George McGovern, the longtime anti-war congressman from South Dakota who notoriously suffered a devastating loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign, died early Sunday morning at the age of 90. McGovern had suffered a head injury from a fall last December and was hospitalized this spring after several fainting spells. With his focus on peace and world hunger, McGovern was one of the leading liberal voices of his era – and the repercussions of his unsuccessful campaign for the White House were felt for decades to come.
Although he had been a Senator and Representative in his home state and had worked for John F. Kennedy’s administration, McGovern was largely unknown by the time of the Democratic primaries in early 1972, Described by the New York Times as “a baldish former minister and rural radical,” McGovern was a modest, low-key and reflective man, the antithesis of the savvy politician. “Above everything else,” he said at one early campaign stop, “the citizens of this land are concerned about a restoration of credibility in the political life of their country.”
By 1972, that image – and his longtime opposition to the Vietnam War, starting in 1963 – connected with parts of the electorate who were tired of the war and the much-loathed Nixon. McGovern quickly gained traction in his party and became the Democratic party’s nominee that summer – only to suffer a series of setbacks that resulted in one of the biggest losses in U.S. presidential history. “The ’72 campaign was the high point in youthful idealism and citizen grass-roots action,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “I don’t think it has been that strong since.”
From the start, McGovern was an unconventional candidate. Born and raised in South Dakota, he was the son of a former pro baseball player who became a Baptist minister. Ironically for the pro-peace politician he became later in life, McGovern served in the Air Force during World War II. But afterward, he turned to religion (he was briefly a minister in the late ’40s), college, and teaching. He ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1956 and won, serving two terms before serving as a special assistant in Kennedy’s administration.
McGovern first ran for President in 1968, but Hubert Humphrey eventually became the Democratic party’s nominee that year (and lost to Nixon). Still, McGovern made a sizable impact within his own party during this period: One of his many political accomplishments was altering the rules of Democratic conventions so that more woman and African-Americans could participate.
By 1972, it was McGovern’s turn in the spotlight. Although he faced formidable rivals in his party, including Edmund Muskie and Alabama governor George Wallace, McGovern prevailed even though he didn’t even have a pro forma press bus early in his campaign. At Madison Square Garden, three famous acts who’d broken up – Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May – reunited to raise money for McGovern.
Shortly after he secured the nomination, McGovern’s troubles began when his running mate, Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, told a surprised McGovern that he’d undergone shock therapy. Initially, McGovern supported Eagleton and kept him on the ticket. But thanks to a media frenzy that paved the way for today’s hypercaffeinated, partisan coverage, McGovern changed his mind and replaced Eagleton.
“The Eagleton Affair was the first serious crack in McGovern’s image as the anti-politician,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Rolling Stone after the election. “McGovern was perceived as a cold-hearted, political pragmatist who dumped this poor, neurotic, good guy from Missouri because he thought people wouldn’t vote for him because they were afraid that shock treatments in the past might have some kind of lingering effect on his mind . . . They were the people who would be more inclined to be sympathetic – because they were more sophisticated – to a person who had been treated for nervous tension, even if he had gone to the extent of having electro-shock treatments. They were not the kind of people who would say, ‘Oh, that nut – get rid of him.’ They were also the same kind of people who had earlier seen McGovern as an anti-politician… or the ‘white knight,’ as some people called him . . . The honest man . . . Not the kind of person who would say one thing and do another. And at that point with Eagleton, as he said, he was behind him 1000%. Then he turned around and asked him to get off the ticket.”
Eagleton and the disillusionment of his left-wing support weren’t McGovern’s only problems. When Henry Kissinger began hinting about peace talks in Asia, the anti-war wind was knocked out of McGovern’s sails. In one indication of how far McGovern had fallen so quickly, a Gallup poll taken just before the election rated Nixon as “more sincere and believable,” results that would have been inconceivable months before. On election day, Nixon won, 47 million votes to 29 million. McGovern carried only Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts and lost his own state, South Dakota.
McGovern’s image as a sensitive wimp, rightly or wrongly, cast a shadow over his party for decades. Reflecting on his loss to Thompson later, McGovern referred to “the defection of large numbers of blue-collar workers, which I regard as a serious problem. I think those people do have to be brought back into the Democratic party if it’s going to survive as a party that can win national elections. I suspect that there should have been more discussion in the campaign of the everyday frustrations and problems of working people, conditions under which they work, maybe more of an effort made to identify with them.” (Not until 20 years later, with Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992, would the party show it had learned those lessons.)
After his loss, McGovern returned to the Senate until 1980, when he and other Democrats lost as part of the Republican sweep that also installed Ronald Reagan in the White House. McGovern attempted one more Presidential run, in 1984, but finished poorly in at least one early primary and dropped out. Later, McGovern worked as a visiting professor at various schools, including Columbia University. But his most important work was in the realm of world hunger. Clinton appointed McGovern his ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and, as a result, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
Although long dismissed or reviled by people within his own party for his 1972 campaign, McGovern and his supporters had something close to a last laugh. Roughly a year after that Election Day, during the unfolding Watergate scandal, his supporters printed up bumper stickers that read, “Don’t blame me – I voted for McGovern.”