George McGovern, who died over the weekend, is best known for his lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, but is less well known for some of the most formative and influential aspects of his life.
Born in rural South Dakota in 1922, the son of a minister who was a Republican, McGovern witnessed first-hand momentous events in the early part of the 20th Century, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II.
McGovern is remembered for his lonely battle in Congress against waging war in Vietnam, but many forgot he was a WWII pilot who flew a B-24 Liberator on numerous missions over enemy territory, crash-landed on an island in the Adriatic and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.
Like the late Senator Mark Hatfield, who was stunned by the devastation he saw after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, McGovern came to regard war as a last resort, not another diplomatic tool. Hatfield and McGovern were allies in their battle to end the war.
Most political observers view McGovern's improbable presidential campaign in 1972 as a colossal failure. Few expected the soft-spoken former college professor from the prairie to win the nomination. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the frontrunner in a field that also included former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and segregationist George Wallace.
How McGovern won the nomination is his legacy, according to Scott Farris, the Portland-based author of "Almost President." He notes how McGovern rewrote the rules for nominating a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party and benefitted when he ran in 1972 by the rule changes that threw open the doors of participation to everyday Democrats, including women and minorities. Primaries and caucuses counted for more and deals in smoked-filled rooms all but disappeared.
The result was a boisterous convention that produced a platform calling for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, abolition of the draft and a full employment plank. Contentious floor debates delayed McGovern's acceptance speech into the wee hours of the next day, denying him his best chance to speak directly to millions of TV viewers.
But while his campaign flopped, his legacy of constituent politics has lived on and plays a major role in presidential elections today.
After his crushing defeat in 1972, McGovern returned to the Senate where he remained until he lost re-election in the 1980 Republican sweep led by Ronald Reagan. He disdained becoming a lobbyist or cashing in on his experience. He lectured and wrote and briefly owned a motor inn in Connecticut and a bookstore in Montana.
In 1994, McGovern's daughter was found frozen to death in a Wisconsin snowbank after years of struggling with alcoholism and mental illness. He wrote a book and talked candidly about the situation, even noting that he wished he had reacted differently in his 1972 campaign after learning his vice presidential running mate Thomas Eagleton has suffered from depression and undergone electric shock therapy.
McGovern's life came full circle after Bill Clinton appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. In that role, McGovern moved to Rome and worked on ways to deliver food to malnourished people around the world. Clinton awarded McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
A number of tributes following word of McGovern's death noted his inspiration for others, including the Church World Service, which like McGovern has deep roots in the Midwest. Writing in The Washington Post, John McCullough credited McGovern with encouraging school lunches — in Africa and America — and establishing school safe zones for children.
McGovern recently finished a new book, "The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time."
"McGovern knew that 'security' was bound up in how we feed and clothe the poor and hungry," McCollough said," not merely how we are armed militarily."
It is an intriguing and provocative legacy for an eyewitness to the depravations of economic depression and the destruction of war — one who won his nation's highest honors for his response to both.