Honoring the Legacy of George McGovern

The nearly-forgotten presidential candidate may have lost by a landslide in 1972, but his values should be remembered

I was young and knew as much about politics as Arlene Ackerman appears to know about simple decency when I volunteered to help George McGovern become president in 1972.

That experience, so many lifetimes ago, came rushing back with the news this week that McGovern, 89, a former U.S. senator who has devoted his entire post-political life to ending world hunger, had slipped and hit his head on the sidewalk.

He’d been on his way to a Mitchell, South Dakota, college library that bears his name to tape a C-Span show on presidential candidates that impacted the course of history.

In McGovern, they had their guy.

It was a nasty spill, but then what spill isn’t when the next birthday is your 90th?

The good news is that the Senator is reportedly stable and healing in a South Dakota hospital.

George McGovern’s run for president took place a long time ago, and because it was a long time ago, and because he lost, much of what he stood for—economic equity, the rights of women, an end to poverty and intolerance—is largely forgotten.

What may be remembered is how valiantly he argued against U.S. involvement in dishonest wars. He wanted us out of Vietnam, the personification of one of those wars, and we should have listened. As a fighter pilot, he flew 35 bloodcurdling missions over enemy territory in World War II. He knew the cost of war in ways we didn’t.

McGovern’s anti-war stance attracted the young to his candidacy, and it’s what got me to walk into his barely opened and still-to-be furnished D.C. headquarters on K Street where I asked the first dressed-up person I could find if there was a way I could help.

“You can be in charge of Maryland,” the man in the suit said.

The candidate was barely registering in the polls at the time. No one knew his name. I was a warm body and I combed my hair.

Then McGovern won a primary, a shocker, and the next day battalions of high-powered lawyers and consultants descended on K Street. I was quickly relegated to greeting volunteers with buttons and brochures.

The bottom fell out of the McGovern campaign when it was learned his choice as a vice presidential running mate had undergone shock treatments in his past. He had failed to mention that fact to the Senator. The despair on K Street was palpable.

All this, as I said, was a long time ago. But what I remember still is how the lawyers and the professional handlers and the young volunteers stood their ground in the face of near certain defeat. George McGovern had come to represent more than a political campaign. Voices would lower a bit when saying his name.

If it wasn’t awe, it was a close cousin.

Today, when the gentle spoken former senator from the Plains is remembered, if he’s remembered at all, it’s as the candidate who lost every state in the union except Massachusetts. The word landslide often quickly follows.

Also forgotten, however, is the fact that George McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, a president who debased the Constitution and may have landed in jail if not for a merciful pardon. McGovern may have lost in a landslide, but it was a landslide that nearly buried us all.

George McGovern’s decency, not his defeat, should lead any story about his legacy.

Get better, Senator.