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This world has seen many humans who valued their souls and their principles over their own life. Many come to mind, Sir Thomas More, St. Joan of Arc, Mohandess Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Muhammed Ali, the boxer, who said, upon being called up in the Vietnam War draft, “Those little Viet Congs never did anything to me,” and more recently, George McGovern and Russell Means, both South Dakotans. I also include Mahmoud Dieb, who was the father of my wife, Sanaa Dieb Abourezk.
Muhammed Ali, then the world heavyweight boxing champion, something he had sought all of his adult life, gave up the championship and the fame that accompanied it because he refused to be drafted. He well understood that, if he went into the military, he would never be sent into combat. He knew that champions are put on display by the military as morale boosters, but to him the principle was more important than all else.
Russell Means, who became a somewhat talented actor, performed in a world where he could have been shot and killed at any time by angry whites, believed that telling the story of the mistreatment of American Indians was more valuable than living comfortably, or living at all.
The reason I open with these people is that I more recently lost two friends, Senator George McGovern and Russell Means, who died within 24 hours of each other in South Dakota in October of 2012. Mahmoud Ali Dieb died of a stroke in December of 2011.
George McGovern was 90 years old, and was fairly active until a week or so before he was suddenly placed in a hospice.
Russell Means was 72 years old, still relatively young, but he was stricken by cancer, about which more later.
Living in heavily Republican South Dakota all of my life, (with the exception of serving in the U.S. Navy and working for a year in California), I found a hero in George McGovern when he single handedly revived a moribund Democratic Party in the early 1950s, then, in 1956, running for, and winning, South Dakota’s First Congressional District House seat. I was an engineering student at the time, studying at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City. Those were the days when South Dakota had two House Districts, and Rapid City was in the Second District, in the western part of the state. He won again in 1958. I still remember the full page ads placed by the South Dakota Republican Party calling him a Communist. They didn’t hint. They outright put the negative label on him.
Normally, in heavily conservative South Dakota, that allegation would be enough to consign a Democrat to immediate obscurity, but George had, by then, personally met enough voters to create the political armor needed to ward off allegations that were, by then, considered ridiculous by most voters.
In 1960, he ran against Republican Senator Karl Mundt, an almost permanent fixture in South Dakota politics. Mundt had been an ally of Wisconsin demagogue, Sen. Joe McCarthy, at a time when they created an irrational fear in the American public that Communism was ready to take over America. Mundt was clever, and he was able to muster enough help that year to defeat George, including an endorsement from FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. As well, it was the year that Jack Kennedy ran for the Presidency, giving the Republican Party in South Dakota a boost down ballot for their candidate Richard Nixon.
In 1962, the Junior Republican Senator, Francis Case, died in office, and a Republican lawyer from Rapid City–Joe Bottum–was appointed by the Republican governor to fill the seat. George filed for election to the Senate again to run against Bottum. And this time, George won, beginning a stellar Senate career that did not end until 1980, when he was defeated by Republican Congressman Jim Abdnor.
George became nationally famous for his unflinching opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. What he never bragged about–not even to defend against the vicious charges of being both a coward and a Communist–was his own war record in WWII. He had been a B-24 bomber pilot who had flown 35 missions over Nazi held territory in Europe. He was shot down twice, once rescued by Marshall Tito’s partisans who returned him to the American lines.
As one of the first leaders trying to rally support against the Vietnam War, he was pilloried by Nixon and his minions for his policies. Of course Richard Nixon was an expert at smear tactics. He broke into politics after WWII by accusing his opponents of being Communists at a time when the Cold War was hottest. His first victims were Jerry Voorhis when he ran for the U.S. House from California, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Hollywood figure who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. Both times, Nixon’s lies worked, allowing him to win both elections.
George’s crusade against war in general, and against the Vietnam War in particular, propelled him to run for the Presidency in 1972. He attempted to pick up Bobby Kennedy’s banner in 1968 after Bobby’s assassination, but that attempt failed. By 1972, he was boosted by millions of people, young and old, who agreed with his opposition to the Vietnam War. Although he won the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination, his campaign was so disorganized, partly by his staff’s debilitating infighting and partly by his choice of Tom Eagleton as Vice President, that he suffered an overwhelming loss in the 1972 Presidential election.
Such a crushing defeat would normally consign the loser to permanent anonymity, but McGovern was well served by an inner reserve of great courage. After the Vietnam War ended, he took up an old cause that had begun for him when President Jack Kennedy had appointed him as director of the Food For Peace Program in 1961. George enlisted the help of his Republican colleague, Senator Bob Dole, and together they sought to move America toward a program to provide school lunches for children all over the world, children who had neither lived a day nor slept a night without being hungry.
As happened when he worked to end the Vietnam War, the nobility of the cause of ending world hunger among children allowed him to enlist allies both in and out of government.
In the summer of 2009, George McGovern and I did a driving tour of South Dakota to campaign for the Democratic Candidate for Governor, Scott Heidepriem. Aside from the enjoyment we both got from spending many days talking about the great characters of the Senate–Strom Thurmond, Jim Eastland and others–with whom we served, I was able to learn what drove him to establish a worldwide school lunch program. As he explained it, young girls in Africa and Asia were forced into marriage and motherhood at ages as young as 11 or 12, whenever they reached puberty. They were marriages of necessity in countries so poor that families had to sell their daughters to allow the rest of the family to survive. But by providing free school lunches to the poorest of the poor, the girls had an incentive to finish a number of years of school before entering marriage, a program which ended the cycle of poverty heaped on top of poverty because of the lack of food for small children.
George had to muster all of his lifelong inventory of courage to overcome two stinging tragedies in his family. Well, actually, three. His wife of 64 years, Eleanor, died in 2007. His daughter, Terry, who was afflicted with alcoholism, froze to death in a Wisconsin snow bank, and his son Steve, died in 2012, from conditions related to an alcohol addiction.
Although he reached his 90th birthday in 2012, George was still active, attending a Northwestern University football game, reciting poetry while being backed up by the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. He had tried to complete a book tour for his latest book, What It Means to be a Democrat, but fatigue from the travel forced him to interrupt the tour.
That brings me to the intersection of George McGovern and Russell Means. When, in February of 1973, the American Indian Movement (AIM) decided to occupy the ancient battleground site of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, we both became involved. I had recently been sworn in as a U.S. Senator, and even more recently, I was appointed Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, a subcommittee of the Senate Interior Committee. Henry “Scoop” Jackson was the full committee chairman.
When I learned that AIM had taken over Wounded Knee I then tried to find out exactly what was happening there. I looked in a Pine Ridge phone book and found a number with a Wounded Knee address, which I called. To my complete surprise, Russ Means, the leader of the takeover, answered the phone.
“What’s happening out there, Russ?” I asked.
“We’ve taken over Wounded Knee and we are holding nine hostages. We won’t release them until you, Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichmann, Ted Kennedy and William Fulbright come out here to negotiate with us,” Means said.
I had known Russell since 1965, when, during the summer between my Second and Third year of law school. I leased a building in the small tourist town of Rockerville, about 10 miles south of Rapid City. It had been, in previous years, a bar, restaurant and night club, called “The Gay Lady.” I moved my family to live in the building. My first wife, Mary, and I took a very small bedroom behind the bar, and the University co-eds I had hired to work as waitresses lived in a somewhat larger room in the back of the building in which I had installed old bunk beds I bought at a used furniture store. My two sons, Charlie and Paul, slept on the dance floor after the bar was closed for the night. The bartender I had hired, my law school classmate, Bill Janklow, who later became Governor of South Dakota, also slept on the dance floor along with the bus boys.
Russ Means and his brother, Ted, were performing Indian dances for tourists in Rockerville. Russ asked me if he and his brother could dance in front of the Gay Lady and I told them to please go ahead.
The next time I saw Russ was my first year as a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Some good citizens of Chadron, Nebraska, had bullied a drunk Indian–Raymond Yellow Thunder–from the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, beating him until he died. There were no charges filed by the authorities. By then the American Indian Movement (AIM), led by Russ Means and others, had taken up the cause.
I set up a hearing in Pine Ridge, inviting Russ and AIM members to testify in an effort to call attention to the injustice. Russ transformed into a prosecutor, calling witnesses to describe the killing and I acted as the make-believe judge.
Not long after the hearing, Russ led what he called “The Trail of Broken Treaties,” a march on Washington, D.C. by American Indians from all over the United States. The march gathered Indians at every stop as they marched from the West Coast to Washington, D.C. The group took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) building in Washington, trashing the offices inside, and turning over piles of supposedly classified documents to Washington columnist, Jack Anderson, who had taken over muckraker Drew Pearson’s column that was distributed to most papers in the United States. Anderson’s revelation in his columns of the contents of the documents drew the anger of the Administration and delighted American citizens who read what the government had done to the Indians over the years.
The government had the BIA building surrounded by law enforcement officers, but somehow a few Black Panthers got inside and told AIM they were ready to help. It was just then that Russ Means, shouting the ancient Indian death chant, “Today is a good day to die,” told the Black Panthers that they were preparing an assault on the heavily armed law enforcement officers surrounding the building, inviting the Black Panthers to join in the assault. Realizing the Indians were serious about the assault, the Black Panthers found they had to be somewhere else.
Because the occupation of the BIA building happened just before the 1972 election, Nixon and his henchmen decided to buy off the Indians to get them out of town before something happened to embarrass Nixon and his re-election campaign. The government gave AIM just under $70,000 to leave town, an amount AIM happily accepted.
In the winter of 1973, Wesley Bad Heart Bull, a Lakota, was stabbed to death at a bar in South Dakota by Darld Schmitz, a white male. Schmitz was jailed, but released on a $5,000 bond and charged with simple assault.
In protest of the charges, Means and a group of AIM members from the Pine Ridge Reservation went to the county seat of Custer, South Dakota, to meet with the prosecutor. When the talks broke down, AIM activists rioted and caused $2 million in damages by attacking and burning the Custer Chamber of Commerce building, the courthouse, and two patrol cars. Many of the AIM demonstrators were arrested and charged; numerous people served jail sentences, including the mother of Wesley Bad Heart Bull.
In late February, 1973, Russell Means and Dennis Banks led a takeover of the small hamlet of Wounded Knee, located on the Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, which led to the first meeting between Russell Means and George McGovern.
The adventure began on February 28, 1973, when I was notified by my staff that AIM had taken over and had occupied Wounded Knee. The major parts of that story has been outlined earlier in this book. After talking with the AIM leaders until midnight, we told Joe Trimbach, the FBI agent in charge of containing the Indians, that AIM was ready to surrender, conditioned on being told what the charges would be and the bond that would be set in order to notify their lawyers. George and I believed that the takeover would end in the morning.
Of course, we now know that the occupation lasted for about 70 more days. My suspicion that the US government wanted it to continue for some twisted reason was confirmed when the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota, Bill Clayton, threatened to subpoena me when I refused his invitation to testify at the AIM leadership trials. I had then informed him about the willingness of the Indians to end the takeover when George and I were there.
“We won’t need your testimony after all,” Mr. Clayton told me. I could only draw one conclusion from that response.
Russ Means recently had contracted throat cancer. Because he used what he called, “Indian medicine,” he was unable to rid himself of the tumors growing in his throat. Eventually, his wife, Pearl, called me to ask for my help in getting him back to South Dakota from Arizona, which is where he wanted to die. With the help of Gene Hammond and Harold Samhat and the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Pearl was able to hire an air ambulance to bring him back home where he died only a few days after returning. His ashes were scattered over the Black HIlls.
* * *
I married for the third time in 1991 to a young woman originally from Syria, who was working and attending school in Washington, D.C. when I was still living there. Sanaa Dieb had earned a degree in Agricultural Engineering from Damascus University, then had gone on to earn a Master’s Degree in Nutrition from Cal Poly in Pomona, California. She was not only highly intelligent, but she was highly honorable, a trait she learned from her father, Mahmoud Dieb.
Mahmoud was a person of such admirable integrity that he even inspired his enemies. His father died when he was five years old, and his mother, who was still young and beautiful–and poor–knew she had to re-marry in order to survive. In Syria, the culture did not encourage men looking for wives to marry widows, but she was determined. Because they lived in a small one room home, Mahmoud’s mother actually threw out Mahmoud and his sister so she could attract a husband.
Mahmoud, at age five, survived by working as a shepard, supporting his sister with his work, and over the years educating himself in the process. As he grew to adulthood he began working in the national blood bank in Damascus, ultimately becoming the head of that agency. He plowed every cent he earned–above his expenses for food–into land in an area some two and a half hours north of Damascus, near the seaport of Tartous. It was only natural that he began farming the land he was accumulating, an occupation in which he was successful. He married a local woman in the village where his farmland was located, Shafiqa Wassouf, and together they ran the farm and raised a family of three boys and two girls, one of which was the woman I eventually married.
Although he had only the skeleton of an education, in opposition to the culture in the Arab world, he insisted that his children, especially the girls, become educated. Sanaa, the eldest, was sent to America, as was Ammar, the oldest son. Wafaa, Sanaa’s sister, began medical school in Damascus, finishing it in Romania, then training as an endocrinologist under a Damascus specialist named Samir Ouais, who, amazingly, is my second cousin. In that culture, educating women was considered a waste of money, mostly for the reason that they were expected to get married and spend their energy raising children. But Mahmoud was the exception to that rule, doing whatever was necessary to send his children, especially insisting that the girls, to attend schools where they could excel in their field.
But Mahmoud acted out of character in so many other respects that he made for an amazing life story. He constantly criticized the Syrian dictatorship, an act that normally would result in a jail sentence. Syria in those years endured a government coup almost once a year, until 1972 when Hafez al Asad succeeded in taking over the Syrian government and holding it until he died in 2000. During one coup, a cabinet minister who was a friend of Mahmoud’s, fled to Mahmoud’s village to ask Mahmoud’s help in escaping. He managed to get his friend out of the country and on his way to Egypt.
When the secret police came to his farm home and asked him point blank, “did you help the Minister escape?”
Mahmoud admitted that he had, and when the secret police asked him why, he responded, “Because he was my friend.” He fully expected to be imprisoned for his actions, but the government agent looked at him and said, “I hope that if I ever need help, you’ll consider being my friend as well.”
Mahmoud died of a stroke, during the internal fighting in Syria in 2012, which made it impossible for Sanaa to return to her childhood home for the funeral. The custom in that part of the world is to bury the dead on the same as their death. Because so many people both from Damascus and from the area where he lived wanted to attend to mourn his death, Mahmoud’s funeral was held over for another day to allow for people to travel to his home.
* * *
Since I served in the Congress, many things have changed. In those days, in the 1970s, most people served because they wanted to advance their beliefs, some for self-aggrandizement, but rarely did they serve to financially profit from their service. Of course, a few did so back then, but they were in the distinct minority, and were spotted as such very soon.
I remember when I first began serving in the Senate, George McGovern and I were sitting side by side in a Northwest Airlines plane returning to Washington from a trip to South Dakota. I asked him about some of the Senators that I had not yet known about.
“He’s got a drinking problem,” he told me when I asked about one Senator that I liked. About another Senator, he said, “He’s got a stealing problem.” Predicting the future, Samuel Clemens said, wisely, “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
The spreading around of money from rich people and rich corporations to politicians has become so prevalent that honesty and integrity is today the exception and not the rule. One has to admire those few who today resist what historian Vernon Parrington once called, “The Great Barbecue” when describing the the tsunami of corruption in Washington following the end of the Civil War.
“Corporations are people,” according to a recent Republican Presidential candidate. And the Conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court unleashed the monied class with their Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited amounts of money, most of it untraceable, to be dumped on federal candidates for office. One would never imagine that the allowance of such amounts of money injected into political races would advance democracy. It matters not who won in the first election after that decision, because, unless the decision is overruled, more money will be dumped in the next round of elections. It’s not hard to imagine in whose interest that money is being contributed.
There will be fewer and fewer George McGoverns and others like him who will be willing to challenge the monied class. There will be less and less democracy, until, finally, we will be confronted with another Great Barbecue, where money is the only thing that counts, and men and women with principles and morals will be available to read about only in the history books.
This essay excerpted from the new edition of James Abourezk’s memoir: Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of an ex-Senator.