Former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern died this weekend, marking the end of this controversial politician at the age of 90. During WWII, a young George McGovern volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Force and flew 35 missions of a B-24 Liberator aircraft and saved the life of his crew during a heroic crash landing during one mission. From his early days as a war hero he later was elected to the U.S. Senate from Republican-leaning South Dakota, although he was a liberal Democrat. With the help of an interview feature in PLAYBOY Magazine, George McGovern managed to best moderate-liberal Hubert Humphrey in the 1972 primary contest to face President Nixon in the general election, but McGovern’s ill-fated campaign did very poorly becoming the worst electoral and worst overall popular vote defeat up to that time for any Democratic candidate for president. McGovern even lost his home state of South Dakota, and only winning just 17 electoral votes, a feat only slightly better than Walter Mondale’s 1984 loss to President Reagan where Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District Of Columbia. By the final week of the 1972 campaign, with McGovern trailing Nixon by a terrible deficit, he became frustrated and told a pro-Nixon heckler to “Kiss my ass”.
It seemed like McGovern’s big electoral loss became something of a joke among many comics with one joke on ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN, that at least McGovern was able to send personal thankyou letters to everyone that voted for him because he got so few votes. And the huge defeat seemed to weaken McGovern at home in South Dakota as well. In 1974, McGovern was able to get re-elected by a slender 53% to 47% margin. But, in 1980 after being targeted for defeat by a conservative organization, McGovern lost his senate seat after receiving just 39% of the vote.
Part of McGovern’s problem in 1972 had been his weak support among labor unions, where even the powerful head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany, was so unimpressed with McGovern that he urged the powerful organization to refuse to endorse McGovern, thereby helping President Nixon get re-elected by his huge landslide 61-37% win.
McGovern always had an interest in helping world hunger and was appointed an ambassador to helping end starvation to the U.N. by President Clinton, although McGovern made himself somewhat controversial in his last years by appearing to side with the antilabor efforts in a card check controversy that was run by right to work proponents. It was this weak support of labor unions for McGovern that made him the subject of suspicion in 1972 once before. He might have been a political liberal, but he seemed to be an unreliable supporter for every important goal of labor unions.
His electoral failure, along with his sometimes extreme antiwar views, often were referred to as “McGovernism” by many conservative political opponents. It was only the later Watergate scandal by President Nixon that served to give McGovern a little political vindication. At the height of the scandal, voters were asked if they could re-vote their 1972 vote in 1974, and a majority would have voted for McGovern instead, proving that even a bad candidate for public office could be elected under the right circumstances.
George McGovern might have been a decent and honest man. And his antiwar sentiments might have been very sincere. But, he was a political disaster for the Democratic Party at the time, and helped to end the political career of moderate-liberal Hubert Humphrey for good. By, 1976, American voters did want another moderate-liberal from the Democratic Party, giving Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia the presidency. Carter won by winning a number of Republican-leaning states in the South, whose moderate-liberalism appealed to many voters at the time.
For a time, McGovern was the standard-bearer for the antiwar generation, but that also made him a target of distrust among the broad majority of more moderate and conservative voters. About the only consolation was that Nixon’s landslide was a lonely one, where many voters still voted for other Democrats to public office that year, but just rejected George McGovern as wholly unacceptable in 1972.