George McGovern's phone is ringing.

Unlike former presidents, the 82-year-old McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee, has no Secret Service detail or government-funded secretarial help, so he picks up the phone and says in his soft, slow, nasally Dakota voice, "Hell-lo?" A big, black, preternaturally alert Newfoundland named Ursa looks up at him expectantly as he says goodbye to the caller and stands. "Come on, Ursa, want to go to a meeting and see Bob?" McGovern asks, in that singsong voice people generally reserve for pets and small children.

He puts on a brown overcoat, shuffling toward the door, then stops abruptly. Over his shoulder, hung in a hallway, is a framed photo of himself on the cover of what appears to be the November 13, 1972, issue of Newsweek magazine -- or a News-week from a parallel universe. The headline says, "THE GREAT UPSET." Beneath those words, alongside the candidate's beaming visage at age 50, is the cover's subtitle: "President-Elect McGovern." Newsweek prepared the cover, McGovern explains, just in case he beat the odds and won the '72 race. It is one more reminder for him of what might have been.

He lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, who in turn fell to Watergate but whose name is immortal, synonymous with scandal and savvy despoiled, whereas McGovern's notoriety recedes with each passing year. Like most presidential nominees who never won the big prize, he has become less a major figure than an intriguing footnote for all but the most passionate political junkies, another answer to a set of trivia questions whose correct responses include the names Dukakis, Mondale, Humphrey, Goldwater, Stevenson, Dewey, Willkie, Landon, Smith, Davis, Cox, Parker, Bryan, Blaine and McClellan -- the good, the bad, the forgotten.

McGovern is walking at this moment to his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, directly across the street from where he and his wife, Eleanor, are living in his home town of Mitchell, S.D., population 14,500. Dakota Wesleyan, he believes, changed his life, transforming him from a shy, gawky kid to a self-assured, ambitious man. He strolls onto the small campus of about 700 students, a few of whom mutter hello to him on their way to classes. If he had become president, McGovern knows, it would be different. Students would crowd around him, and the Secret Service, talking into wrist radios, would be ready to pry off any huggers who wouldn't let go. There would be university officials to greet and maybe a political candidate hoping to squeeze into a photo op. "It would be hectic," McGovern says, not relishing the thought, "and it would be harder just to pick up a phone and walk over to somebody's office." McGovern, who has been helping university officials with the fundraising for a library to be built in his and Eleanor's names on the Wesleyan grounds, wants to establish a speech and debate program here. He called the university president just 30 minutes ago, and now he's headed over to discuss that and the latest news about the library, which is $700,000 shy of the $8.5 million officials say is needed to begin construction. The university is counting on the library to bolster Dakota Wesleyan's stature and to become a lure for everything McGovern -- more political scholars to discuss his legacy, more media attention and, in time, more politically conscious students interested in public service. The modest goal is a library befitting a president who wasn't.

In the university's administrative offices, McGovern is greeted by the president's secretary, Judy Wenzel. "Hi, George. You can have a seat," she says. "Bob is on the phone."

"Okay." McGovern looks around for a place to hang his overcoat.

"Hang it anywhere you want, George. Help yourself to a Christmas cookie, and Bob will be with you as soon as he's off."

McGovern sits down. Ursa eats a cookie. McGovern gets back up. "Judy?"

"Uh-huh?"

"Could you tell Bob when he's off that we'll be back in a few minutes?"

"Sure, George."

McGovern and the dog walk out of the office and down a long hallway, stopping at a rectangular glass case, which displays several of his '72 campaign buttons. He gestures at a button with a rainbow, reading its accompanying slogan: "TOGETHER WITH MCGOVERN." His blue eyes shine. "Isn't that a nicely done rainbow?" he asks. "Jesse Jackson left the impression that he created the rainbow -- the Rainbow Coalition. But we had the rainbow in '72." He reads from more sloganeering buttons, hears old reveries in his head. "Remember this?" he asks, pointing at a button that says, "COME HOME, AMERICA," a favorite McGovern antiwar theme during the searing debate over Vietnam. "We were the insurgent campaign," he says. "It was going well for a long time, but I've concluded that perhaps America wasn't ready for change."

He looks away from the buttons. "Better go see Bob," he says to the dog.

Bob is 50-year-old Robert Duffett, an ordained minister who became president of Dakota Wesleyan five years ago and inherited the university's mission to build the McGovern library. Nowadays, he sometimes hunts pheasants with McGovern and has the McGoverns over to his house for dinner. "I was not a McGovern supporter [in 1972], and I was not against him then, but I think almost everyone now recognizes that George was right" about Vietnam, Duffett says. Duffett, clad in a crisp dress shirt and blue tie, gives McGovern a warm handshake and gestures at a chair. McGovern is wearing a red corduroy shirt and khakis that are riding up his ankles, exposing pale flesh, a reminder that Gloria Steinem, once seeing the same thing, went out to buy him calf-length dress socks and a sun lamp.

"What I'd like to talk to you about, Bob," McGovern says, "is a possible forensics program here at the university -- a speech class, a well-guided debate team . . ."

"Uh-huh."

McGovern speaks slowly. "A lot of kids don't enunciate clearly, Bob. They butcher the king's English; they get rattled. The biggest contribution this school made to me was teaching me how to debate the issues of the day." The son of a Methodist minister, who briefly was in the ministry himself as a young man, McGovern still talks with a gentle cleric's lilt. "It really is true that an orator is simply a good man who speaks well. I'm not looking for a job, Bob."

"But you would be wonderful at it," Duffett interjects.

"But if the university could work out a course," McGovern says, "that meets once a week for a semester, my job would be to assess those kids."

Duffett nods. A big man, a former high school linebacker with receding blond hair, Duffett has a dogged athlete's optimism. "A real debate program would add to the civility around here," he says. "And ideas need an institutional incarnation -- ideas like courage, responsible dissent, the kind of values that came through the life" -- Duffett points with a flourish at McGovern -- "of this guy."

Duffett goes on. "So of course we'd be interested, George. You're an incredibly bright man. God gave you a good brain. We want to make all the use we can of your presence."

"Thank you," McGovern says.

Duffett chooses this moment to make the case for donations to the McGovern library. He shrugs, as if to buffer what he is about to say. "I don't want to talk about your death, George, but after you're dead, we want to make sure more money is coming in, something for endowments."

"Yes," says McGovern.

They joke about their pheasant hunts for a moment, then shake hands as the meeting ends. Reflecting later on the fundraising challenges ahead, Duffett says, "Winning makes raising money [for a commemorative library] a lot easier. And some people don't want to be reminded of George's stance on Vietnam. If he had been president, those people would have been remembering something more about him."

He has heard McGovern talk about the What Ifs, particularly George Wallace, who was shot and paralyzed in Maryland during the 1972 campaign by would-be assassin Arthur Bremer. "What if Bremer had missed and Wallace had gone on? George wonders about that," Duffett says. "How could you not want to [rethink] history when you're a historian and the job you wanted most was the presidency?"

Back at home, McGovern excuses himself and walks into his small kitchen. It is Everyman's kitchen, with spots on the linoleum floor. McGovern comes out with a glass of water and a small plate of Oreos. He is ruminating over the Wallace What If. "If Wallace had not been shot, and had gone on to do well in the South [as a third-party candidate], I'm not saying I would have won," McGovern says. "But Wallace was at the height of his popularity and would have taken about 20 percent of the vote that year, nearly all of which would have come from Nixon's base. It would have been a different race. I think I would have carried several states, a strong enough showing that I would have been [viable] in a later [presidential] race . . ." He pauses, as if hearing himself, and then quickly adds: "But you see -- and I want to make this clear -- I don't live in the past. You move on; you need to do that."

And he resumes talking about Wallace.

TWELVE YEARS AFTER MCGOVERN'S DEFEAT, another Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, saw him on a street in Washington, not long after Mondale had been wiped out in the 1984 election by incumbent Ronald Reagan. He asked McGovern, who he thought ought to know, just how long it would take to get over the pain of the loss.

"I'll let you know when I get there," McGovern said.

Historically, elections trigger melancholy among losers. What feels like a personal rejection, and the end of a dream, can be hard to handle. The reactions range from withdrawal to defiance. Al Gore, who won the 2000 popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, largely disappeared for a couple of years after his defeat, growing a beard, losing contact with key supporters. He later reemerged and flirted with the idea of running in 2004, then pulled back again. After losing the 2004 presidential contest to President Bush, John Kerry wasted little time before vigorously telling supporters at a dinner that he was a "fighter, and I've come back before," sending out e-mails to supporters that were interpreted as signals he was seriously contemplating another try at the White House. He contacted Newsweek editor Evan Thomas to complain about the coverage of his failed campaign. But he also agonized, telling Thomas at first that he had connected well with voters, then worrying that his rhetoric may have been too lofty for the electorate.

McGovern isn't surprised by Kerry's conflicted assessment. He thinks most losing candidates lurch between bravura and self-doubt, and he believes Kerry has just begun to experience the hurt and self-flagellation that accompany a presidential defeat; that he needs a lengthy period of rest and quiet reflection before making any bold strategic decisions. "You're not yourself immediately afterward, because the pain is great and you're still feeling the pressure," McGovern says. "You're vulnerable to not making your best decisions. I'd advise him not to make any life-determining decisions right away. He should go out and do some of his windsurfing for a while; do some skiing. Do things other than politics."

Similarly, Mondale, who also lost a Senate race in 2002, believes that no political disappointment remotely compares with the desolation felt by a failed presidential nominee. "John Kerry is more exhausted and tense than he thinks he is right now," Mondale says. "There's no school of medicine that deals with that kind of [disappointment] . . . You move on. But you carry what you did, that history, for the rest of your life."

The electorate has been kindest to the rare politician who takes a sabbatical and is touted by his supporters, upon his return, as a wiser candidate. Richard Nixon exemplified both the dangers of rushing back into a political race and the political wisdom of waiting. In 1962, only two years after his razor-thin defeat to John F. Kennedy, he lost a gubernatorial race in California to incumbent Pat Brown. Humiliated and angry at the press, he famously told reporters that they would never "have Nixon to kick around anymore." Urged by admirers to challenge Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon resisted, waiting four years to reemerge in 1968 as a candidate viewed by admirers and critics alike as "the New Nixon."

McGovern looked for ways back, too -- but the magnitude of his 1972 defeat was so great that rehabilitation on the national level would not be in the cards for him. So, part of his life since has involved making peace with that reality.

He was a history professor at Dakota Wesleyan before he ever entered politics, which has been a blessing and a curse: The What Ifs never go away. He wonders, for example, what would have happened to his political career had one of the many men to whom he offered the vice presidential nomination in 1972 -- including Edward Kennedy and defeated rival Edmund Muskie -- said yes. Running out of choices and time at the Democratic National Convention, he turned finally to a young senator from Missouri, Thomas Eagleton, who enthusiastically accepted, only to be forced off the ticket after it was learned that he had been hospitalized three times for depression and had twice undergone electroshock treatment in the 1960s.

What if, McGovern asks, the Democratic convention that year in Miami had not been so chaotic that the vice presidential nomination process, which consumed hours and included several surprise challenges to Eagleton, delayed McGovern from delivering his acceptance speech until 2:48 a.m. Eastern time, by which time most Americans had gone to bed?

What if, he asks, a group of anti-McGovern forces at the convention had been successful in their effort to unseat a bloc of committed McGovern delegates? "I would [then] probably have lost the nomination, unjustly," he says, smiling faintly. "The ['76] nomination would then have been mine for the asking. I mean no disrespect to Jimmy Carter, who won our nomination that year, but I was the much better known figure at the time. I think I would have beaten both Carter and [then- President] Gerald Ford."

Instead, four years later, Carter won the White House, and McGovern was out of elective politics, losing a bid in Republican South Dakota for a fourth term in the U.S. Senate.

"I move ahead, I live," he says -- sitting on his couch to take another call about the library. The house that the McGoverns inhabit rent-free belongs to Dakota Wesleyan. It is a middling ranch-style house, indistinguishable from the rest of the neighborhood's homes, with the McGoverns' old blue Subaru, bought used some years ago, sitting out in front, a little dusty on the outside and full of Ursa's shed hair on the inside. "It's a good life," McGovern says. "I met my wife in South Dakota. I discovered my love of politics and public service here. It all started here. You get reminded how far you've journeyed from your beginnings. There's some satisfaction in that, even with the disappointments."

MCGOVERN'S SOFT-SPOKENNESS and dovish politics always obscured the intensity of his ambitions. He contemplated running for the presidency as early as 1962, even before being elected to the Senate, while serving as the director of the Food for Peace program in the Kennedy administration. After the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, he agreed, at the urging of some Kennedy supporters, to be a late entry for the Democratic nomination, an alternative to the candidacies of Eugene McCarthy, a fellow dove, and Hubert Humphrey, then Lyndon Johnson's hawkish vice president. Humphrey won the nomination but lost to Nixon. McGovern ran unofficially from the moment the '68 campaign ended, trekking back and forth across the country, spending four years gathering names on 3x5 cards.

His former campaign finance director and close friend Henry Kimelman once jokingly described him as a "self-effacing egomaniac." That reality was always at odds with McGovern's peace-and-love image. A resolute and tough man, a World War II bomber pilot who had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for his 35 missions over Europe, he was rough-hewn enough that, during moments of frustration in the '72 campaign, he lashed out at strangers who got under his skin. Once, while apologizing to fellow passengers for tardily boarding a commercial airline flight that had been held for him in Illinois, he encountered a woman who snapped at him over the delay. When he tried apologizing again, she bellowed at him to take his seat. He leaned over to her and, as he recalls, whispered, "I've been traveling this country for two years, and you're the biggest horse's ass I've ever met." (The incident was quickly reported by Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.) Weeks later, McGovern threatened to punch a heckler.

By then his campaign was coming apart, its miseries compounded by his handling of the Eagleton affair. Soon after the convention, with the country digesting news of Eagleton's hospitalizations, McGovern released a statement insisting that he backed Eagleton "a thousand percent." When he swiftly dumped Eagleton, critics trotted out his phrase as proof of his insincerity and lack of backbone; some Republicans jeered that McGovern backed everyone and everything a thousand percent. He was transformed into a caricature. Kennedy in-law and former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver replaced Eagleton, but the McGovern campaign never recovered from the debacle.

Still, amid all his problems, it was easy for him to believe he could still win. Twenty-five thousand people packed the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Even three decades later, the names of his supporters from the Hollywood community tumble from his lips easily: "Barbra Streisand was a headliner for me at a fundraiser in L.A. at The Forum. Carole King helped me; Lauren Bacall; James Taylor; Paul Newman; Goldie Hawn; Linda Ronstadt; Burt Lancaster; Jack Nicholson; Peter, Paul and Mary. Shirley MacLaine appeared with me. Warren Beatty came out, too, and did a lot of fundraising for me. They were with me from the beginning to the end."

Such zeal had catapulted his underdog campaign to the nomination, for which he beat 16 other Democrats, including early favorite Edmund Muskie, who was cast as the race's centrist. McGovern was the striking liberal alternative -- a prairie populist who emerged as the darling of the antiwar vanguard. Engaging and folksy, he faced none of the problems in personality or oratorical style that would later be said to plague Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. But it was McGovern's social agenda that drew the most attention. He favored amnesty for draft resisters, advocated deep cuts in military programs, vowed to dramatically overhaul a tax system that he said favored the rich, and pledged to push for a new family-assistance program that would guarantee an annual income of $1,000 for every American adult and child.

The same stances that had served him well in the Democratic primaries dominated by his left-leaning constituency doomed him against Nixon, whose campaign pounced on McGovern's liberalism, turning the word into an albatross for decades to come. The '72 battle was nasty: McGovern characterized the Nixon officials as warmongers with blood on their hands; Nixon's campaign portrayed McGovern as a patsy whose stances would open the door to economic decline, national dishonor and communist expansion.

As the campaign moved deep into autumn, not even McGovern's famous supporters could stop the fall of his poll numbers. On election eve, he began the day in New York City before traveling to Pennsylvania, to Kansas and, in the evening, to Long Beach, Calif. The Long Beach rally was scheduled for a hangar at the airport, and, as the McGovern plane descended, "there were lines of cars for miles trying to get in," he recalls. "The crowd was enormous and screaming, and I realized that the next night we were going to be beaten overwhelmingly. Nixon was right about something: He really did have the Silent Majority. They didn't attend rallies. But they were lying in the woods."

When that last major rally ended, his campaign plane brought him home to South Dakota. Wishing to thank his driver and the other Secret Service agents around him, anticipating that they would be leaving him for good after the evening's verdict, McGovern said jocularly during the ride to his hotel, "It's going to be strange to drive my own car again."

Eleanor flashed him a stricken look. "You think we're not going to make it," he recalls her saying, accusingly.

He didn't disagree. There was a pause.

"I'm worried, too," she admitted.

As McGovern remembers it, shortly after they arrived at their room in a Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls, S.D., about 6 p.m., he told his aide Jeff Smith that he wanted to take a nap. He asked not to be awakened for what he expected would be a couple of hours -- until a trend had been detected from the early returns in the East. No sooner had he put his head on a pillow and closed his eyes, he recalls, than Smith was waking him. Perhaps half an hour had passed. "It's all over," McGovern remembers Smith saying in a choked voice. "They're kicking our ass. We're losing everywhere except in Massachusetts and D.C."

McGovern forced himself to get up and go into the bathroom to shave, contemplating what he would say to the nation, doing the best he could to prop up those around him. "He was very composed; he was trying to help us," Eleanor remembers. Smith was sobbing. McGovern tried to console him. "Jeff, the sun is going to rise in the morning," he said.

"That's easy for you to say," Smith groaned.

McGovern was on his way to losing 49 states, falling by more than 20 percentage points in the popular vote to Nixon, who would receive 520 electoral votes to McGovern's 17. "I thought, even when we had troubles in the campaign, that we could carry 10 or 15 states," McGovern says.

Even South Dakota, so loyal to him in the past, despite its Republican tendencies, was voting against him. "It was a

special sadness to lose in South Dakota," Eleanor says. "We knew these people; we'd raised our kids here; we'd done our life's work here."

What do we do about Nixon? somebody asked McGovern as the losses mounted. There would be no telephone call to the victor, for reasons that McGovern struggles to explain today: "I didn't give it a lot of thought." He merely sent a telegram offering congratulations. Then he sat on a hotel bed and wrote his concession speech on Holiday Inn stationery, handing it to a secretary to be typed on index cards.

Two weeks later, back in Washington, life was newly quiet. "No press," he says. "No morning talk shows. There weren't any more crowds raising the roof. You feel diminished as a human being."

Barry Goldwater, who had been swamped by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, sent McGovern a newspaper political cartoon depicting the two of them together -- "like Grandpa and Granny [in the painting 'American Gothic'] -- linked by our defeats," McGovern remembers. Goldwater had jotted a note on the cartoon: "George -- If you must lose, lose big."

But a lightening of McGovern's mood wasn't coming anytime soon. He had problems sleeping. "I thought the world had died -- or that I had departed from it," he recalls. "I'd go into the kitchen, have a bowl of cereal, go into the living room, think about what I should have done, make a few notes about what I did wrong."

Eleanor, devastated herself, watched her husband carefully. Within the first couple of weeks after the election, she confronted him, hoping to lift his mood. She spoke with a spouse's bluntness, appealing to his vanity, among other things. "You're frowning all the time," he remembers her saying. "You're going to get wrinkles." Next she was pushing for a night out. "It's not so bad," she'd say. "Let's get out of here tonight. Let's start going to dinner."

But there were new unpleasant limits to his energies. "It wasn't merely emotional," he remembers. "I was tired. I hadn't slept eight hours in two, three years. I lived on four, five hours of sleep. You can do it during a campaign because thousands are screaming for you. You're getting adrenaline shots each day. Then the campaign ends, and there are no more shots."

It was not long before -- disregarding the advice he would give to future also-rans -- he began critiquing his victorious rival's governing style. He skipped Nixon's second inauguration, flying instead to England to speak at Oxford University about what he saw as the abuses of the Nixon presidency. And with the Watergate investigations underway but not yet stirring the American public, he criticized the press for inadequately scrutinizing Nixon's political operations.

Back in Washington, the reaction to his speech was swift and unfavorable. Privately, even some of McGovern's Democratic friends in the Senate did not hide their disappointment with what struck some as a public breach of manners. "I probably shouldn't have done it," he says. "It was just that the thought of sitting there listening to Nixon articulate his vision -- and not being able to respond -- was so unpleasant."

The unpleasantness dragged on. Why, he asked himself, had he and his advisers stood still for the convention chaos that had deprived him of an opportunity to take the stage until nearly 3 a.m. in Miami, squandering his chance to be heard by tens of millions of Americans? But, most of all, he asked himself, why had he not better handled the Eagleton mess? How had the psychiatric problems of Eagleton -- who had assured McGovern aides before his selection that nothing in his life would embarrass the ticket and had disclosed nothing about his medical history -- gone undiscovered? McGovern came to see the answer. In the weeks before the convention, he had told himself he had time for nothing but to fight off a challenge mounted to unseat a bloc of his committed delegates from California -- and so the matter of thoroughly vetting vice presidential contenders was deferred.

A fervent McGovern says now that his original support of the embattled Eagleton was genuine, stemming from reasons both nakedly political and intensely personal. Certainly, he says, he did not want the fallout that would follow the jettisoning of a running mate. But neither, he adds, did he wish to send a discouraging signal to his daughter Teresa, who was seeing a psychiatrist at the time for her own depression, and who, McGovern feared, might view Eagleton's downfall as evidence of a stigma borne by anyone who received psychiatric treatment.

"I wish I had stayed with my initial judgment to keep Tom" on the ticket,

McGovern says. "I could have stood up

for him had I known more about mental illness at the time. I didn't, and the price I paid politically was -- " He can't settle on the right word.

"Catastrophic," he mutters finally.

WITHIN A MONTH OF THE ELECTION, McGovern's closest allies effectively had been purged from positions of Democratic Party leadership. Democratic critics pointed to the McGovern campaign's demise as proof that unabashed liberalism was hurting the party. Centrists reclaimed control, and "McGovernism" became a pejorative -- synonymous with quixotic doves and losing leftists. "Eleanor and I would go to party dinners and affairs, and we wouldn't be introduced," McGovern remembers. "No Democrat at a podium would even say, 'Well, they put up the good fight.' You went from nominee to kind of forgotten."

Returning to his Senate office in January 1973, McGovern tried losing himself in work, only to feel dispirited some days. He'd leave his office, alone, and go on long walks. But sometimes, returning to his office, he'd find messages from colleagues and acquaintances offering solace. Letters poured in. "The nice thing about an election is that you can lose overwhelmingly," he says wryly, "and still have millions of people who like you."

In March 1973, agreeing with close advisers that it was time to show that his loss had not destroyed him, he spoke at the Gridiron dinner in Washington, an annual event in which comic skewering is the rule and self-deprecation the most valued art form. Armed with a carefully drafted speech, McGovern told the crowd: "Ever since I was a young man I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way -- and I did."

But his best therapy derived from worry. He sensed that he would be in professional peril if he didn't soon get back to politicking in South Dakota: He had a tough reelection campaign a year away.

He occasionally saw Goldwater, who, nearly a decade removed from his own landslide loss, had discovered a new perspective on defeat, marveling over how dreadful it would have been to lose a close election. McGovern recalls: "Barry said to me, 'You and I got beat badly. Just imagine how awful it must have been for that son-ofabitch Nixon [in 1960], getting so close to the White House but losing to Kennedy by a hundred thousand votes."

McGovern can't say how or why exactly, but one day his spirit lifted, in the latter half of 1973. He remembers lying on his stomach on a rubdown table in the Senate gym, receiving a massage, when a grinning Walter Mondale walked in, took one look at his friend, turned to the masseuse and said, "While you've got McGovern flat on his belly, pour some turpentine up his ass."

It was an inane frat-boy line, but McGovern howled. "I laughed and laughed, I hadn't laughed like that in a long time," he remembers. "And I realized I'd hit a turning point."

He decided he was going to be okay. The worst of the sadness went away. But the What Ifs remained, and it was clear by then they always would.

HE AND ELEANOR ARE HAVING DINNER at one of their favorite hangouts in Mitchell, Chef Louie's Steak House and Lounge, when McGovern begins thinking aloud about his regrets, particularly about the toll that his political career took on his family life. He says he never became "terrifically involved" in the lives of his children until long after he lost the presidential race and then in 1980 was voted out of the Senate. Losing power brought pain, he acknowledges, but it also yielded some personal benefits.

"Politics is the worst profession for family," McGovern says. "You literally are the public's servant . . . There are gains to not being under the everyday pressures of politics. You notice some things you never did. You see the [fleeting] character of life. What happened to our daughter Terry obviously changed things for me."

What happened to Terry, who battled depression and alcoholism, is that she came apart under the strains, losing primary custody of her two daughters after a divorce, wandering in and out of detox centers, and eventually passing out and dying of exposure, at 45, on the frigid streets of Madison, Wis., in December 1994.

Nothing about McGovern's life, or perspective, has been the same since. He wrote a book about Terry and lectured about alcoholism. He expressed regret over his frequent absences from Terry and his four other kids during their childhood, and later during the worst of Terry's troubles. "I had a lot of pain remembering that she'd pleaded with me to get more involved in [counseling sessions] for families of alcoholics," he remembers. "I'd excused myself at the time by saying I had a very demanding schedule."

His agony mounted. "It was a terrible time for all of us, but especially George," Eleanor remembers. "He had feelings of guilt -- too much guilt, which he shouldn't have had." But, thinking about the differences between two generations of aspiring political dynamos, she adds, "I think most politicians now realize [the challenges of family life] and try balancing their lives a little better."

Out of the Senate and governmental work altogether during the 1980s, a decade of Republican power, McGovern entered the hotel business in 1987, buying an inn in Stratford, Conn. "But then Marriott built a much bigger hotel in the area," McGovern remembers, "and we couldn't compete. We sold in '90. I'm not much of a businessman, I guess."

He also owned a Montana bookstore in recent years, until deciding there wasn't enough of a marketplace for it, selling it, too.

Always, he has preferred a public life. President Bill Clinton appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization in 1997, when McGovern took up residence at an FAO office in Rome, setting out a plan for delivering food to 500 million malnourished people. Two years later, he joined forces with an off-and-on adversary, Bob Dole, in proposing that the United Nations commit to providing a school lunch to every hungry child on the planet. The Clinton administration allotted $300 million for the effort, and the Bush administration has since earmarked $200 million. His efforts and career were recognized in 2000, when Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor.

Sitting alongside her husband in the restaurant, a sleepy Eleanor glances at him. He hails their waitress, and they're off, looking out the window on the ride home. An adulthood of traveling the world has left them fascinated anew by the Plains, by everything from the majestic to the ordinary. They were once Dakota kids staring out windows at silos and animals, and now they are Dakota octogenarians absorbed by what is and isn't here.

"Look at that, George," Eleanor exclaims from the back seat, pointing. She has seen the Senate chamber and the offices of the White House, and lived in Italy, but Mitchell has a hold on her. "Look."

"What?"

"It's a Dollar Discount store, George. Have you been in there yet?"

"No. But I've been to the one in Missoula." He is enthused. "They have a lot. Combs, safety razors, toothbrushes. Anything you'd want."

Eleanor invests the words with wonder: "Dollar Discount."

McGovern says, "We'll go there sometime."

"Great," Eleanor says, and she closes her eyes, contented.

IN THE 20TH CENTURY, only four failed major-party presidential nominees were renominated: Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who lost to William McKinley in 1900 and William Howard Taft in 1908 (he also lost to McKinley in 1896, making him the only three-time nominated loser); Republican Thomas Dewey, who lost in 1944 to Franklin Roosevelt and in 1948 to Harry Truman; Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who fell in the landslides of 1952 and 1956 to Dwight Eisenhower; and Nixon, who after his loss to John F. Kennedy became the only losing presidential nominee in the century to come back and win the White House. Most other also-rans, typified by the Republicans' 1940 candidate, Wendell Willkie, and the Democrats' 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis, saw their influence plummet after their losses, their names and faces all but purged from their parties' conventions and major campaign events.

It takes a particularly resilient breed of loser to heal and soldier on, politically. Those most successful at it, believes McGovern, have been those who immersed themselves in jobs that had little to do with their presidential ambitions. Goldwater returned to the Senate and became more idiosyncratically popular than ever as a cantankerous, independent-minded Republican. Stevenson eventually went to work for the Kennedy administration as ambassador to the United Nations, temporarily shedding his egghead image to become a feisty Cold War diplomat.

Other also-rans have abandoned political life, resolving to remain graceful in defeat. Ohio newspaper publisher James Cox, the 1920 Democratic presidential nominee, who faced Republican Warren Harding, believed he could see emotional peril, and professional embarrassment, awaiting him if he gave in to self-pity after his lopsided loss. "A great many men have retired from public life defeated and brokenhearted," he wrote in his 1946 autobiography, Journey Through My Years. "Others have shortened their days by their disappointed broodings." He would not be among the depressed, Cox resolved. "I had this great advantage: I was still in public life," he wrote. "I had my newspapers."

Another sanguine loser, 1936 Republican nominee Alfred Landon, a popular Kansas governor who lost badly to Roosevelt in FDR's bid for his second of four terms, took up residence in the Landon family mansion in Topeka after the campaign. He did not exhibit signs of missing elective politics, instead believing he enjoyed a freedom denied to presidents. "He wouldn't have gotten along with Secret Service agents following him around," says Barry Flinchbaugh, a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University and a friend of Landon's. "He liked to ride his horse alone, even when he was 90 years old. The path would go under Interstate 70, and there'd be snow on the ground in the winter, and he'd be all alone on it, just the way he liked it. If there is a test for a person after [losing an election], he had as good a life as a man can have."

"BOB DOLE GOT BEATEN pretty soundly by Clinton," Bob Dole says over the phone. "It was no big deal for me. I moved along pretty quickly."

And lucratively. Dole became the first also-ran to strike it big in the political celebrity arena, ascending from failed candidate to winning personality. He became a prominent pitchman for Viagra. He was a hit on "Saturday Night Live" and on the late-night talk-show circuit. He did a television commercial for American Express and another for Pepsi, in which he did a double take while surveying Britney Spears.

It's a wonder, he thinks, that some people view him as a funny man now, when, in the immediate aftermath of his 1996 loss to Bill Clinton, his critics thought that "I didn't loosen up enough, I didn't show enough leg. They said I was too serious . . . It takes several months to stop fretting about it and move on. But I did."

He thinks that his combat experience and injuries suffered during World War II likely made it easier for him to cope with the loss. Long before his '96 presidential run, life had put setbacks into perspective for him and other war veterans like McGovern, he guesses.

Maybe losing decisively to Clinton, he says, made it easier for him to be magnanimous. "People were urging [me] to be a hatchet man against Clinton for the next four years," recalls Dole, whose dozen years as a Senate leader guaranteed him continued stature. "I couldn't see the point. Maybe after all those partisan fights, you look for more friendships. One of the nice things I've discovered is that when you're out of politics, you have more credibility with the other side . . . And you're out among all kinds of people, and that just doesn't happen often for an ex-president; he doesn't have the same freedom. So it hasn't been all bad."

Walter Mondale, a lawyer today in his home state of Minnesota, says that the post-election nights when he would wake up in a cold sweat, replaying what he regarded as his disappointing performance in his last debate with Reagan, are thankfully 20 years behind him. "One of the virtues of getting whomped like I did is that there is less second-guessing," he says.

He won nothing but Minnesota and D.C., which is why, reeling and seeing McGovern shortly after the '84 election, he impulsively asked: So when did you get over it?

Two decades later, the same question is posed to Mondale.

"I'll call you when it happens," he says.

LATE ONE AFTERNOON, McGovern heads for a busy bar run by the Veterans of Foreign War's Post 2750, down on Main Street in Mitchell. He's not a frequent patron, but every once in a while he drops by just to have a little contact with older veterans. A waitress in a T-shirt that says "I Break Hearts" walks over to his table and says, "Hi, George."

McGovern orders a vodka tonic. "You have Absolut?"

She nods and brings him the drink. He's no sooner taken a draw on it than the waitress is back. "Can Joe buy you a drink?" she asks him.

"Who's Joe?"

She gestures with a backhand of a wave at an elderly man who is hoisting a drink a few tables down. "Little guy over there. With glasses."

"Sure. Tell him it's nice of him."

After she walks off, he mutters, "I need another drink like I need a hole in the head."

Now he has two in front of him. He raises the second glass and, looking toward Joe with the glasses, he hoists it, smiling, sipping. In the next 15 seconds or so, his political instincts take over. He's up, out of his chair and approaching Joe's table, thanking him and pumping his hand, which has emboldened some other veterans to walk over. Others keep their arms folded across their chests, watching him languidly.

Joe is Joe Weiland, and he asks, "You livin' back in town?"

"About six months out of the year, Joe," McGovern says.

Keith Miller runs a hand through his crew cut. He is 62 and a retired postal worker. "I still remember the day of the presidential election," he says later, away from McGovern. "All these reporters out here on Main Street; never seen anything like it. It wasn't a good day for McGovern ... People here thought it was really funny that he got beat in South Dakota and lost so badly. I voted for him."

There's not so much as a sign in town saying that McGovern grew up here. Years ago, they named the little waiting lounge at the Mitchell airport after him, but when commercial flights shut down, the name came off the lounge. "Mitchell's never been in love with George," Miller says.

McGovern moves on from Joe Weiland's table to shake more hands for the next five minutes, finally retaking his seat, buoyed by the reaction. "I think," he says, "that I might be emerging as a more popular figure with time, and as people get farther away from the '70s and all the talk about 'McGovernism.'"

He despises the term. You don't hear the term "Mondaleism," he points out. He likes Fritz Mondale a great deal, he says, but "people never mention that Mondale lost 49 states, too, and received fewer electoral votes than I did."

While Dole and Mondale were seemingly content, in the wake of their losses, to exit the presidential stage for good, a stung and ambitious McGovern looked for another opportunity. As a first step toward political rehabilitation, he approached Hubert Humphrey, offering to back Humphrey for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination and run as his vice president. A misty-eyed Humphrey declined, McGovern says, leaving him wondering to this day whether Humphrey, who in 1978 would die of bladder cancer, already knew of his illness.

In 1984, McGovern made a long-shot run against Mondale and his own '72 campaign manager, Gary Hart, for the Demo-cratic nomination. The early primaries knocked him out, but by 1991, as his former student volunteer Bill Clinton made preparations to run for the presidency, McGovern dreamed again about the possibility. Pondering it while boarding a shuttle flight one afternoon, he found himself seated, remarkably, across the aisle from Richard Nixon, who was accompanied by a Secret Service agent. Nixon asked the agent to move so that his vanquished rival could have the seat next to his. McGovern used the opportunity to ask what Nixon thought about the chances of a possible McGovern candidacy.

Nixon was polite about it. "George, do you have anything fundamentally different to say?" McGovern recalls Nixon asking. "Would anybody pay attention to you and take you seriously? If you can answer yes, then maybe you can give it another try. You didn't make it before, but who knows about this time . . ."

In the end, McGovern says, "I decided it wasn't in the cards for me." He pushes the drinks aside, having barely touched them. A shy bearded man finally has worked up the nerve to shuffle across the bar and say, "George, just wanted to shake your hand, howyadoin?" And as McGovern says, "Fine," a woman rushes him.

"I loved your book about Terry the daughter," the woman gushes, slurring these words, stumbling against him. She has been drinking for a while. "I lovvvvvvvved your book." She presses her head against his chest and nuzzles him there, closing her eyes, not moving.

"Well, thank you," he says calmly.

She is an alcoholic, she says. "Sometimes I don't drink, but sometimes I do."

"I know," he says, meaning that he understands. He talks to her for a few minutes, gently holding her hand, telling her it can be okay, that there are people out there for her.

"I'm not having a good day," she says, lifting her head off his chest.

"You'll be all right," he says.

"Okay."

"It'll be all right." And he holds her hand for a while.

HE FLIES TO WASHINGTON THE NEXT DAY for two events. He signs copies of his new book, The Essential America, at a party co-hosted by fellow South Dakotan Tom Daschle, who recently lost his Senate seat in a close race. Then he attends a roast in honor of his former campaign strategist Frank Mankiewicz.

McGovern knows there will be the requisite needling at the roast about the miseries of his '72 campaign. Columnist Ellen Goodman jokes that "Frank ran the McGovern campaign to retain his sense of humor . . ." The crowd chuckles and McGovern smiles.

Introduced after Ted Kennedy, McGovern receives the evening's only standing ovation besides Mankiewicz's. It is largely an older McGovern crowd, and the mood is suffused with 1972. McGovern loves it. Only one moment stings him. The roast's co-host Cokie Roberts, who has paid McGovern an effusive tribute, says that Mankiewicz was behind his candidate "a thousand percent."

At breakfast the next morning, the line is still on McGovern's mind. "I noticed she said that, the one thousand percent thing, and I know it's a roast, but -- " he murmurs and then stops himself, brushing his hand through the air. He says, resolutely, that he is looking forward. He has his library fundraising. He has a three-week course to teach as a guest lecturer at the University of San Francisco. He wants to call Dole, talk about their school lunch project and decide on their next joint initiative.

He is ever trying to remind himself about what counts most. That afternoon, clutching a towel, he travels to Rock Creek Cemetery, near his old home in Washington, and wipes dirt from a tombstone:

TERESA JANE MCGOVERN

"Terry"

June 10, 1949 -- December 13, 1994

Precious daughter of George and Eleanor McGovern

He spends half an hour there, cleaning around the grave. He drives to a movie theater in Bethesda, watching a film starring his friend Annette Bening, making a mental note to call her. There is nothing left for him to do in Washington for now. He eats and flies home. Eleanor and Ursa are waiting. After the holidays, they all leave for his lecturing gig in San Francisco, beginning the 1,700-mile drive west in the little blue Subaru. He skips watching George Bush's inauguration on television to do an event in Santa Cruz. It will be another place, he knows, where a generation of kids will have no idea who he is; another event where he'll remind others -- and himself -- that his life has mattered much, and to reinforce his place in history. It is the also-ran's opportunity and burden.

Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.