Forty years after losing the presidency in a landslide, George McGovern still tortured himself wondering what he could have done differently to change the outcome. Maybe if Ted Kennedy had agreed to join the ticket, or if he’d taken Sargent Shriver, Kennedy’s brother-in-law, right off the bat instead of Thomas Eagleton, a Missouri senator whose medical history in 1972 was disqualifying, and who wasn’t vetted properly.
After first backing Eagleton “a thousand percent,” McGovern dropped him from the ticket after consulting the legendary psychiatrist Karl Menninger, who advised that someone who had undergone electro shock treatment for depression should not be a heartbeat from the presidency.
In an article published in The Washington Post on September 28, less than a month before McGovern died at age 90 in a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Democrats’ 1972 standard-bearer recalled that when the early returns on election night “revealed one of the most lopsided victories in U.S. history, I was genuinely stunned.”
McGovern failed to even carry his home state of South Dakota. Only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia gave him their votes. “While it hurt to have tried for and never reached the brass ring of American politics—and I still feel the sting, even now,” he confessed, “I never regretted the attempt.”
McGovern suffered privately but never betrayed any bitterness, not even when the presidency of the man who vanquished him, Richard Nixon, unraveled as a result of the Watergate scandal. Losing the presidency, McGovern wrote, was “one chapter in a long, complex and richly happy life.” He grieved, he said, not for himself, but for the thousands more young Americans and Vietnamese destined to lose their lives in a war he would have brought to an end.
Elegant and eloquent until the end, McGovern was in Washington in July to celebrate his 90th birthday at an event at the Newseum. Frail but feisty, he challenged the A-list crowd to return in 10 years to mark his 100th birthday. He bragged that he had survived a nasty fall some months earlier, and that his doctor had given him a clean bill of health.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi thanked him “for being born;” Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin commended him for taking on “all these old men dreaming up ways for young men to die in war.” Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank brought along a campaign photo from 1971 of the two of them together, telling McGovern, “It must be a very great feeling to have lived the life you are living.”
McGovern had the last word, declaring, “At my age, it’s better to look back at people who knew me on the way through who still say nice things about me.” There are legions of devoted former staffers together with a generation of political activists who cut their teeth in his campaign. They still get together periodically to marvel over how they believed until the votes were counted that their candidate would win. They credit him with instilling small-d democratic principles that guide their lives today.
A young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were among the many drawn to McGovern who worked in the ’72 campaign. They saw his political career as a parable for what can happen when partisan attacks go unanswered, and when it was their turn to run for political office would not make the same mistake.
The Nixon campaign caricatured the South Dakota senator as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” He had emerged as a powerful voice against the Vietnam War, speaking out on the Senate floor in graphic terms, declaring, “This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land … Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed.”
Nixon operatives portrayed McGovern and other opponents of the war as “apostles of retreat and defeat” and “salesmen of surrender.” McGovern would later concede it was a “political error” for him not to showcase his war record as a way to inoculate himself against the charge that he was weak, or wanted to cut and run. He had survived 35 missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II flying over Germany, but most voters had no idea that he had such distinguished military service. “It was not in my nature to turn the campaign into a constant exercise in self-congratulatory autobiography,” he explained.
Social change also was sweeping the nation, and while McGovern, the son of a Methodist minister, held small-town values, he was portrayed as the avatar of mood-altering drugs, and a promoter of abortion. He didn’t respond to charges he thought ridiculous, and they too took their toll.
After losing the White House, McGovern remained in the Senate until he was defeated in 1980, swept out of office in the Reagan Revolution. In 1984, he ran for president, a futile effort that those who admired him feared would turn him into a joke. Instead he was lauded as “the conscience” of the Democratic Party, winning him the respect that the voters had denied him. He dropped out of the race soon after coming in fifth in the New Hampshire primary.
In the decades since, McGovern built on his expertise as President Kennedy’s first director of the U.S. Food for Peace Program, and as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He worked with Republican Bob Dole on school lunch and feeding programs around the world, establishing a legacy that will endure.
Until his health began to fail in the last year, McGovern kept an active schedule, promoting his latest book, What it Means to be a Democrat, and traveling to college campuses where he is recognized more than most politicians a third his vintage. He had a Ph. D in history and was a college professor before entering politics.
Much of what McGovern stands for is summed up in the slogan of his ’72 campaign, “Come Home America.” Ridiculed by critics at the time, it enjoys renewed resonance today in a country weary of wars that in McGovern’s view are “just as silly as the war in Vietnam. We shouldn’t be in countries we don’t know anything about.”