George McGovern, Prairie Populist

George McGovern, Prairie Populist

The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who died at 90 on October 21, embraced and inspired the struggle for peace and economic and social justice.


For more than half of his American century, George McGovern was our most prominent advocate for peace with the world and justice at home. He was a progressive internationalist and a prairie populist—from the cold war era, when he grabbed a South Dakota congressional seat from Eisenhower’s Republicans, to the Obama era, when he prodded a young president from his own party to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.

McGovern, who has died at the age of 90, was an uncommonly humane national figure. As Representative Jim McGovern (no relation) put it in a moving tribute on, “To me, George McGovern was the Atticus Finch of American politics. Like the main character in Harper Lee’s brilliant novel To Kill a Mockingbird, George McGovern spoke the truth even when—especially when—it was uncomfortable.”

It was that aspect of the man that made his 1972 presidential bid—as the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party—more a popular crusade than a political campaign. He ran as an established champion of liberal causes, opening up the party’s nominating process to progressives, and he followed his defeat that year with another forty years as the elder statesman of a left for which his name became a touchstone—even as right-wingers made “McGovernism” an epithet for the politics they most feared.

McGovern was truly a member of the Nation family. He wrote many articles for the magazine, spoke at our 120th anniversary celebration and, along with the magazine, was one of the earliest to raise questions about the war in Vietnam (likewise for Iraq and Afghanistan).

McGovern flew thirty-five missions as a bomber pilot in World War II, and half the members of his crew never made it home. So he knew firsthand the brutality of war—unlike the men who tried to paint him as a weakling unwilling to defend the nation, many of whom had never known a day of combat.

In a scathing 2003 critique of the Iraq War, McGovern wrote in these pages, “We hear much talk these days, as we did during the Vietnam War, of ‘supporting our troops.’ Like most Americans, I have always supported our troops…. But I believed then as I do now that the best way to support our troops is to avoid sending them on mistaken military campaigns that needlessly endanger their lives and limbs…. During the long years of my opposition to that war, including a presidential campaign dedicated to ending the American involvement, I said in a moment of disgust: ‘I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying.’”

McGovern stood with the underdogs, the hungry and the poor, and he never wavered in his belief that government could be a force for security and opportunity. As he put it in his last book, What It Means to Be a Democrat, “During my years in Congress and for the four decades since, I’ve been labeled a ‘bleeding-heart liberal.’ It was not meant as a compliment, but I gladly accept it. My heart does sometimes bleed for those who are hurting in my own country and abroad.”

McGovern was never satisfied; just months before his final illness, he was traveling the country, rallying the faithful and preaching his prairie populist vision of full employment and healthcare for all. As we near the end of an election season that has almost entirely failed to speak to the poor and the vulnerable among us, and has too often presented our role in the world in militarized terms, we honor George McGovern’s courage, dignity and devotion to social justice.

George McGovern for The Nation:

Questions for Mr. Bush | April 4, 2002
The Reason Why | April 3, 2003
Patriotism Is Nonpartisan | March 24, 2005 Gene McCarthy | December 15, 2005
The Legacy of Four Women with Rep. Jim McGovern | December 21, 2005
An Impartial Interrogation of George W. Bush | January 17, 2007

The Nation Profile:

McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds by Arthur I. Blaustein and Peter T. Sussman | October 16, 1972

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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