Graduation Speech at St. Ignatius

Cleveland, Ohio | October 13, 1972

The best thing for our country would be to have a person in the presidency who tells you the truth. And even if they make mistakes, they don’t try to hide them from you.

Listen to the clip from Sargent Shriver's speech at St. Ignatius

The truth is I think most people in America are really turned off by politicians. They really don’t believe much that any politician tells them. I think that most people have got to the point where one politician seems to be very much like every other politician. And a lot of people think that you can’t trust anybody in political life. I think that’s true and I’m very sorry about it. I’m sorry because you all are not old enough to remember, but when John Kennedy ran for president, one of the things he tried to do at that time was to encourage young Americans to go into politics. He did that he said because he thought politics was the noblest profession of them all – because the true politician is not really working just for himself, but he’s working for society, he’s working for everybody and if he’s going to be any good at politics, he’s going to have to be level, or truthful with everybody. Because to be successful, you might say ‘permanently’ or in the long run in politics, you have to be able to understand the different viewpoints of everyone in the community and then get a common agreement out of conflicting viewpoints and then explain why that’s good for the community and get people to accept it. And to do that you have to be very honest with them. A Congressman or Senator has to be truthful, he has to be a man whose word you can count upon. 

Some of the Congressmen or Senators you have disregard for – you might think they’re bad men because they don’t agree with you, in your political beliefs – but if in Washington, they are men of honor and trust, they have a tremendous amount of respect among their colleagues in the Congress, there’s nothing so important in the United States House of Representatives, or in the Senate, as a man who will live up to his word. If a Senator for example tells you Yes, I will vote for a certain bill, you don’t have to have it in writing, you don’t have to worry about whether he will or he won’t – if he’s a good Senator, he will do exactly what he said once he’s given his word. I think that’s the most important quality in public life. That’s a quality we have to preserve at all costs, in our society and in politics. That’s why Jack Kennedy wrote that book called Profiles in Courage. Because he tried to point out in that book that it takes a lot of moral courage to be a really good politician and frequently you have to vote for things that you believe in and know to be true even if your constituents may be opposed to it. And that book describes the lives of four or five or six senators who did vote their conscience and thereby lost a victory but ended up in the history books as great and courageous political leaders. 

I think that quality of truthfulness and honesty in public life is the most valuable any politician can have and any political party can have. And therefore if it’s true as some people say that today there’s nothing to choose between politicians – they’re all alike, they just tell you what they think you want to hear – if that’s the truth, I’m very very sorry about it. If that’s the truth, we’ve slipped a long way in this country. I hope you don’t believe that – but if you do believe it, I even more fervently hope that you will go into politics and change the system which you disagree with. Especially if you disagree with the morality of the leaders in the system. 

I would not be running with George McGovern if I did not think he is a man of integrity and physical and moral and political courage – a man whose word you can trust. George McGovern used to be a teacher and he had a good job, a life tenure job that was paying him $13,000 a year for the rest of his life. He was teaching History at a university called South Dakota Wesleyan. He was married and he had three children. He had no money and he had to support them. At that time, the Democratic party in South Dakota was practically wiped out. The Governor was a Republican, both of the State Senators were Republicans, both of the Congressmen were Republicans, everybody in the Senate of South Dakota was a Republican and in the House of Representatives there were only three Democrats. They came to George McGovern and said Why don’t you quit your secure job and try to reorganize the Democratic party in SD. And he said Well, where will I get paid? And they said, Well, there’s no money. But if you can raise the money, we would think it’s all right for you to take $7,500 a year as your salary. If you can raise it.

That’s about as uninviting a job offer as anyone can get. But George McGovern, even though he was out there in a rural state, he believed in the ideas and ideals of the Democratic party, from Franklin Roosevelt right on down to Harry Truman. He believed in Labor having the right to bargain collectively, he believed in social security, he believed in the 40-hour work week – those things were all new in those days. So George McGovern gave up his secure job. He quit. And went to work by himself to try to build up the Democratic party. And the result of his effort, almost single-handed effort, is that today in South Dakota, the Governor is a Democrat, one of the two US Senators is a Democrat, a Democrat is about to win the other seat, both of the Congressmen are Democrats, the Senate of that state is now Democratic and so is the House. 

Here’s a fellow who could have been a teacher, right here at St. Ignatius. Let’s say he’s thirty years old. And he quit. And went to work to build up the party. He did it not because he was going to run for office, because he didn’t start by running for office, he built it up because he believed in it and he went around that state, driving a car by himself, trying to convince the people whom he met that he was an honest man. And they, most of them, were Republicans. For twenty years now, Republicans in South Dakota have been electing George McGovern to the Congress in Washington and then to the Senate. South Dakota is overwhelmingly a Republican state, but these Republicans, who know George McGovern better than any people in the United States, over twenty years came to realize that in George McGovern they had a man whom they could trust. 

He didn't always vote the way they wanted him to vote. For example, he voted for very progressive legislation. He voted for help to the labor union people. And there are very few labor union people in South Dakota. But he continued to vote for those things because he believed in them – and they continued to send him to Congress because the people of South Dakota believed in him, too. 

There was a big story about politics in South Dakota in one of the big newspapers a few days ago; it said George McGovern might lose his own state in this election. And then a Republican lawyer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota was asked about it, and this Republican lawyer said: Well, that might happen, but you know I’ve lived out here all my life and I’ve never met anyone in South Dakota who said to me that they had voted for George McGovern. But he always wins. 

I think that example from his home state, a Republican state, indicates that the people who know him best, he has earned, over twenty-five years, a reputation for integrity and honesty. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when he was one of the fifteen or sixteen first members of the United States Senate to write a letter to President Johnson condemning the war in Vietnam and asking the President to take the United States out of that war. He put down the reasons. This was back in 1965, I think it was. He was in a tiny minority. President Johnson really got mad at those senators who wrote that letter. He told us a story about it, when George McGovern and I visited President Johnson down in Texas not that long ago. And he recalled that letter – he was sitting in his office in the White House and he was really angry. 

The Secretary of Defense was there, Bob MacNamara, and Johnson had the letter and he was going down each signer and he’d say, Look at this guy! Do you know about him? And he would castigate this particular fellow. And then he came to the name of George McGovern, and he started to do the same thing with McGovern. And the Secretary of Defense, Bob McNamara, interrupted him and said, Mr. President, you know don’t you that George McGovern has the distinguished Flying Cross, which he received for valor, flying a B24 on 35 missions in WW2. You realize that, don’t you? And President Johnson said to us, that he stopped. And suddenly he realized that George McGovern could disagree with President Johnson about the war and still be as loyal and patriotic as anybody in the country. President Johnson said right then that he would never criticize anybody again, out of hand, for disagreeing with his policy on grounds of patriotism, because he knew George McGovern was a great patriot. 

I’ve known George McGovern for twenty years and he’s never told me anything but the truth. When I ran the Peace Corps, he ran something called Food for Peace, which was sending surplus agricultural products abroad. Like the wheat we just sold to Russia, we used to give wheat like that away to starving people in India or Pakistan. So sometimes, let’s say when sometimes we’d send Peace Corps volunteers to Peru, we would send the volunteers to work in the village and sometimes one of the things they’d be able to take with them to help in the village, was food we got from George McGovern’s program, Food for Peace. So I’ve known George McGovern for twenty years. I know he tells the truth. I know he’s a man of integrity. I know he’s honest. I know he went on the government the night before last and told – specifically out in the open – exactly how he’d end the war in Vietnam. I know he’ll tell you exactly what he will do, once he’s President. He will end the war in Vietnam, he will end it for the reasons he gave and he will end it in the way that he described. 

He’s not good at making tricky statements. He’s not good at telling you one thing but actually meaning something else. They call it “dissimulation”. He’s not good at that. He’s not the kind of fellow who can lead you to think one thing while he’s saying something else. He’s not good at that. And that, I’m sorry to say, is one of the reason some people think he’s not qualified to be president. They say, This man has made mistakes. He’s not qualified to be president. Every president has made mistakes. Presidents are people just like you. One of you - boys or girls - may grow up to be President and you’re not going to be any different then than you are now. You will make mistakes. But the best thing for our country would be to have a person in the presidency who tells you the truth. And even if they make mistakes, they don’t try to hide them from you. I think once we have a person in the White House again who is honest with everybody, we would begin to have a country where all the people would be honest with one another, and we wouldn’t be trying to cheat and steal and all the crime, you wouldn’t see it on the street the way it is now. You wouldn’t see the drug addiction the way it is now. You wouldn’t see it because we would begin to have trust in each other. That’s the beginning of a stable, peaceful, happy country. That’s what George McGovern wants to do. The only way we’re going to get to that kind of country is by having moral leadership, honest leadership, and that’s what he promises to you and that’s the most valuable thing any political leader can give you or promise you.