George McGovern was a child of the upper Plains. He had twinkly eyes, a nasal accent like a marlin spike, and the manners of a preacher (he thought of becoming one).
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To understand his place in Democratic-party history you must understand that as a young man he was a delegate to the Progressive-party convention in 1948. He was not a Communist, like the handlers of Henry Wallace, the Progressive nominee. But like Wallace himself he was a peace-at-any-price peacenik. This was the thread of his later presidential races — his last-minute flurry in 1968, and his successful run for the nomination in 1972 (only to be buried by Richard Nixon).
I covered McGovern’s last run for president in 1984, and wrote about it in my first book, The Outside Story. This race was a combination vanity run and ideological gesture. There was a crowded field — including Walter Mondale, the front-runner and ultimate winner; John Glenn, astronaut; Gary Hart, McGovern’s former campaign manager; Ernest Hollings, blowhard southerner; plus the first installment of a young, slim Jesse Jackson — and McGovern clearly had no chance of winning. He did well in early primaries and caucuses, however, by staking out a left-most position and arguing that, if you agreed with it, you owed him your vote.
He faded in the end — but he had already won. Hart, his one-time acolyte, nearly upset Mondale; and Mondale, the disciple of anti-communist Hubert Humphrey, had already become McGovernized. The anti-war wing of the Democratic party had triumphed.
McGovern became a sparring partner of WFB, and they became personally friendly. He traveled through a winter’s gale to attend WFB’s funeral mass at St. Patrick’s in 2008. No one ever doubted his personal decency. R.I.P.