A champion of American liberalism and a dogged opponent of the Vietnam War, former Democratic Sen. George McGovern has died after an extraordinary life that took him from the farmland of South Dakota to piloting bombers over Nazi Germany to being his party’s standard-bearer in 1972 against President Nixon.
Although the name “McGovern” became a rallying cry for liberal Democrats, a foil for conservative ones, and an epithet for Republicans, the man himself was more complicated than his image. While he opposed the Vietnam War and many weapons systems, he never advocated withdrawal from foreign commitments such as NATO. As a veteran, he was no pacifist. His mocked programs, like a guaranteed minimum income, were in various forms championed by Nixon himself. Ironically, McGovern had even voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to expand the war.
He was 90 and died in hospice care in Sioux Falls, S.D., early on Sunday, surrounded by family and longtime friends, the Associated Press reported.
A longtime member of the House and Senate, McGovern is best known for his 1972 presidential race against Nixon—a battle waged against the background of the Vietnam War, social unrest, and a then-obscure burglary at a Washington office building called the Watergate.
McGovern led the reform commission that was established after the 1968 presidential election that weakened the power of party bosses and opened up the modern primary system as we know it. Perhaps not since Dick Cheney transformed his role as head of the vice presidential search committee for George W. Bush has anyone used a panel so cleverly to his advantage. The new rules allowed McGovern to ride a wave of liberal discontent with the war and defeat a slew of top Democrats who had not shared his early opposition to it, including former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington.
McGovern’s nomination was a triumph of outsiders over insiders, of youth and minorities, and most of all of opponents to the war. But the elation was short-lived. Despite his World War II service, Republicans successfully labeled McGovern as a peacenik and for a generation his name would become synonymous with being too soft on the Soviets. He was also lampooned as a champion of “amnesty, acid, and abortion.” The cri de coeur was always unfair. McGovern favored amnesty for those who had illegally avoided military service in Vietnam, but he never embraced the psychedelic drugs that delighted a number of his supporters. And in fact the 1972 convention defeated an abortion-rights plank and a psotion by McGovern—he wanted the states to set abortion policy—that echoed Nixon’s.
The McGovern campaign gave rise to a generation of future politicians. Bill Clinton helped run his Texas campaign and Gary Hart, who would become a senator from Colorado, was his campaign manager.
But McGovern, who was a historian at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan, before running for Congress, was an underdog from the start. His choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate probably doomed his candidacy. Just 18 days after his selection, Eagleton left the ticket when his past electroshock-therapy treatments became public knowledge. (Years later, columnist Robert Novak, who had published the “amnesty, acid, and abortion” quote on background, revealed that he had gotten it from Eagleton.) Eagleton was replaced by Sargent Shriver, the first head of President Kennedy’s Peace Corps and brother-in-law to the slain president. The Massachusetts connection helped them win the Bay State, the only one they carried.
In an interview with National Journal in 2004, McGovern reflected on his tumultuous Democratic convention, which was so disorderly he wound up giving his acceptance speech at almost 3:00 a.m., long after most voters had gone to bed.
“I think if the country had heard me for 45 minutes in prime time, it might have changed the outcome of the election,” McGovern said. “It doesn’t mean we would have won, but the first impression would have been a very favorable one.”
McGovern surely would have been helped if the country had known about the president’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, only part of which was revealed before voters went to the polls. After his defeat and as the Watergate scandal unfolded, a popular bumper sticker was “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern.”
Though McGovern would run again for president in 1984, his effort was half-hearted and never gained any traction. He spent the last years of his life as a writer and advocate for liberal causes and could be seen around Washington long after his nemesis Nixon had resigned in disgrace.
McGovern was born in 1922 in South Dakota, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister. He went on to college in the state and volunteered for military service during World War II, joining the legendary legion of B-24 bombers. McGovern flew missions over Austria, Germany, and Italy and returned to the U.S., where he earned a doctorate in history at Northwestern University.
An acolyte of presidential nominee and Sen. Adlai Stevenson, McGovern ran for Congress in 1956. He was ousted in 1960, allowing him to head the Food for Peace program in the Kennedy administration. The program was a tool for building alliances in the nonaligned Third World, where the U.S. was in a battle with the Soviets to win hearts and minds. It didn’t hurt McGovern politically back home that the program contributed to demand for wheat and corn and other crops, driving up farm incomes. In 1962 he won a Senate seat and over the next 18 years he worked closely with another farm state member and failed presidential nominee and WWII veteran, Bob Dole of Kansas, on expansion not only of Food for Peace but food stamps and child-nutrition programs.
McGovern briefly sought the presidential nomination after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 but party elders controlled the nominating process and Vice President Hubert Humphrey were able to prevail at the tumultuous Chicago convention that summer. In Democratic circles, for a generation, folks would identify themselves as either having been inside the hall with the politicians or outside with the protestors. McGovern was in the hall but his base was in large measure outside it.
Able to run for his Senate seat despite his presidential bid, McGovern was reelected in 1968 and 1974. In 1980 he lost in the Reagan landslide that decimated liberal ranks in the Senate. On that day, fellow liberals such as Birch Bayh of Indiana and Frank Church of Idaho were ousted too. McGovern was the most prominent among them and when he went down cheers went up at GOP events around the country. But his legacy continued that night; one-time campaign manager Hart was reelected and the country came around to McGovern's belief in no more Vietnams.