Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

McGovern's values came from an earlier, 'better' time

  • Print

It's been 40 years since George McGovern lost his run for the U.S. presidency -- lost so badly as to become a figure of fun to entertainers, a cautionary example to practising 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.

Mr. McGovern was a product of some of this country's best traditions -- religious and political -- and also of a grinding economic Depression that shaped the ideas and behaviour 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 labour," 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 during 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 Second World War 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 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.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 23, 2012 A11

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Andrew Ladd talks about his injury

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA 090728 / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS White Pelicans belly up to the sushi bar Tuesday afternoon at Lockport. One of North America's largest birds is a common sight along the Red RIver and on Lake Winnipeg. Here the fight each other for fish near the base of Red RIver's control structure, giving human fisher's downstream a run for their money.
  • A Canada goose protects her nest full of eggs Monday on campus at the University of Manitoba- Standup photo- Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


Are you concerned about the number of homicides so far this year?

View Results

Ads by Google