He ran for president and lost 49 states. His campaign split the Democratic Party for a generation. His name became an adjective and a pejorative, symbolizing pacifism, ultra-liberal social policy and radical economic redistribution.
But George McGovern, who died on Sunday at 90, was far more than any of that. He was a decorated war hero – a fearless Second World War bomber pilot. He was a historian, producing an acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln at the age of 86. He was a prairie populist with a practical political impulse, teaming with a rural conservative, Bob Dole, to enhance the Food Stamps legislation that provides food for the poor. He was an international battler against hunger.
Above all – and this is a consensus that spans the political spectrum – Mr. McGovern was a portrait of character, not a caricature.
He is best remembered, of course, for his 1972 presidential campaign, conducted in a plane he called Dakota Queen II, named for the B-24 Liberator he flew in the European theatre. But as the Democratic nominee and America’s most prominent conventional voice against the war in Vietnam, his landslide loss was all the more bitter because it came at the hands of Richard Nixon, whose dirty tricks against Mr. McGovern were the least of the crimes that led to the only presidential resignation in American history.
He was stung by his struggle against a disgraced president for the rest of his life – but lived to see his reputation redeemed and to win bipartisan respect.
In his last years, spent in the hills of South Dakota and on the sands of Florida, he still was marvelling that his warnings against Mr. Nixon gained him no traction 40 years ago. But as Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President 1972, his complaints about corruption never cut. Whatever he said, Mr. White wrote, “was discounted as hysterical moralizing.” The campaign was basically over more than a month before voters delivered their sobering, stinging verdict.
As the campaign approached its end, Mr. McGovern took to quoting Isaiah: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” The day after the votes were counted and the magnitude of his defeat was clear, he said: “I don’t think I lost anything yesterday except some votes we would have liked to have had.”
In the years that followed, Mr. McGovern’s disastrous campaign took on a mythic tone, perhaps because his effort, though one of the most disorganized political movements in American history, nonetheless had the air of a hopeless but romantic crusade. It helped launch the political careers of two men who worked on his campaign: Gary Hart, who served in the U.S. Senate and ran for president twice, and Bill Clinton, who served two terms as president. And it spawned two of the most enduring campaign books: The Boys on the Bus, by Timothy Crouse, and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, by Hunter S. Thompson.
The irony is that the relentlessly unconventional chronicler of the campaign perfectly captured in 1973 what became the conventional wisdom of the McGovern effort, with Mr. Thompson writing that the candidate “crippled himself with a series of almost unbelievable blunders … that have understandably convinced huge chunks of the electorate that [Mr. McGovern] is a gibbering dingbat.”
Even so, Mr. McGovern’s campaign is recalled with affection – the political equivalent of the 1962 New York Mets, remembered fondly for their diamond blunders, rather than the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose years of hockey futility have sowed mostly frustration and bitter memories.
That’s because of the redemption Mr. McGovern earned after the full extent of Nixon’s crimes was known and because of the goodwill he earned after he returned to the Senate following his landslide loss. There, he impressed legislators of both parties with his lack of pretense – which, said former senator Gordon Humphrey, a New Hampshire conservative who shared almost no views with Mr. McGovern, “stood him apart from many of his equally famous colleagues.”
In his twilight years, Mr. McGovern walked, unnoticed, along the beaches of St. Augustine, Fla., with an aging Newfoundland dog, often popping into a seafood shed called the Beachcomber to work on op-ed essays on subjects such as the American role in the Middle East. Mr. McGovern, who held a PhD in history from Northwestern University, wrote a brisk but well-regarded biography of Lincoln, another prairie politician with a moralistic tint. In its penultimate paragraph, he provided his assessment of the 16th president.
“He knew the difference between right and wrong,” he wrote of Lincoln. “He was not perfect, but he was a good man, kind and honest, simple in his tastes, magnanimous in his feeling.” Much the same is being said about Mr. McGovern this week.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.