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Remembering George McGovern: A conscientious life in politics
The South Dakota Democratic senator and 1972 nominee for president lost big to Richard Nixon, but ended his career on a higher note
 
Sen. George McGovern speaks at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif, in January 1971.
Sen. George McGovern speaks at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif, in January 1971.
AP Photo/Walt Zeboski, File

Former Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), most famous for losing to President Richard Nixon in the landslide 1972 election, died on Oct. 21 at age 90. A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern became a leading advocate against the war in Vietnam and a champion of liberal causes like anti-hunger programs, world peace, and civil rights. And despite his loss, the 1972 campaign — and rules McGovern played a central role in creating — revolutionized the way Democrats, and then Republicans, selected their presidential nominee, putting power in the hands of delegates instead of party bosses.

George Stanley McGovern, the son of a politically conservative Wesleyan Methodist minister, was born in July 1922 in a parsonage in tiny Avon, S.D. He grew up in Mitchell, S.D., where he attended college at Dakota Wesleyan University. His college career was interrupted by World War II; McGovern enlisted and was trained to fly a giant B-24 Liberator bomber. He flew 35 bombing missions over Germany, Austria, and Italy, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for safely crash-landing his enemy-crippled plane on an island in the Adriatic.

After the war, McGovern earned a masters degree in history from Northwestern University, then taught history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan. He became chairman of the tiny, moribund South Dakota Democratic Party, and won election to Congress in 1956, the first Democrat from the state to do so in 20 years. He lost his 1960 bid for a Senate seat, but in between that loss and his successful 1962 run, President John F. Kennedy tapped him to lead his Food for Peace program.

"Conservative South Dakotans re-elected him twice [to the Senate], despite his 81 percent rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action," says Richard E. Meyer at the Los Angeles Times. "Part of his success was his attention to constituents. But another part was his authenticity, decency, and sense of mission."

The 1972 campaign was a debacle of misfortune, a badly fractured Democratic Party, and missteps by the McGovern campaign — he gave his convention speech at almost 3 a.m., when nobody was watching TV, and he replaced his VP nominee, Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), after it emerged that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression. The campaign was also addled by a remarkably liberal platform and by Nixon's "dirty tricks," including sabotaging McGovern's rivals, planting spies in the McGovern campaign and press corps, and most famously, bugging the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate hotel. McGovern ended up serving in office until he was defeated in 1980, outlasting by six years the political career of Nixon, who resigned over the Watergate scandal in 1974.

In his later years, McGovern returned to teaching and lecturing. In 1998, President Bill Clinton (who volunteered on McGovern's 1972 campaign with his wife, current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) named him ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and in 2000 awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor. In 2008, McGovern and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) were awarded the prestigious World Food Prize for their work on a program to expand school meals to impoverished nations. Dole, who worked hard to defeat McGovern in 1972 as Republican Party chairman, lost his own presidential race in 1996. "The good news is that we finally won something," Dole said in his World Food Prize acceptance speech, alongside McGovern. "It proves that you should never give up."

McGovern is survived by three daughters, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. His wife, Eleanor, whom he married in 1943, died in 2007, and two of his children also preceded him in death. "George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved," President Obama said Sunday. "When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace.... George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction."

McGovern on his 1972 loss:
"Ever since I was a young man I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did." (1973 Gridiron Dinner)

"I don't think the American people had a clear picture of either Nixon or me.... The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation's well-being." (2005 interview)

"One of the nice things about losing badly enough is you don't have lots of regrets about what one thing might you have changed." (Comment to fellow landslide loser Barry Goldwater [1964], recounted by Newt Gingrich)

"I'll let you know when I get there." (Comment to fellow landslide loser Walter Mondale [1984], when asked how long it takes to get over the defeat)

"You can't keep on campaigning forever." (Explaining his decision to attend the 1993 funeral of Richard Nixon's wife, Pat, recounted by 1996 loser Bob Dole)

Sources: The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Politico, Salon, The Washington Post (2)

 

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