October 21, 2012

IT’S BEEN 40 years since George McGovern lost his run for the presidency — lost so badly as to become a figure of fun to entertainers, a cautionary example to practicing politicians and, in myth at least, the creator of a movement known as “McGovernism,” seen by many as wacky, weird and perhaps menacing. He deserved more respect than that, and fortunately he lived long enough to gain it. George McGovern was a product of some of this country’s best traditions — religious and political — and also of a long, grinding economic Depression that shaped the ideas and behavior of much of his generation. He was a patriot, a war hero and, as most who met or knew him would testify, a remarkably civil and pleasant man.

Mr. McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, did not reinvent himself after his crushing defeat by President Richard M. Nixon in 1972. Just last year he published a book (“What It Means to Be a Democrat”) that restated some of the old McGovern themes but that was also surprisingly timely in the election season of 2012. “We Democrats believe people should be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their hard labor,” he wrote, “but we know that a two-tiered economy, where CEOs rake in billions for laying off their fellow citizens, is neither fair nor sustainable.”

He put much of his effort over the years into programs for feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty. Growing up in the Depression in South Dakota in a deeply religious family, he shared an awareness, common to many in that time, that good people could be brought low by economic forces beyond their understanding or control. Like many of his fading generation, he was a New Dealer to the end.

But the issue that animated his 1972 campaign was the war in Vietnam, to which the South Dakota senator became bitterly opposed. In 1970, during debate over a war-funding measure, he made one of the most extraordinary attacks ever heard on the Senate floor: “Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave,” he said. “This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land — young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. ”

This could be seen as a political statement, of course. George McGovern was ambitious for the presidency, and the antiwar forces were strong. But he had also been a decorated World War II bomber pilot and had an intimate acquaintance with what pilots and crews suffered in that high-mortality business. Mr. McGovern came through it as a calm, respected and steadfast leader who carried his crews through some truly hair-raising episodes.

Mr. McGovern proved to be a better moral exemplar than presidential candidate. His economic program seemed naive to much of the country, and his end-the-war-now message extreme. His most egregious mistake was his handling of the Democratic choice for vice president, when he dropped Thomas Eagleton after it was learned that the Missouri senator had undergone treatment for depression. But the greatest damage to his campaign probably came from the excesses of a sizable part of his antiwar constituency, which imposed on the campaign an image that belied its candidate and his beliefs.

Reflecting on 1972, Mr. McGovern once said, “You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” In fact, Mr. McGovern’s virtues stemmed from an earlier time, and to his sense that it was, in some important ways, a better one.