George McGovern died Sunday at the age of 90. To most Americans, he will be remembered for being on the losing end of one of the biggest presidential landslides in history, winning only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., against Richard Nixon in 1972.
But what is less known is his experience in small business after retiring from politics — and how it dramatically changed some of his views.
McGovern had a long political career, including two terms in the House of Representatives, three terms as senator for South Dakota, and three runs for president — two runs in Democratic primaries in 1968 and 1984 sandwiching his infamous 1972 campaign.
After his final campaign, the 1984 Democratic presidential primaries, McGovern bought the Stratford Inn in 1988. The inn not only had 150 rooms, but also a restaurant and facilities for hosting large conferences. It was his first business experience after decades in politics, academia, and the military.
The experience was an eye-opening one. His purchase was followed by renovations and then opening for business. But the business went bankrupt within two years, and closed by 1991.
He wrote about how, in his time in the world of actually running a small business, he got to experience firsthand the impact of all the things politicians do.
He described the negative impact of government regulations and rule-making on business. Government regulations, he said, looked different when he was the business owner than when he was the legislator.
“The concept that most often eludes legislators,” he wrote, “is: ‘Can we make consumers pay the higher prices for the increased operating costs that accompany public regulations and government reporting requirements with reams of red tape.’”
As business owner, he suddenly worried over the ever-increasing cost of health insurance, excessive and outlandish litigation, and scapegoating. He came face-to-face with the reality in the private sector that “consumers do have a choice when faced with higher prices. . . Every such decision eventually results in job losses for someone.”
After his experience in the private sector, McGovern was talking about “profit margins, labor intensive vs. capital intensive businesses, and local market economics” in ways that he never did in Washington. And that’s no surprise — he was unable to talk about those things before because he had never dealt with them firsthand.
“In retrospect, I wish I had known more about the hazards and difficulties of such a business,” McGovern concluded. “I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
Those are important lessons that not enough legislators in Washington understand. As with Sen. McGovern, they often only learn them too late, when their careers in politics and opportunities to influence policy are gone.
It’s very easy for legislators — sincere, honest government servants, too, not just power-driven politicians — to carelessly toss around numbers and policies, but it’s very hard to see those numbers not as vague abstractions but as real people: small business entrepreneurs, workers, retirees — individual Americans, not just “the American people.”
I hope that the flurry of attention Sen. McGovern’s passing has drawn will also focus on his post-Washington life, and the lessons he learned.
What might be a dream for a politician crafting a bill is often, as Sen. McGovern wrote, a nightmare for the businessman who has to actually put it into practice.
Fran Tarkenton is the Founder and CEO of OneMoreCustomer.com, a web resource for Small Business Advocacy and Education. After his Hall of Fame football career, Fran had a successful career in television and then turned to business. He has founded and built more than 20 successful companies and now spends his time coaching aspiring entrepreneurs. Read more reports from Fran Tarkenton — Click Here Now.
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