McGovern was a landslide loser to President Richard Nixon, carrying only Massachusetts among the 50 states. Yet history will treat him well. He was a man who, start to finish, stuck with his ideals. His presidential candidacy was not based on lofty personal ambitions but, instead, on his commitment to end a mistaken Vietnam War. The winner of the 1972 election, President Richard Nixon, was by contrast cynical and will be remembered for being forced from the presidency by his own misconduct.
Recent-year candidates, in both political parties, have lacked McGovern's commitment to a higher agenda and thus, in my judgment, have contributed to the continuing public cynicism about the electoral process that took root during the Vietnam/Watergate excesses of the Nixon presidency.
McGovern knew quite early in his 1972 campaign that Nixon was likely to be re-elected. The only question was about Nixon's margin, which in the end was huge.
As a World War II bomber pilot, McGovern flew the maximum 35 missions over Europe. He received a Distinguished Flying Cross.
Many in his squadron were lost. He returned home after the war with a deep-seated horror of war. He often spoke, in later years, of civilian casualties which might have been caused by his own plane's bombs.
He was a delegate in 1948 to former Vice President Henry Wallace's Progressive Party convention. Wallace ran as a peace candidate against both Democratic President Harry Truman and his challenger, New York Gov. Tom Dewey. (On the rightward fringe, Dixiecrats formed their own party to oppose Democrats' pro-civil-rights platform plank, sponsored by Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey).
Later McGovern became a full-time Democratic organizer in his home state of South Dakota. He became a congressman and then,
sponsored by Humphrey, his next-door neighbor in suburban Maryland, was appointed President Kennedy's Food for Peace director. Elected to the Senate from South Dakota, he focused particularly on issues of hunger and of war and peace. He was one of the first Democrats to challenge the policies of his own president, Lyndon Johnson, as Vietnam War escalations began. He intensified his opposition as President Nixon, who succeeded LBJ, expanded the war. (More American casualties were incurred in Vietnam during the Nixon years than in the Kennedy and Johnson years combined).
I served as Humphrey's assistant in the LBJ White House and in his 1964 and 1968 national campaigns and, during that time, came to know his next-door neighbor, McGovern and his wife Eleanor. I did not believe Humphrey should run again in 1972 and committed to a McGovern candidacy in mid-1971. When I told Humphrey I was supporting McGovern before Humphrey had even made a 1972 decision, he was dismayed. But he said: "I know. Help George. End the war."
I served McGovern from mid-1971 as a volunteer political and policy advisor and, then, after his presidential nomination in 1972,
served as his platform coordinator and general-election policy director. McGovern, unlike the Kennedys, Johnson or Humphrey, was relatively inexperienced in national politics and did not know many Democratic leaders around the country. He was unused to dealing with labor, African American, and other important constituencies. He was not fully conversant with economic policy or many domestic policy areas. But he saw — rightly in my judgment — that ending the Vietnam War was the country's No. 1 priority. He not only saw the war as a policy mistake, but as an issue that was tearing us apart as a country. He pursued the war's end with every part of his mind and heart.
McGovern made some bumbles along the way — most importantly in the naming, dropping and replacement of Sen. Tom Eagleton as his vice-presidential running mate. Many of his supporters in the peace movement had social-issue priorities with which McGovern himself became labeled. But the incumbent President Nixon, at the same time, was pursuing illegal Watergate activities and cynically continuing a war which should never have begun. The final blow to the McGovern campaign came in mid-October when Henry Kissinger, the Nixon national-security advisor, appeared on national television with the bald-faced lie that "peace was at hand" in Vietnam. Voter surveys showed that most Americans believed Kissinger and thought the war would end soon after election day.
McGovern practiced a higher politics, which was more common in his time than it is now. The public agenda, from the post-World War II era through the 1960s, dealt with fundamental issues which had not been dealt with prior to that time. As a young man in the middle of it, I was exhilirated to be among leaders devoted to civil rights, social justice, economic opportunity, and a vision of a more peaceful world. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid, a war on poverty, federal aid to education, nuclear-arms control, international trade, and other historic measures all were passed in the mid-1960s period — after courageous efforts over prior decades by people who pursued a politics beyond themselves.
A final, personal word about George McGovern. Above all else, he was a decent and caring human being. When my father died, of an accidental fall, early in 1972, the very first phone call I received was from McGovern, from somewhere in the Midwest where he was campaigning. When my beloved wife Jean died early in 1996, McGovern was again the first to call. He and Eleanor had lost their daughter Terry at about the same time and we shared several lunches and rekindled a friendship.
McGovern, in retirement, never settled into complacency. He served for a time in the Clinton years as ambassador to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome (President Clinton had begun his political career as a 1972 McGovern organizer). In 2008 he endorsed and campaigned for Sen. Hillary Clinton (also a 1972 McGovern organizer) and, then, for President Obama. I recently spoke with two authors and political historians who said they had met and talked with him only a month ago.
Several years ago, at a McGovern-campaign reunion in Washington, D.C., McGovern spoke with his usual clarity and moral authority about present-day issues. He recognized and called by name dozens of former campaign workers he had not seen in almost 35 years. He was a 1972 campaign loser but, in life, an undefeated winner.