Former Sen. George McGovern Dies

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Oct. 21 2012 10:31 AM

Former Sen. George McGovern, Roundly Defeated by Richard Nixon in 1972, Dies at 90

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Former Sen. George McGovern arrives at the funeral service for Sargent Shriver in January 22, 2011

Photo by Cliff Owen-Pool/Getty Images

Former Sen. George McGovern, the Democrat who challenged Richard Nixon in 1972 and lost in one of the country’s biggest electoral landslides, 520 electoral votes to 17, died early Sunday morning at a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had been moved there almost a week ago after suffering several health problems over the last year, reports the Associated Press.

The former senator from South Dakota ran a campaign focused on ending the Vietnam War, cutting defense spending, and reducing poverty in the United States. The 1972 burglary at the Watergate was designed to undermine McGovern’s campaign, although the details didn’t come out until after the election, forcing Nixon’s resignation in 1974. McGovern’s campaign, as well as his unabashed liberalism, left a lasting imprint on politics and the Democratic Party as a whole, notes the New York Times.

The most obvious effect of McGovern’s candidacy was that rigorous vetting of potential running mates became the norm. In what was his campaign’s biggest misstep, McGovern said he was "1,000 percent" behind his first running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, after he acknowledged he had undergone electroshock therapy. He then asked Eagleton to withdraw. Besides a more careful vetting process, McGovern’s campaign, in which he ran as an unabashed liberal, “gave birth to the continuing identity crisis of Democratic Party activists, torn between their hearts and their heads,” historian Bruce Miroff wrote in a book about the 1972 election, points out Bloomberg.

Bill Clinton has long said McGovern was an inspiration and many saw the way he managed to carve a centrist position on several issues as an attempt to avoid the same pitfalls that turned McGovern’s name almost into a punch line within Republican circles. After three terms in the Senate, McGovern lost in the 1980 Republican landslide that brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency. He went on to have a thriving post-Senate life, teaching history, giving lectures, writing 10 books, and holding several international positions, including ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, notes Politico.  

In Slate, Ron Rosenbaum notes that McGovern “had a case that he shouldn’t be portrayed as a loser, but a victim.” McGovern “was the victim of a crook and liar covering up an illegal war killing our own people and countless innocent Asian peasants.” If the reporters covering the campaign had left the trail and spent more time looking at the Watergate break-in things might have turned out differently.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.