September 28, 2012

Losing to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race was a significant personal setback — no doubt about it — but I have acknowledged it, absorbed it and integrated it into the rest of the long life I have been privileged to lead.

Before that race, I had survived 35 missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II; married Eleanor Stegeberg, the love of my life; had five children; completed a PhD in history; and had a successful career in politics and government service.

Before my run for president, I had won all but one election: a 1960 bid to represent South Dakota in the Senate. This led to the opportunity to serve as U.S. Food for Peace directorin President John F. Kennedy’s administration, a position that ignited my passion for chipping away at world hunger. And I didn’t give up after that loss in 1960; I went on to serve in the Senate from 1963 to 1981.

When I announced that I was seeking the 1972 Democratic nomination for president, I was a relative unknown from a small state, but I had significant support among U.S. activists as an early and consistent critic of our policy in Vietnam. We ran a stellar campaign that became a model for later ones. For example, we made the delegate-selection process more inclusive of women, young people, minorities and other groups that had been under-represented. And my campaign was one of the first to use grass-roots, local organizing to mobilize voters.

Almost all my experience up to that point had convinced that me anything was possible. I had a capable team and dedicated supporters. The crowds at campaign events were large and enthusiastic. I didn’t pay undue attention to the polls, and I wasn’t overly concerned that there would be no face-to-face debates with Nixon.

But when election night came and the early returns revealed one of the most lopsided victories in U.S. history, I was genuinely stunned.

Most disappointing was that I did not carry my home state of South Dakota. The voters of South Dakota had known me for many years, and I thought they would have believed it to be in their interest to elect one of their own to the presidency.

The loss is there, an old wound never fully healed. My disappointment was certainly personal, made deeper by the awareness that many thousands of young Americans, and far more Vietnamese and other Asian citizens, were going to and did lose their lives with the Nixon administration’s continuation of the war.

And I was upset that my supporters would carry the burden of the loss, too — something that has weighed on me all these years. I wanted to win for them, just as I wanted to win for the soldiers I planned to bring home quickly, and for an economy I hoped to redirect toward peace and domestic investments.

I was left with the knowledge that I had been in the political race of my life but didn’t win. It was hard to accept that the presidency was not going to be mine to serve and that the plans I had hoped to implement were lost, too. Yet that is what I came to accept — had to accept — also acknowledging that after getting that close, I couldn’t try for the presidency again.

But I was convinced that the principles I brought to the campaign from my upbringing, my military service and my political career could be channeled elsewhere in public service.

I am just as proud of all the efforts I have made since 1972, beginning with eight more years in the U.S. Senate and then working on behalf of hungry children in the United States and worldwide with my friend Bob Dole, through the lifesaving work of another of my lifelong passions, the United Nations and its international food-relief initiatives.

I’m one of a handful of Americans lucky enough to have been honored to run as his or her party’s presidential nominee. While it hurt to have tried for and never reached the brass ring of American politics — and I still feel the sting, even now — I never regretted the attempt.

No one likes losing at anything, even a game of horseshoes. I wanted to win for our party, our young soldiers, and the men and women of goodwill disaffected by Watergate and turned off by the power of big money in politics. They had hoped that our campaign was the start of something new and better for the country.

And at the wise old age of 90, I can say that losing the presidency was one chapter in a long, complex and richly happy life in which I learned that you can’t always control all the outcomes. But I am optimistic about the country, and I am convinced that McGovern for President 1972 helped put those ideals within sight and completion today.

outlook@washpost.com

George McGovern was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972.