Remembering George McGovern

Features on the late senator and former presidential nominee by George Packer, Michael Leahy, and others.
5 stories

Former U.S. Senator George McGovern died today at 90 years old. The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, McGovern was a three-term South Dakota senator and remained one of the towering figures in liberal politics. He was a staunch advocate for peace—opposing the Vietnam War—and in his later years crusaded against world hunger.

In 2005, Michael Leahy recounted McGovern's biggest disappointment—his landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. "The same stances that had served him well in the Democratic primaries dominated by his left-leaning constituency doomed him against Nixon, whose campaign pounced on McGovern's liberalism," Leahy recalled, "turning the word into an albatross for decades to come."

Daniel McCarthy noted that presidential races haven't seen anything like him since. "The Democrats have not nominated a McGovernite since McGovern himself. The senator’s understudy and 1972 campaign manager, Gary Hart, lost the 1984 nomination to Hubert Humphrey’s protégé, Walter Mondale. Left-wingers such as Jerry Brown and Dennis Kucinich have not fared as well in today’s Democratic Party as Eugene McCarthy did in the Johnson-Humphrey party of ’68," he wrote. "Both Jimmy Carter and Michael Dukakis were, by the standards of their party, moderate governors. Even John Kerry, a celebrity of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, voted for the Iraq War in the Senate and didn’t dare run as a McGovernite in 2004."

The former Democratic nominee for the presidency stayed engaged and vocal to the end, even publishing an open letter to President Obama in Harper's. "When I entered the U.S. Senate in 1963, the defense budget was $51 billion. This was at a time when our military experts felt it necessary to have the means to win a war against the combined powers of Russia and China," he wrote. "Today we have a military budget of over $700 billion, and yet neither Russia nor China threatens us, if indeed they ever did. Nor does any other nation. Furthermore, the terrorist threat we face is not a military matter. The World Trade Center was brought down not by artillery or bombers or battleships but by nineteen young Arabs equipped only with box cutters. The Department of Homeland Security created by the Bush Administration after this attack is a better instrument against terrorism than our military, even though our armed forces are the best in the world."

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Growing up Liberal

Jun 2000
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Easy Chair

A letter to Barack Obama.
Sep 2011
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What Might Have Been

In which George McGovern, the senior member of a rare and burdened tribe, reveals just how long it takes to get over losing the presidency.
Feb 2005
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McGovern Beats Nixon

Why the 86-year-old former senator has won new friends among libertarians.
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Second Thoughts of George McGovern

“I almost moved to England after the election.”