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.”