Senator George McGovern. Courtesy: Warren K. Leffler, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
For the better part of his American century, George McGovern was America’s most prominent advocate for peace with the world and justice at home,a progressive internationalist and prairie populist—from the cold war era when he grabbed a South Dakota congressional seat from Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans, to the Obama era when he prodded a young president from his own Democratic Party to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.
McGovern, who has died at the age of 90, was an uncommonly human and humane national figure. It was that aspect of the man that made his 1972 presidential campaign as the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party less of a political endeavor than a popular crusade.
As with all crusades, the measure of defeat or victory comes not in the moment but on the arc of history that assesses the value of the vision and determines whether it will remain vibrant for generations to come.
McGovern had that perspective, impishly recalling the people who stopped him in airports and on the street after the man who won in 1972, Richard Nixon, resigned in the Watergate disgrace of 1974. They all said they had backed the Democrat two years earlier. “If they actually had,” McGovern joked, “I would have been the one with the landslide.”
McGovern mounted his 1972 run as established champion of liberal causes who had served in the House and Senate before he carried the banner of his friend Robert F. Kennedy’s candidacy into the traumatic 1968 Democratic National Convention. And McGovern followed his 1972 defeat with another forty years campaigning as the elder statesman of an American left for which his name became a touchstone—even as right-wingers made “McGovernism” the name for the politics they most feared.
Today, of course, America has accepted—or is in the process of rapidly accepting—basic tenets of McGovernism, from the principle that it is smarter to feed the world and treat diseases than to wage wars to the premise that a broad civil rights commitment must promote the progress of women, racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and lesbians and gays. But McGovern was never satisfied; just weeks before the final illness that would take his life Sunday morning, he was traveling the country, rallying the faithful and preaching a prairie populist vision of full employment and healthcare for all.
I knew McGovern for nearly half of his years and almost all of mine. We met in 1971, when my parents took me to see “the peace candidate” campaigning in Racine, Wisconsin. We spent a great deal of time together over the decades after he first entertained my adolescent questions; talking politics but also contemplating our shared passion for American history and literature. I remember an afternoon in Keene, New Hampshire, when I was supposedly interviewing McGovern about his under-appreciated campaign for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination; we spent several hours trying to determine where Henry David Thoreau had stopped in the region during the week on the Concord and Merrimack rivers that would form the basis for one of the author’s finest books.