Was George McGovern the worst presidential candidate to come from the two major parties, in history?
You could make a case for it.
Not that any Democrat would have defeated Dick Nixon in 1972, all of the president’s dirty tricks notwithstanding.
Yet somehow McGovern, the senator from South Dakota who passed away last week, became the Democrat nominee in ’72, when there were better and more appealing men available.
It wasn’t just that McGovern was more left than a freeway’s fast lane shoulder. The times were kinda, sorta, right for a left-winger such as McGovern to run for president. There was the Vietnam War, for one; McGovern was a famous opposer of the war.
But the Democrats didn’t need to go so left of center to have a shot against Nixon, even with the war raging on.
Part of the blame could be laid at the feet of Lyndon Johnson.
It was LBJ who shocked the nation by not seeking re-election in 1968, after pretty much trouncing the hawk Barry Goldwater in 1964. Initially, Johnson’s decision opened the door for the likes of Bobby Kennedy and vice president Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy was the early favorite for the nomination, but you know how that turned out in early-June in Los Angeles.
So it was Humphrey against Nixon in ’68, and the race was close. Yet it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened had Johnson gone against Nixon armed with more than a full term under his belt.
That sequence of events—Johnson running and winning in ’68—likely would not have led to an extreme left-winger like McGovern gaining traction in 1972.
If you believe the whispers, the torpedoing of other Dems like Ed Muskie (the infamous “Canadian letter” may have been planted by Nixon operatives) might have been part of a concerted effort to isolate McGovern as the last man standing. Ted Kennedy nixed an offer to run, and George Wallace was partially paralyzed in an assassination attempt. Eugene McCarthy, another pacifist, couldn’t get rolling.
So that left McGovern, and his campaign was hamstrung almost immediately after the party’s convention when it was learned that running mate Thomas Eagleton had some mental issues in his past. McGovern soon dumped Eagleton and tabbed Sargent Shriver, a Kennedy by proxy (and marriage) only.
As expected, McGovern was destroyed by the Nixon machine, both before and on Election Day. The South Dakota senator never had a prayer.
George McGovern (right) and doomed running mate Thomas Eagleton at the 1972 Democratic National Convention
Yet they say McGovern’s failed candidacy galvanized the Democrats. More likely, Watergate did that.
Regardless, they said goodbye to McGovern today in South Dakota.
Vice president Joe Biden damned McGovern with praise at a prayer service Thursday night, calling the late senator ”the father of the modern Democratic Party.” Without his resolve, Biden said, the country would have remained mired in the Vietnam War for longer and “so much more blood and so much more treasure would have been wasted.”
“The war would never have ended when it did. It would never have ended when it did,” Biden said, his voice rising as he turned his body toward McGovern’s daughters. “Your father gave courage to people who didn’t have the courage to speak up to finally stand up. Your father stood there and took all of that beating.”
McGovern certainly took a beating on Election Night in 1972. But he picked himself up and continued to be an effective senator for nearly a decade longer. He might have been a lousy presidential candidate, but like so many of them, his candidacy was the culmination of a perfect storm.
Or imperfect, in this case.