Not much went right for Senator George McGovern after he won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. He chose a running mate he hadn’t adequately vetted, dutifully promised to stand by him “a thousand percent,” and then dumped him. In the end, McGovern lost 49 states, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. For years afterward, that overwhelming loss made him the butt of jokes — including his own. “Ever since I was a young man, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way,” he said later. “And I did.” Yet a fuller view of McGovern’s life shows there was more to him, as there is to most losing candidates, than the stereotypes and impressions that grow up after a tough defeat.
Though tarred as an idealistic peacenik in his contest against Republican Richard Nixon, McGovern had been a decorated pilot during World War II. Unlike many politicians before and since, he generally declined to exploit his wartime valor for political purposes. Yet his experience of war seemed to inform his visceral opposition to the war in Vietnam. “Every senator in this chamber,” he told colleagues in 1970, “is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave.”
Although McGovern’s 1972 campaign became a model of what other candidates should avoid doing, he also deserves credit for changing the presidential election process in more positive ways. After the Democrats’ loss to Richard Nixon in 1968, McGovern spearheaded an overhaul of the presidential-nomination rules that shifted influence away from party bosses and toward primary voters. And despite his stinging 1972 loss to Nixon, some vindication soon came: Amid the miasma of Watergate, McGovern’s seeming guilelessness suddenly didn’t look so bad. And as the toll of the Vietnam War became ever clearer — in its final days and in the ensuing years — McGovern’s eagerness to bring it to an end came to seem less like weakness than hard-earned wisdom.