Yet the man who died yesterday at 90 deserves a better epitaph than that. He lost a disastrous election as the last traditionally liberal Democrat to run for the White House, but his story encompasses much more.
He was at the cusp of change in American political and social life, from the optimistic sense of Martin Luther King that “the arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice” to the darker vision that prevails today.
Less than two years after McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, the victor resigned in disgrace over criminality at Watergate, which began with a break-in of Democratic offices to undermine McGovern’s 1972 run, which needed no help to shoot itself in the foot.
After selecting a running mate who had been treated for depression with electro-shock therapy and having to drop him, it was all downhill for McGovern, who now goes down in history as a hopeless loser but, with his passing, America loses something as well.
Son of a Methodist minister, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for crash-landing a plane under fire and went on to become a U.S. Senator from South Dakota who opposed the Vietnam War, but his timing was bad.
The nation was reeling from the murders of Dr. King, JFK and Robert Kennedy while running for the White House in 1968 and ready to turn away from the liberal activism that had led to advances in racial and gender equality.
Nixon promised to calm the fears of “the Silent Majority” who had been unsettled by all that turmoil, and the time was not right for a relatively unsophisticated McGovern, who was unable to navigate the new shark-infested political waters.
Yet, he lived long enough to call for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney for the Iraq War and, in his last years, restate his social credo:
“We are the party that believes we can’t let the strong kick aside the weak. Our party believes that poor children should be as well educated as those from wealthy families. We believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes and that everyone should have access to health care.”
McGovern’s passing is a reminder that, no matter how much life changes on the surface, some things remain the same and that it isn’t just the winners who fight the good fight.