George McGovern, the South Dakota senator who lost the 1972 presidential election to Richard M. Nixon in a historic landslide, died earlier today in a Sioux Falls at the age of 90. Known as a true idealist throughout the days of Watergate and the war in Vietnam, he will be remembered as “an unwavering, often unrequited advocate for liberal Democratic causes.” And though he did lose the 1972 elections quite spectacularly — just 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520 — he continued on as a liberal standard-bearer until the end of his life.
As he wrote in his 2011 book What It Means to Be a Democrat: “Above all, being a Democrat means having compassion for others. […] It means standing up for people who have been kept down.” His family echoed that sentiment in a statement, saying that, “We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace.”
However, it was McGovern’s uncompromising anti-war stance that led to his failure in 1972. (That election’s most devastating attack ad criticized McGovern’s planned defense cuts by showing a hand sweeping toy soldiers, tanks, and planes off a table.) More interested in the issues than his image, he realized too late that he’d let Nixon define him. As he told the New York Times in 2005:
I think they thought that Nixon was a strong, decisive, tough-minded guy and that I was an idealist and antiwar guy who might not attach enough significance to the security of the country. The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation’s well-being.
McGovern, the son of a Republican minister, entered national politics in 1956, when he became the first Democrat elected to Congress from South Dakota in 20 years. Six years later, he became the first Democratic Senator from the state in over 30 years. A decade later, having led the anti-war contingent in Congress and tirelessly advocated for hunger issues, McGovern launched his presidential bid backed by a dedicated corps of volunteers (including Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.) However, the party was fractured and the convention ended up a boondoggle, with ugly platform fights, a sad lack of vice-presidential hopefuls, and a 2:48 a.m. acceptance speech.
Soon after, McGovern learned from press reports that his last-minute vice-presidential pick, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, had received electro-shock therapy as a young man. Despite first pronouncing himself “one thousand percent” behind Eagleton, McGovern eventually dropped him and chose Kennedy relative Sargeant Shriver as a replacement.
Not only was he ultimately squashed in the electoral college vote — winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia — but he barely garnered a third of the popular vote, and managed to raise only half as much money as Nixon. (See New York’s “Forever Campaign” timeline from the recent Election Issue for more trivia bits from the 1972 campaign.)
But, McGovern shouldn’t be remembered as a “liberal loser,” his campaign manager Gary Hart (and 1984 presidential candidate) writes in the Huffington Post:
Losers are ridiculed for losing. They are lampooned with jokes and cartoons. It takes a very strong man or woman to suffer through that. But George McGovern did. And he continued throughout his life to pursue his sense of justice, equality, and fairness–the very purpose of the Party he once led.
In fact, losing that badly might have its upsides, as Newt Gingrich recalled on CNN’s State of the Union: ”[McGovern] said, ‘One of the nice things about losing badly enough is you don’t have lots of regrets about what one thing might you have changed.’…He had a very good sense of humor.”