George McGovern at 90

Being a losing presidential candidate is like what Mr. Dooley said about vice presidents: "It isn't a crime exactly. You can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's kind iv a disgrace. It's like writin' anonymous letters."

So it has been, unfairly, for former Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the Democratic presidential nominee of 1972 who went down to landslide defeat at the hands of, of all people, Richard Nixon in the very year of the infamous Watergate break-in.

Mr. McGovern has just celebrated his 90th birthday, having gone on from that humiliating setback to a later-life career as U.S. ambassador to the UN Food and Agricultural Agencies and then as UN global ambassador on world hunger. Before the political roof fell in on him, he had distinguished himself as director of President John F. Kennedy's Food for Peace program and a leader in the Senate in the same cause.

In 1968, Mr. McGovern had picked up the fallen standard from assassinated presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, standing in for him and his supporters at the Democratic convention, and thereafter he pursued RFK's agenda as well as his own in seeking the 1972 nomination. He succeeded in part through his knowledge of new party rules he shaped that opened the convention to wider participation of women and grass-roots activists, often at the expense of establishment officeholders.

It's often not remembered that Mr. McGovern in that 1972 campaign labored diligently to make a major issue of the smarmy Watergate affair in all its Keystone Kops excesses, but the voters didn't seem to want to listen. The whole story of the Nixon effort to subvert the political process had not yet fully been exposed, despite the epic gumshoeing of Washington Post junior sleuths Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Many others in the press kissed it off, either out of disbelief or journalistic envy.

But Mr. McGovern hammered away at it, together with a repeated plea, "Come home, America" -- a call for the country to turn from the disastrous war in Vietnam and deal with the mounting economic and cultural problems at home and rebellion in the streets.

Mr. McGovern made this appeal as a former bomber pilot in World War II, a fact seldom mentioned even as he was being daily smeared as unpatriotic or worse. He was castigated for proposing a $1,000 payment to every American as a mini-stimulus, ridiculed as a fuzz-yheaded liberal giveaway, and was further pilloried for botching his vice-presidential selection.

When his original choice, Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, was forced from the Democratic ticket after failing to reveal earlier mental illness, a circus ensued before Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine agreed to replace Eagleton, too late save the day. Mr. McGovern won only liberal Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, and it remained for the later unpeeling of the Watergate crimes and cover-up to drive Nixon from office.

Mr. McGovern returned to the Senate but lost his seat in 1980 in a purge of liberal Democrats that accompanied the Ronald Reagan landslide victory for the presidency. But in 1984 he tried a political comeback as the liberal conscience of his party and won acclaim for elevating the tone and substance of that presidential campaign, while losing out to former Vice President Walter Mondale for the Democratic nomination.

In 2006, he and his wife established the George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University, where leaders from around the nation and the world come to engage in the McGovern Issues Forum.

Though remaining personally an amiable and soft-spoken man, Mr. McGovern has never kept quiet about his despair over the continued American resort to war, notably observing at one point: "I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for the young to die in." And harking back to that 1972 campaign, for which he was assailed for trying to end the killing in Vietnam, he said: "The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher plain."

Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at

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