George McGovern, the longtime U.S. senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, has died at the ripe old age of 90. He was admitted for hospice care early last week and by Wednesday was “unresponsive,” according to a family statement. McGovern served in the Senate from 1963 to 1981, from the year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the inauguration of Ronald Reagan—throw in the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, race riots, Kent State, the Iranian hostage crisis and Watergate to make the most tumultuous decades of the American Century.
By the 1990s, Richard Nixon had reinvented himself as an “elder statesman” and George McGovern’s kind of mainstream liberalism was mostly finished. The New Democrats were slick show-biz Third Way types. There would be other presidential candidates like McGovern, but they wouldn’t win, either.
McGovern was a decorated World War II bomber pilot and then a distinguished professor of history and political science. He was elected to the House of Representatives for two terms in the 1950s, lost his first Senate race in 1960, and was appointed director of the new “Food for Peace” program in the new Kennedy Administration. He would work closely with anti-hunger groups for the rest of his life, especially after his 1981 retirement from politics, but McGovern was reportedly bored with administrative work and ran for the Senate again in 1962, with JFK’s blessing. His last government appointment was as America’s ambassador to the United Nations food and agriculture agency, from 1998 to 2001.
But the main reason we remember George McGovern is because he ran against Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War and the evils of the military draft. Nixon defeated McGovern in the election—the Democrat won only 37.5% of the popular vote and lost every state but Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts and the non-state of Washington D.C.—but McGovern was ultimately the reason for Nixon’s resignation in the face of impeachment. The target of the Watergate burglaries was the Democratic National Committee’s campaign to elect George McGovern.
McGovern died peacefully, surrounded by family. Unlike the shameful con-man Richard Nixon, McGovern deserved to be proud of his life and his accomplishments. He was a good man in a business that hasn’t required morals or decency in a long time.