George McGovern, the Democratic Party’s standard bearer for the White House in 1972, has passed away at the age of 90.
A native of Mitchell, South Dakota, McGovern had an exemplary military record as an Air Force bomber pilot in the European theater. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for making an emergency plane landing in enemy territory to rescue his crew. McGovern seldom spoke about his military record but it is reasonable to assume that experience helped shape his opposition to the Vietnam War.
A historian by training, McGovern was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956. After an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960, President Kennedy appointed McGovern Director of the Food for Peace program in 1961. The following year, McGovern again ran for the Senate and this time was successful.
McGovern would emerge as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Along with Oregon Republican Mark Hatfield, McGovern twice unsuccessfully put forth an amendment which would have ended the war. Stan Freberg created the radio ads for the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment.
Following the disastorous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, McGovern was appointed to undertake a reform of the nominating process which later became known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission. The reforms emphasized an increased number of state primaries and caucuses as well as increased affirmative action for women, minorities and people under the age of 30. This had the effect of turning the Democratic Party leftward. While McGovern would personally benefit from the rule changes by virtue of his selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee in the 1972 presidential election. However, it would also have the effect of alienating lifelong Democrats away from the party.
McGovern was on the wrong end of one of the biggest presidential landslides in U.S. history. Richard Nixon carried every state save for Massachusetts as well as DC. Of course, at the height of Watergate, Bay State residents cried, “Don’t Blame Me! I’m from Massachusetts!”
In 1974, McGovern would be re-elected for a third term to the Senate. However, six years later, McGovern would become one of the casualties of the Reagan Revolution as Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time in more than a quarter century.
Undeterred, McGovern made one last bid for the White House in 1984. He surprised political observers by finishing a strong third in the Iowa Caucus behind Walter Mondale and Gary Hart. After disappointing finishes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, McGovern dropped out of the race and subsequently endorsed Mondale. A few months later, the American people rejected Mondale as they had rejected McGovern a dozen years earlier.
In 1998, President Clinton appointed McGovern as Ambassador to the UN Agencies for Food & Agriculture, a position he held until early in President George W. Bush’s term. Like Vietnam, McGovern was also critical of the War in Iraq and in 2008 called for the impeachment of Bush and Dick Cheney.
However, that same year McGovern also spoke out against the Employee Free Choice Act objecting to the elimination of a secret ballot in union votes.
I wonder if this position may have been a product of his shortlived experience as an entrepreneur. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, McGovern tried his hand in the hotel and restaurant business. He was not successful and had to file for bankruptcy in 1991. McGovern would write about the experience in The Wall Street Journal in 1992. He wrote, “I also wish that during the years I was in public office, I had had this firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day. That knowledge would have made me a better U.S. senator and a more understanding presidential contender.”
Somehow I cannot imagine those words traversing the lips of President Obama.
I leave you with McGovern’s opening monologue as host of SNL shortly after dropping out of the 1984 Democratic primaries.
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