends and chambermaids and columnists from the Westport News, and discuss world affairs.
One Sunday — Super Bowl Sunday — the topic was Panama. I guess it was in the news that year.
I’m not one to fawn over celebrities. I’ve been face to face (okay, face to belly button) with Muhammad Ali. I’ve been to Pele’s house (the one in Brazil), and had birthday cake with Martina Navratilova (hers, not mine).
But a chance to rap about an obscure Latin American country with one of history’s most important footnotes seemed like too great a chance to miss.
So up the Merritt I motored to the Stratford “Inn.” I expected a teeny-tiny crowd, clustered around a small table.
Instead I found a throng of about 300, filling a large room with a lectern. They ranged from middle-aged to late-AARP, and there was enough tweed and cable-knit to suggest that Fairfield County’s closet liberals at least have well-stocked closets.
At precisely 2 p.m. George McGovern strode in, tan and fit. The crowd applauded enthusiastically. For 30 minutes he spoke professorially, with plenty of historical references and insightful anecdotes, about Panama and its neighbors.
He then took an hour’s worth of wide-ranging questions, speaking articulately, candidly and wryly about the state of the world. He came across as a passionate, humanitarian man, one who once happened to be his party’s nominee for president of the United States, and now owned an aging motel across the street from a factory.
It was clear too that he touched a responsive chord in his audience. It was a fascinating and educational 90 minutes.
I thought of heading to the bar, to catch the game on the large screen, but decided not to. Somehow, I knew that Super Bowl XXIV would turn out to be as one-sided as Election Day MCMLXXII.