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The resilience of George McGovern

Inevitably, in all the tributes to former Sen. George McGovern upon his death at 90, his landslide defeat in the 1972 presidential election at the hands of Richard Nixon shared top billing with his fights against America's misguided wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

That political loss was undeniably historic in that he won only resolutely Democratic Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But it also was ironic in that despite Mr. McGovern's warnings on the campaign trail of Nixon's malfeasance in the still-unraveling Watergate scandal, the voters chose a crook over a man of unchallenged honesty.

Mr. McGovern was undone in 1972 in part by the discovery that his running mate, Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, had undergone shock therapy for depression, a procedure met then with much skepticism. Mr. McGovern, who first said he backed Mr. Eagleton "1,000 percent," reluctantly was persuaded that he should be dropped from the ticket.

I became a pawn in the drama when Mr. McGovern summoned me, then covering his campaign for the Los Angeles Times, and told me he wanted Mr. Eagleton to step aside. The idea obviously was that I would write the story, Mr. Eagleton -- in California at the time -- would see it, and take the hint. But he didn't. Only later did he bow out, and after several prominent Democrats declined to be his replacement, former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver agreed. By then Mr. McGovern's candidacy was a shambles.

Throughout that 1972 campaign, he pleaded with voters to "Come home, America" from Vietnam, and to turn from the killing to address unmet public needs. For his troubles, he was assailed by the Nixon crowd as unpatriotic or worse, although he had risked life and limb as a bomber pilot of 35 combat missions in World War II.

On the stump, Mr. McGovern never mentioned the Distinguished Flying Cross he had won then. But as his campaign struggled on, he would cite the time his plane was so battered by enemy fire over Germany that having his crew members bail out seemed the only option. Instead, he told them to "resume your stations, we're going to bring this plane home," and they did. America, he would say, needed to do the same from Vietnam.

Mr. McGovern used this analogy so often that we accompanying reporters ribbed him about it, especially when in the final days he focused, as the two presidential nominees are currently doing, on the critical state of Ohio. We wrote a parody to the then-popular song about the state, substituting these lyrics:

"Why, oh why, oh why oh, do we keep coming to Ohio?

"Why must you humbl'us with so much Columbus?

"We'd rather see Scranton or Nome.

"Cleveland makes us weary, and Cincinnati's just as dreary;

"We need no Toledo to soothe our libido, why do we need so much O-H-I-O?

"Turn this plane around; we want to go home."

Our "pilot" the nominee good-naturedly smiled and stayed on course to his inevitable defeat there and in 48 other states.

In 1980, Mr. McGovern lost his Senate seat in a purge of Democratic liberals, but he regained esteem with a second presidential bid in 1984 in which he lectured fellow candidates, including his 1972 campaign manager, Sen. Gary Hart, on the need to return to the liberal principles then under assault by President Ronald Reagan.

Mr. McGovern brought a whole generation of young antiwar liberals into the Democratic Party and opened doors to them, along with minorities and women, through party rules he fashioned on a reform commission guaranteeing broader grass-roots participation.

Meanwhile, he confirmed his world stature as a UN ambassador in the peaceful war against global hunger, sharing the World Food Foundation Prize with another former presidential nominee, Republican Bob Dole.

From Vietnam to the war in Iraq, World War II hero George McGovern remained outspokenly against "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in." To the end, he abided by his disavowal of "America: Love it or leave it," preferring to say, as he did in his 1972 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination: "Let us change it so we can love it more." He gave true meaning, rather than political rhetoric, to the word patriotism.

Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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