We have lost George McGovern, a remarkable and under appreciated American who ran one of the truly disappointing Presidential campaigns of the twentieth century, losing to Richard Nixon in 1972.
McGovern was a decorated war hero who had seen gruesome combat and calmly led a massive crusade against the Vietnam war. He was a professor with a PhD in History who would never have dreamed of calling himself “Dr. McGovern” (Americans, unlike Germans, run away from advanced degrees, not on them). He was a democratic Democrat, whose commission reset the party rules and for better and for worse, stripped insiders of much of their power. More than anyone, McGovern closed the smoke-filled rooms (and frankly, made the Party more difficult to govern and more dependent on large donors). He created the UN Food for Peace program and believed profoundly in helping the poor and desperate, even in the face of evidence that foreign aid does little to promote economic self-sufficiency. He was an early proponent of dietary guidelines and as early as 1973 warned of the growing amount of sugar in the US diet.
I met McGovern a few times and had dinner with him once. He was a modest, self-effacing guy, who knew a surprising amount about labor history. I learned that his dissertation was on the 1913 Colorado coal strikes. He also knew a lot about farming, not simply because he was from South Dakota, but because he had a lifelong aversion to hunger after seeing Italians starving during his wartime service. I learned that he was probably the last person to ever speak to Bobby Kennedy — whose assassination shook him, and me, even more deeply than the loss of JFK.
McGovern was widely reviled in middle America. During his run for the presidency in 1972, the New York Post referred to him as “George S. (for surrender) McGovern” in virtually everything it wrote. He was not a great campaigner, although he brought hundreds of people into politics and many of them stayed — including Bill Clinton. His hastily-considered choice of Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate ranks with McCain’s choice of Sara Palin in textbook examples of disastrously poor vetting. Despite an Obama-like grassroots campaign led by campaign manager and future Senator Gary Hart, McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon, the worst landslide in modern US history. Although he later joked that “for many years, I wanted to run for the Presidency in the worst possible way and last year, I did”, it had to hurt to lose an election to a man he knew to be deeply dishonest and corrupt.
In later years, the former minister, professor, Congressman, global food program director, Senator, and presidential candidate ran a 150 bed inn in Stratford, Connecticut. After the business went bankrupt, he reflected often and publicly on the role of government regulations and lawsuits in constraining small business. At one point, he surprised conservatives when he wrote in the Wall St. Journal that “I … wish that during the years I was in public office I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
Part of why politics in the US works is that people as courageous and talented as George McGovern are drawn to public service. I worry that this is becoming less true. In part due to reforms McGovern championed, parties are weaker and the path to public office now less dependent on political parties and more dependent on large financial backers than ever before. We are at risk of drawing more light than heat to the national stage. It will be ironic and unfortunate if the result of George McGovern’s wonderful career is that we see fewer like him in the future.