A liberal icon from a Republican family, symbol of the American progressive movement, and former presidential candidate George McGovern passed today at the age of 90. A war vet and human rights advocate, the former South Dakota lawmaker's legacy is colored by the lens through which it's viewed.
Best known for his landslide defeat to incumbent President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election, to some politicians McGovern's failure came to represent a cautionary tale of what happens when party purity takes priority over leaning toward the center.
Banking on the social unrest of the time, McGovern ran in steadfast opposition to the Vietnam War, swearing at the Democratic National Convention that, "as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day." And he vowed to "resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad."
To the Nixon campaign, the lawmaker's liberalism was out of control and out of touch. In truth, during that cycle the Democratic Party did run on one of the most progressive platforms in caucus history. In addition to vowing to end American involvement in Vietnam, the party promised amnesty for those who refused the draft. The platform also guaranteed yearly minimum income for all Americans, and even a guaranteed job.
The McGovern campaign was also a teaching moment in the dangers of not properly vetting a running mate. It dropped Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton from the ticket after mere weeks when it was learned the Missouri Democrat had been hospitalized multiple times for mental health issues and had undergone electroshock therapy. McGovern eventually selected R. Sargent Shriver as a replacement, but the damage had already been done as columnists of the time mocked McGovern for so steadfastly championing his first pick.
The result was a humiliating defeat, with McGovern only pulling in 37 percent of the popular vote to Nixon's 60. The electoral college was even less forgiving, with McGovern losing in every state but Massachusetts.
A World War II bomber pilot who flew over Germany, McGovern lamented being labeled as a peacenik or outside the mainstream.
"I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie," he said in 2006 interview with the New York Times. "My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I'm what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like."
"But we probably didn't work enough on cultivating that image," he added, "We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment."
For decades after the election the McGovern name was used as a stereotype of progressives too soft on war and social issues. Although he continued his career in Congress until a defeat in 1980, when he ran for president again in 1984 he couldn't make it out of the primaries.
The fallout from the 1972 election wasn't all negative. McGovern's campaign was the unknowing victim of the Nixon Watergate scandal, which broke after the election and eventually led to his resignation in 1974. And before that final flight on Marine One, Nixon himself adopted some of the guaranteed income programs McGovern's enemies criticized.