By David Browne,
George McGovern, longtime anti-war congressman from South Dakota who notoriously suffered a devastating loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential campaign, died at the age of 90.
With his focus on peace and world hunger, McGovern was one of the leading liberal voices of his era – and the repercussions of his unsuccessful campaign for the White House were felt for decades to come.
Although he had been a Senator and Representative in his home state and had worked for John F. Kennedy’s administration, McGovern was largely unknown by the time of the Democratic primaries in early 1972.
Described by the New York Times as “a baldish former minister and rural radical,” McGovern was a modest, low-key and reflective man, the antithesis of the savvy politician. “Above everything else,” he said at one early campaign stop, “the citizens of this land are concerned about a restoration of credibility in the political life of their country.”
By 1972, that image – and his longtime opposition to the Vietnam War, starting in 1963 – connected with parts of the electorate who were tired of the war and the much-loathed Nixon.
McGovern quickly gained traction in his party and became the Democratic Party’s nominee that summer – only to suffer a series of setbacks that resulted in one of the biggest losses in U.S. presidential history.
“The ‘72 campaign was the high point in youthful idealism and citizen grass-roots action,” he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1987. “I don’t think it has been that strong since.”
Born and raised in South Dakota, he was the son of a former pro baseball player who became a Baptist minister. He served in the Air Force during World War II.
Afterward, he turned to religion (he was briefly a minister in the late ‘40s), college, and teaching. He ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1956 and won, serving two terms before serving as a special assistant in Kennedy’s administration.
After the 1972 loss, McGovern returned to the Senate until 1980.
Some of his most important work was in the realm of world hunger. Clinton appointed McGovern his ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and, as a result, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
Post publisher Paul Cobb, a former national staff member and speechwriter for Senator McGovern, said “McGovern championed the causes, concerns and issues of Black advancement. He exhibited more courage than any other politician in congress.”
Cobb, who also served as national co-director of the voter registration and ‘get-out-the-vote’ campaign for McGovern, shared an office with Ann Wexler in the Watergate Building. After the ill-fated break-in, that occurred on the same floor, he said McGovern quipped that the burglars bypassed his office because the FBI already had better files on the Black community.”