on October 21, 2012
For the better part of his American century, George McGovern was America’s most prominent advocate for peace with the world and justice at home,a progressive internationalist and prairie populist—from the cold war era when he grabbed a South Dakota congressional seat from Dwight Eisenhower’s Republicans, to the Obama era when he prodded a young president from his own Democratic Party to bring the troops home from Afghanistan.
McGovern, who has died at the age of 90, was an uncommonly human and humane national figure. It was that aspect of the man that made his 1972 presidential campaign as the most progressive nominee ever selected by the Democratic Party less of a political endeavor than a popular crusade.
As with all crusades, the measure of defeat or victory comes not in the moment but on the arc of history that assesses the value of the vision and determines whether it will remain vibrant for generations to come.
McGovern had that perspective, impishly recalling the people who stopped him in airports and on the street after the man who won in 1972, Richard Nixon, resigned in the Watergate disgrace of 1974. They all said they had backed the Democrat two years earlier. “If they actually had,” McGovern joked, “I would have been the one with the landslide.”
McGovern mounted his 1972 run as established champion of liberal causes who had served in the House and Senate before he carried the banner of his friend Robert F. Kennedy’s candidacy into the traumatic 1968 Democratic National Convention. And McGovern followed his 1972 defeat with another forty years campaigning as the elder statesman of an American left for which his name became a touchstone—even as right-wingers made “McGovernism” the name for the politics they most feared.
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