In truth, it's still embarrassing when I think about it, even though just about everyone who was there is gone. Here I was, a brand new in-law taking on--with insane bravado--almost all of the family's elder statesmen, men who were, across the board, staunch Republicans. I wasn't.
It was 1972, and I was about to vote in my very first Presidential election, and for reasons that had everything to do with my belief that the war in Vietnam was flat-out wrong, I was bound and determined to vote for Sen. George McGovern, a man I knew as a proudly liberal voice in the U.S. Senate and a clear anti-war candidate.
And I was not shy in saying so in a congregation of men who considered him half a communist, and worse. At a family reunion, I went to war with men who had become, only a month earlier, my in-laws. I went to bat for McGovern, a Democratic, in part because I knew there were other voices like mine in that family reunion, other voices that I fully expected to come to my aid.
But they were veterans of such political fights and knew better than their new in-law.
I got tossed up in the air like a clay pigeon. What I learned is that an argument was foolhardy, like running into a burning hay barn with a squirt gun. The Republicans weren't conceding on any argument that Sen. McGovern, a small-town South Dakotan, might have been a better choice than Nixon. It was a bare-knuckle fight I couldn't win, and I'm sure some of them went home that night wondering what kind of pinko idiot their pretty niece had got herself hitched to. The text of that family reunion was taken from All in the Family, and I was just another Meathead.
A few months later, they and millions of others spanked McGovern, a decorated war hero, back out into the South Dakota prairie when President Richard M. Nixon was overwhelmingly re-elected for a second term he never finished.
That summer afternoon, shouted down by people I barely knew, I learned there was a time for speech and a time for silence.
Just a half-dozen years later, I was a registered Republican myself, until I went to a caucus meeting in Sioux Center, Iowa, and realized I was nothing at all like the big talkers. Still, once upon a time I think I voted for Reagan; once upon a time I know I voted for George H. W. Bush, and once upon a time even his son.
But my first Presidential vote that year, 1972, was for the Democrat McGovern, who died yesterday at 90, in a hospice center not all that far from where I live.
I met him twice in my life: once in an airport in Salt Lake City, when, like me, he was returning to South Dakota; and another, just a few years ago, at a book fair in Sioux Falls, at Augustana College. He was the very same mild-mannered yet passionate progressive he was in 1972, son of a preacher, child of the prairie.
Those who remember 1972 will always consider him a loser, one of the great losers in the history of American politics.
Just not as great as the deceiver who slaughtered him.
Still, the worst day in his life, he says, was not that thumping he took from Nixon on 1972. The very worst day was when he discovered his daughter, an alcoholic, had frozen to death in a parking lot in Wisconsin, a horrifying death he blamed himself for, having been less a parent, he claimed, than a politician.
That he took the blame is a mark of his character.
In 1972, he was a South Dakotan, and in 2012, when he died, he had changed not a whit.
And me?--I've learned in the years that have passed that there's a time for talk and a time for silence. If that same family reunion was this weekend, I'd probably keep my mouth shut.
But I have not changed my mind about George McGovern.