Just before dawn this morning, former Senator George McGovern died in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at the age of ninety.
Senator McGovern had been in gradually declining health for the last year or so, and three months ago had the bitter task of burying his son Steven, the second of his five children to predecease him, as did his beloved wife Eleanor in 2007. (They had lost their daughter Terry in 1994; two years later the Senator wrote a heartrending book about her struggles with alcoholism.) But as recently as two weeks ago he was still able to make a public appearance, introducing narration he had recorded for the South Dakota Symphony’s performance of Aaron Copeland’s A Lincoln Portrait.
It is true that Senator McGovern is by far best known for his unexpected rise to the presidential nomination of the Democratic party in 1972, a campaign expertly guided in the primaries by future Senator Gary Hart, and for his massive defeat by President Nixon on Election Day, losing in every state except Massachusetts (and the District of Columbia), after a general campaign in which everything that could go wrong did, beginning with the fiasco surrounding Sen. McGovern’s selection of Sen. Thomas Eagleton to be his running-mate.
But while that campaign was one part of Sen. McGovern’s six decades of public service, it constituted less than two years of his career. The most consistent theme of his public career, perhaps appropriately for a man who hailed from the vast wheat-producing fields of South Dakota, was bringing about an end to world hunger.
The problem had been on his mind as a young professor in his home state and as a member of the South Dakotan legislature, then a Congressman. In 1960, following his unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Karl Mundt (Richard Nixon’s colleague in the investigation of Alger Hiss when both were in the House), George McGovern was appointed by President Kennedy to head the Food For Peace program.
After a year and a half of service in the Kennedy Administration, he ran for the Senate again, and this time narrowly defeated Joseph Bottum, the uncle of the famed journalist and memoirist of the same name. And from 1963 until his departure from the Senate after electoral defeat in 1981, Sen. McGovern made the battle against hunger across the globe his continuing concern.
Here it is worth mentioning that shortly before his death, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in his capacity as editor of Times Books’s American Presidents series, selected Sen. McGovern to write its volume about Abraham Lincoln; this book appeared in 2008. The choice was an appropriate one insofar as, especially in his early career, the Senator had a remarkable ability to combine his most idealistic aspirations with the nitty-gritty of practical politics. This was the case with his work on the Senate Committees of the Agriculture, and the Interior. There, he could work to provide the world with food and also advance the interests of his state’s farming community.
After his departure from Capitol Hill, Sen. McGovern continued this work, both at the United Nations and as founder of the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food For Education And Nutrition Program, working in collaboration with another eminent former Senator and contender for the White House.
In tandem with the battle against global hunger, Sen. McGovern focused his energies on furthering the cause of world peace. He had learned to hate war by fighting in the biggest conflict of them all, World War II, in which he flew thirty-five missions in his B-24 and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Air Medal with three oak-leaf clusters, for his service. In the Senate, he became one of the earliest opponents of the Vietnam War, and by the late 1960s was calling for the immediate withdrawal of American forces from South Vietnam.
While it is true that the Senator’s 1972 campaign promoted other policies, such as his proposal for a minimum $1000 tax credit for each citizen, it was his position as a “dove” that enabled him to gather a following which was the most fervent among the Democratic candidates in 1972. He also had several other advantages. Following the chaos of the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, he had been selected by a fellow liberal, Democratic National Committee chairman Sen. Fred Harris, to head a commission to reform the party’s rules for nomination. What the McGovern-Fraser Commission proposed and implemented broke the power the old-style city bosses and mayors had over the party’s national ticket, and replaced it with the system of primaries that is now the rule in both parties.
Sen. McGovern was himself the first beneficiary of these changes. He was also helped by 1972 being the last year, for several decades, in which more or less unlimited campaign contributions could affect the course of a presidential race; under the aegis of campaign advisor Frank Mankiewicz, a group of liberal-leaning businessmen, mainly in Los Angeles, poured money into the McGovern race that helped it to outmaneuver and outspend the Senator’s main contenders, Sens. Edmund Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, at every critical turn. Sen. McGovern also had the advantage, in smaller states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts, of being highly personable and persuasive in the give-and-take of local gatherings, capable of generating very favorable word-of-mouth that helped offset his tendency to be a bit stilted before large audiences; in this respect, he blazed a trail for future underdog races for the White House.
When a spectacular victory in the winner-take-all California primary sealed his nomination, it appeared that Sen. McGovern, despite the upswing in President Nixon’s popularity following his visit to the People’s Republic of China and the improvement in the American economy, might be able to make a solid challenge to the incumbent.
But the President had always thought that Sen. McGovern would be the easiest of the Democratic contenders to defeat in the general race, if only because his brand of liberalism was on the wane among the electorate and his position on Vietnam was shared by a minority of voters across the board. And by August this was confirmed.
Although the forces of the New Left were as disruptive outside the Democratic convention in Miami Beach as in the GOP convention in the same city, the contrast in what was happening inside that city’s Convention Center could not have been greater for American TV viewers. The Republicans presented the electorate with cheerful, clean-cut young faces, full of optimism. Inside the Democratic convention, there were a considerable number milling around the hall who looked like they might be just as ready as any Yippie to battle the police outside. The most liberal delegates had the strongest influence on the party platform as well, resulting in that document taking positions which many voters found incompatible with their beliefs.
It was at this point that Sen. McGovern made his most unfortunate decision of the campaign. He had actively considered asking Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman routinely referred to as America’s most trusted man, to be his running-mate. Over thirty years later, when Cronkite learned about this, he said he would have been ready to accept the offer and seek the Vice-Presidency. Had that happened, the race could have been very close. But the Senator’s advisors dismissed the idea and instead the name of Missouri’s Senator Eagleton rose to the fore.
Within days of the selection of Sen. Eagleton, it was learned that he had been hospitalized for depression and had received electroshock treatments. Twenty years before, President Nixon’s place on the GOP ticket had been in question, but he had successfully fought back with his “Checkers speech.” Then, General Eisenhower, as Republican nominee, had remained cautious and noncommittal during the controversy, up to the speech. But Sen. McGovern chose a different course, publicly asserting that he was “1000 percent” behind his running-mate days before asking him to quit the ticket. President Nixon admired Sen. Eagleton’s dignity during this time, and wrote an eloquent letter to the Senator’s son to say so, reproduced in The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.
But the handling of the issues surrounding Sen. Eagleton convinced most voters that the McGovern campaign was finished, and this perception was reinforced by the campaign’s ineptitude in choosing a replacement for the ticket; various prominent Democrats, one after the other, gave their party’s nominee the brushoff. When the McGovern camp settled on former Ambassador Sargeant Shriver for the vice-presidential nomination, he campaigned in spirited fashion. This was also true of Eleanor McGovern, who was always an enormous asset to her husband’s campaigns and whose love and support was the mainstay for him and their children through good times and bad. But the verdict of the voters went overwhelmingly for the Nixon-Agnew ticket that fall.
In the months after November 1972, Sen. McGovern briefly kept a low profile, but by the following spring was hard at work, back in the Senate. Through the remainder of the decade, even as his brand of liberalism enjoyed a brief resurgence in the wake of Watergate, President Nixon’s resignation and the massive Republican losses in 1974, he was shunned by his party as much as Governor Alf Landon had been by the GOP after a similarly lopsided defeat by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936.
But even as his career in electoral politics came to an end in 1981, George McGovern, as a former Senator, gained increased respect for his willingness to keep working and traveling around the clock to advance the causes of promoting democracy and ending hunger. By 1984, his political stock had risen to the point where he ran for President once again, opposing former Vice President Walter Mondale and his former campaign manager Sen. Hart. He pulled off a surprise third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, and despite running fifth in New Hampshire, pressed on to the primary in the one state where he had triumphed in November 1972. He said beforehand that if he did not win or finish second in the Massachusetts primary, he would leave the race – and as tempting as it might have been to continue when he finished third by a hairsbreadth, he kept his word – showing why, in the previous months, he had consistently placed ahead of the other candidates when those approached by pollsters were asked which one was the most honest.
That willingness to stay in the arena and to do his utmost to advance the causes in which he believed, right up to his last weeks, is what will keep George McGovern’s memory honored among his fellow Americans and around the world. His wartime service will always be remembered with gratitude and pride. And his continuing efforts to end suffering and privation across the globe mean that the epitaph that appears on President Nixon’s grave – “the greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker” – could also suitably appear on Senator McGovern’s own resting place.