McGovern's Legacy Greater Than His Landslide Defeat

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McGovern's Legacy Greater Than His Landslide Defeat

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A liberal icon from a Republican family, symbol of the American progressive movement, and former presidential candidate George McGovern passed today at the age of 90. A war vet and human rights advocate, the former South Dakota lawmaker's legacy is colored by the lens through which it's viewed.

Best known for his landslide defeat to incumbent President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election, to some politicians McGovern's failure came to represent a cautionary tale of what happens when party purity takes priority over leaning toward the center.

Banking on the social unrest of the time, McGovern ran in steadfast opposition to the Vietnam War, swearing at the Democratic National Convention that, "as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day." And he vowed to "resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad."

To the Nixon campaign, the lawmaker's liberalism was out of control and out of touch. In truth, during that cycle the Democratic Party did run on one of the most progressive platforms in caucus history. In addition to vowing to end American involvement in Vietnam, the party promised amnesty for those who refused the draft. The platform also guaranteed yearly minimum income for all Americans, and even a guaranteed job.

The McGovern campaign was also a teaching moment in the dangers of not properly vetting a running mate. It dropped Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton from the ticket after mere weeks when it was learned the Missouri Democrat had been hospitalized multiple times for mental health issues and had undergone electroshock therapy. McGovern eventually selected R. Sargent Shriver as a replacement, but the damage had already been done as columnists of the time mocked McGovern for so steadfastly championing his first pick.

The result was a humiliating defeat, with McGovern only pulling in 37 percent of the popular vote to Nixon's 60. The electoral college was even less forgiving, with McGovern losing in every state but Massachusetts.

A World War II bomber pilot who flew over Germany, McGovern lamented being labeled as a peacenik or outside the mainstream.

"I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie," he said in 2006 interview with the New York Times. "My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I'm what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like."

"But we probably didn't work enough on cultivating that image," he added, "We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment."

For decades after the election the McGovern name was used as a stereotype of progressives too soft on war and social issues. Although he continued his career in Congress until a defeat in 1980, when he ran for president again in 1984 he couldn't make it out of the primaries.

The fallout from the 1972 election wasn't all negative. McGovern's campaign was the unknowing victim of the Nixon Watergate scandal, which broke after the election and eventually led to his resignation in 1974. And before that final flight on Marine One, Nixon himself adopted some of the guaranteed income programs McGovern's enemies criticized.

George McGovern's Legacy

Furthermore, McGovern was partly responsible for the political primary system as we know it today. In 1969 the Democratic Party's McGovern-Fraser Commission vastly subdued the power of political bosses, making it easier for candidates to ride an ideology's popular support into a nomination; a tactic McGovern used when he left the commission in 1971 to run.

ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd points out the election paved the way for Democratic leaders decades later.

"You can lose, but still basically carry the day," Dowd said on This Week today. "Without George McGovern we would have never had Jimmy Carter and we would have never had Bill Clinton."

Indeed, as Yale law school students Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham both served as staffers on McGovern's Texas campaign. President Bill Clinton would go on to attend the dedication of the McGovern library in 2006.

In a written statement, Secretary Clinton said, "The world has lost a tireless advocate for human rights and dignity."

"Of all his passions, he was most committed to feeding the hungry, at home and around the world," she said. "The programs he created helped feed millions of people, including food stamps in the 1960s and the international school feeding program in the 90's, both of which he co-sponsored with Sen. Bob Dole."

A winner of the World Food Prize with the former Republican presidential candidate, McGovern served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture from 1998-2001. He would also form the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program in 2000 to provide meals to children in the United States and around the world.

McGovern remained an active voice in public affairs until his final days, authoring books and continuing his anti-war message to Iraq and Afghanistan. He particularly assailed the rightward shift in the Republican Party and what he believed was a reluctance in progressives to speak up, for fear of seeming weak.

"For people who have never been near a battlefield […] to accuse critics of being soft on national security and soft on communism and soft on terrorism, I think is preposterous," he said in 2006.

Evoking former President Dwight D. Eisenhower's cautionary words on the power of the military-industrial complex, he warned of the dangers of unrestrained jingoism.

"Now a five-star general can say that without accused of being soft […] but I suppose a liberal Democrat – which I am – is not allowed to say that."

Today President Obama called him a "statesman of great conscience and conviction."

"When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace," he wrote.

The Associated Press and ABC's Huma Khan contributed to this report.

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