The obituaries for George McGovern, who died on Sunday, are generally leading with his catastrophic defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972. This is unfortunate, not only because McGovern was a genuinely great man, but because not only that defeat, but also his entire career, say so much about what the United States has gone through in the last fifty years--little of it very good. McGovern was in fact a product of the New Deal and one of the best exemplars of the GI generation in politics. Horrible events--specifically, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Watergate scandal--turned him into a national figure and presidential candidate. Meanwhile, a combination of a new style of Republican politics and the Boom generation's disastrous emergence as a political force ended his national political career in 1972. The Reagan electoral revolution then removed him, along with a number of others like him, from the Senate in 1980, and American politics have not been the same since.
McGovern piloted a bomber in the Second World War and earned a doctorate in history, but became a Democratic political activist and a Congressman in South Dakota in the 1950s. The New York Times obit says this morning that he was soundly beaten in his first run for the Senate against long-time Republican leader Karl Mundt in 1960, but this is not true. McGovern was beaten by a margin of 52%-48%, while John F. Kennedy lost the state to Richard Nixon by almost four times as much, 58%-42%. Anti-Catholicism undoubtedly played a role, and when Kennedy called McGovern the next day, he said, "George, I feel terrible about what happened in South Dakota yesterday. I think I cost you the election." Kennedy appointed him director of the Food for Peace program, a typical example of the ethos of the time. Two years later McGovern won another Senate race by less than 1000 votes.. Within six months of taking office he had made a courageous speech on the dangers of nuclear overkill, helping to pave the way for the ratification of the Test Ban Treaty.
I met McGovern late in the summer of 1966, at a dinner party my parents had brought me to in the Georgetown home of Averell Harriman. When the men and women separated after dinner my eyes were opened by an extraordinarily frank discussion of the Vietnam War, which both Harriman and McGovern strongly opposed. McGovern never raised his voice, and spoke more in sorrow than in anger, but he was deeply concerned. Harriman was obviously deeply disturbed by the escalation of the war. Also in attendance was Scoop Jackson of Washington State, a hawk, but the conversation among them all was perfectly cordial, and they shared their concern over the coming midterms, in which the Administration took a terrible beating.
McGovern, like Wayne Morse of Oregon, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Frank Church of Idaho, and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, came from an upper midwest tradition that combined domestic progressivism with skepticism about involvement in foreign lands. All of them opposed Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam from the beginning of the conflict, and all were canvassed by leftist activists in late 1967 about a possible primary run. McCarthy answered the call partly because he, unlike Nelson, Morse and McGovern, did not have to run for re-election that year. When McCarthy nearly won the New Hampshire primary, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and had he not been assassinated that June he would have remained the leading liberal standard bearer in the Democratic Party for a long time, and pretty surely the Democratic presidential candidate, if not in 1968 (when I do not think he would have been nominated), then in 1972 or 1976, depending upon his own preference. McGovern's breakthrough into national prominence occurred because the Kennedy people drafted him, in essence, to speak for their delegates in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was nominated, of course, and McGovern, unlike Eugene McCarthy, immediately endorsed him and then won re-election. McCarthy's erratic behavior during 1968 pretty much ruled him out as a future national candidate, and two Democrats emerged from that turbulent year with a future in national politics: Ed Muskie of Maine, Humphrey's vice-presidential choice, and McGovern, who got the key assignment of reforming the delegate selection rules for the Democratic party in order to make the more responsive to popular opinion.
McGovern, sad to say, may well have won the 1972 nomination because Richard Nixon wanted him to. The dirty tricks campaign that functioned alongside Watergate was designed to bring down Muskie, whom Nixon regarded as the most dangerous candidate, and it may have done just that. White House aid Ken Clawson told a Washington Post reporter that he had written the anonymous letter accusing Muskie's wife of an anti-Canadian slur to the Manchester Union Leader. The accusation found its away into an editorial,. and Muskie was filmed in tears as he tried to defend his wife. His poll numbers began dropping, and McGovern, the candidate of young and enthusiasitc liberals, picked up the slack. Humbert Humphrey could not overcome his association with Lyndon Johnson and his establishment taint, and McGovern emerged as the clear favorite after winning the winner-take-all California primary. So desperate was Humphrey that he tried to overturn the winner-take-all formula at the convention, but clever McGovern strategists foiled his ploy. Then came the selection of Thomas Eagleton as his vice president, the revelation of Eagleton's history of mental illness, McGovern's embarrassing hesitation before dropping him from the ticket, and a horribly embarrassing week in which McGovern desperately sought a replacement, enduring several rejections before settling on Sargent Shriver. Meanwhile, his Boomer volunteers, who had done well in primary states, were showing themselves hopelessly unable to handle a national campaign. Nixon meanwhile had carried off succcessful summits in Beijing and Moscow and won Middle America's (and his own generation's) confidence. McGovern was, of course, swamped, although his percentage of the vote was only 2-3% less than Humphrey's in 1968. The George Wallace vote had now defected to the Republican Party, it has stayed for most of the next 40 years.
I volunteered for the McGovern campaign in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Canvassing the working-class precincts of East Cambridge on several Saturdays, I was encouraged and overjoyed by the outpouring of support for McGovern that I found. Some of them, it turned out, were faking it. The canvass showed a 3-1 victory in prospect for McGovern, and he carried those precincts by a somewhat less impressive margin. Still, Massachusetts voted for him, and I was proud to have been part of the successful segment of his campaign. Had his campaign not imploded and had he managed a respectable showing in defeat, Watergate would undoubtedly have turned him into the favorite in 1976, but that was not to be the case. As it was, he took advantage of Watergate to secure his re-election in 1974 in the midst of a Democratic sweep. But in 1980 he was one of nine Democratic incumbents to lose their seats, including Frank Church of Idaho, Birch E. Bayh of Indiana, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin--all veterans of at least three terms. This was the first national Republican campaign run largely on social issues, and I remember seeing a calm McGovern on election night call for an "antidote" to the new "poison" of Republican propaganda that had put the New Deal and Great Society to bed. We will find out in two weeks whether one has in fact been found.
In 2007, during my first year as a visiting professor here at Williams, I arranged for McGovern to visit the campus. He was fully alert and very much the same man I remembered from decades ago. When I told him that I could not forgive Humphrey for what he had tried to do to him in 1972, he replied, "Well, Hubert wanted to be President more than anything else, and that was his last chance." He compared Iraq and Vietnam and dealt very well with questions, including an abusive one from a gentleman who blamed him for the loss of South Vietnam. I am sure he had faced that accusation many times.
Once upon a time, there was a United States where young men from all sections and yes, all nations, fought in the same war, became well-educated in college, and entered politics to make the world a better place. They didn't always agree, but they worked together and bequeathed a remarkably just society, especially economically, to their chldren--who, as children do, proceeded to squander it. George McGovern was one of the last of those men, and I'm going to miss him.