George McGovern: Admired politician whose career was overshadowed by his landslide defeat against Nixon in 1972

 

George McGovern was a brave Second World War air force pilot. He served three terms as an admired Senator for his native South Dakota. Late in life he became a diplomat and indefatigable advocate for the world's poor. But he will be above all remembered as the man on the wrong end of one of the biggest landslides in presidential history.

His shambolic 1972 campaign became an emblem of all that went wrong with the Democratic Party between the decline of Lyndon Johnson and the election of Bill Clinton a quarter of a century later. As both a social liberal and Vietnam war dove, his views were too much for a substantial section of his own party, not to mention the wider electorate.

Personally, McGovern was the most decent and honourable of men. His misfortune, however, was to run against the most ruthless and cynical president of modern times. Even Bob Dole, a bitter political opponent of McGovern and in 1972 a hit man for Richard Nixon, would later admit, "George McGovern is a gentleman and has always been a gentleman."

The future presidential candidate imbibed his strongly moralistic outlook from his father, a Wesleyan Methodist minister in Avon, South Dakota, a tiny plains town of 500 souls. An outstanding student and debater, he won a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University in nearby Mitchell, where the family had moved when George was aged six.

There he was twice elected class president and won a state public speaking contest with a speech entitled "My Brother's Keeper", a fervent statement of an individual's responsibility to his fellow human beings. In Mitchell, too, he met another student, Eleanor Stegeberg, whom he married. But the war intervened, cutting short his studies as McGovern signed up with the air force. His exploits, carrying out 35 missions with a B-24 bomber squadron based in liberated Italy, made him a military hero, and a protagonist of historian Stephen Ambrose's bestseller The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany. McGovern nicknamed his plane "The Dakota Queen", in honour of Eleanor. Ambrose wrote not only of the young man's skills as a pilot, but also of the extraordinary affection in which he was held by his crew.

The fighting over, McGovern went home to complete his undergraduate degree before gaining a Masters and doctorate in American history and government at Northwestern University in Chicago. Already, though, he was starting to become active in the South Dakota Democratic party, and gradually the lure of full-time politics became irresistible.

In 1956 McGovern was elected to the first of two terms as a Congressman, quickly becoming an expert on agricultural issues. Four years later he tasted serious defeat for the first time when he ran for the Senate against the incumbent Republican Karl Mundt, whom McGovern detested for his support of the red-baiting Joe McCarthy. "It was my worst campaign," he would say, "I hated my opponent so much I lost my sense of balance." Appointment by President Kennedy as director of the Food for Peace programme was only limited consolation.

In 1962 McGovern was more successful, winning South Dakota's other Senate seat. But it was his opposition to the Vietnam war, rather than his farm expertise, that turned him into a national figure. McGovern did vote for the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution that led to an escalation of the war, but within a year he was describing Lyndon Johnson's carpet bombing strategy as "a policy of madness".

If Vietnam was an affront to McGovern's conscience, the death in June 1968 of his friend Robert Kennedy – to whom McGovern had spoken by phone minutes before RFK's assassination in Los Angeles – hit home equally hard. In August, two weeks before the Democratic convention opened in Chicago, McGovern declared his own candidacy for the nomination. But he secured only 146 votes in the roll call, far behind vice-president Hubert Humphrey, whom he subsequently endorsed.

After Humphrey lost the 1968 election to Nixon, McGovern emerged as a prominent party figure and, amid the growing polarisation of the country over Vietnam, almost inevitably as a contender for the party's 1972 presidential nomination. Helping him were changes in party rules after the tumultuous Chicago convention, reducing the clout of old-style powerbrokers and enhancing the role of primaries in the nominating process.

One by one other rivals dropped out. Ted Kennedy, the opponent Nixon feared most, was undone by Chappaquiddick, while Maine's Senator Ed Muskie, the establishment favourite, imploded in the early primaries. That May, moreover, a gunman put stop to George Wallace's ambitions. Running a strong grassroots campaign, McGovern secured the nomination.

His platform was the most liberal in modern Democratic history, promising an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam ("I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," he declared), a $30bn cut in defence spending, and calling for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans. But the convention in Miami was a shambles. Proceedings so overran that McGovern ended up delivering his acceptance speech at 3am, and the actress Shirley MacLaine cheerily described California delegates, of whom she was one, as resembling "a couple of high schools, a grape boycott, a Black Panther rally and four or five politicians who walked in the wrong door."

Even more damaging, if possible, was the fiasco of McGovern's vice-presidential choice, Senator Tom Eagleton of Missouri, who was forced to withdraw after admitting he had a history of severe depression. After much dithering, McGovern dropped Eagleton from the ticket. By then however, damned either for waiting too long before taking action, or for having not had the courage to see the storm out, he had squandered much of his reputation for honesty and straight dealing, which were among his main political assets.

McGovern replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver, brother-in-law of JFK and a former director of the Peace Corp and US ambassador to France. Shriver was an excellent candidate, but the pattern was already set. The Watergate scandal was yet to have an impact, and Nixon ran a meticulously organised "Rose Garden" campaign, rarely straying from the White House and claiming he was focussing on the nation's important business.

On 7 November 1972 Nixon carried every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning 60.7 per cent of the popular vote. McGovern managed to joke about the disaster: "We opened the doors of the Democratic party, and 20m Democrats walked out," he told a dinner of political journalists a few months after the debacle.

McGovern's star thereafter quickly faded. In 1980 he lost his Senate seat, and by the time he launched a third and futile White House bid four years later, he was a symbol of all that made the Democratic party (with the sole and Watergate-influenced exception of Jimmy Carter) virtually unelectable in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1972, an idealistic anti-war law school graduate called Bill Clinton was a worker on the McGovern campaign. By the late 1980s, when the now Governor Clinton was trying to shift the party towards the centre as he prepared his own run for the Presidency, McGovern was a virtual unmentionable. By then, however, the former candidate had left politics for good to devote himself to third world issues, above all food and nutrition. In 1998 Clinton, by now President, appointed McGovern as US envoy to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome.

In October 2001 he became Global Ambassador for Hunger on behalf of the World Food Programme, the UN agency he helped found back in his Kennedy administration days, and which had grown into the world's largest humanitarian aid agency. In his book Ending World Hunger in Our Time, he laid out a strategy to end world hunger with programmes that fed and educated poor children.

At the age of 72, McGovern was scarred by family tragedy when his daughter Terry, a homeless alcoholic, froze to death in the winter of 1994. He poured his grief into a moving memoir, Terry: My Daughter's Life And Death Struggle With Alcoholism, with whose proceeds he established the McGovern Family Foundation to raise funds for alcohol research.

George Stanley McGovern, politician and diplomat: born Avon, South Dakota 19 July 1922; Congressman for South Dakota 1957-61, Senator 1963-1981; Democratic party Presidential nominee 1972; Presidential candidate, 1984; President, Middle East Policy Council 1991-1998; US Ambassador to FAO, Rome 1998-2001; married 1943 Eleanor Stegeberg (one son, four daughters, one deceased); died Sioux Falls, South Dakota 21 October 2012.

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Central London - £45,000-£55,000 + bonus

£45000 - £55000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: The focus of this is to deve...

Application Support - Enterprise Java, SQL, Oracle, SQL Server

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A well-established financial soft...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape