Mr. McGovern taught history and politics at his Dakota Wesleyan for several years, then gave up academe in June 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic party. Crisscrossing the state, he compiled a file of 40,000 3x5 cards on individual voters and began to rebuild a party that then held only two seats in a 110-member legislature. Such assiduousness paid off in 1956, as Mr. McGovern was elected US representative in an upset victory over the Republican incumbent.
Having won reelection in 1958, Mr. McGovern challenged GOP senator Karl Mundt in 1960, losing to him by a single percentage point while running 18,000 votes ahead of the national ticket. Two years later, when Mr. McGovern took South Dakota’s other Senate seat by a margin of 597 votes, that one-point differential would have seemed enormous.
In between the races, he headed the Kennedy administration’s Food for Peace program, later detailing his experiences in a book, “War Against Want” (1964). Feeding the hungry remained an abiding concern for Mr. McGovern. During the 1970s, he joined with US Senator Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, to expand the federal government’s food stamp program. From 1998 to 2001 he served as permanent US representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
In recognition of his work against hunger, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2000. Mr. McGovern was also author of “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time” (2001).
Agriculture had been Mr. McGovern’s primary concern in Congress, but the Vietnam War changed that. “From 1965 until the last American soldier left Vietnam in April 1975, the war was never far from my thoughts,” he once wrote.
He called his 1964 vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized US military action in Indochina “the one I most regret during my public career.’’
A leading critic of administration policy, he was urged to run against Johnson as an antiwar candidate in 1968. Mr. McGovern was tempted, but declined because he faced reelection. Two weeks before the Democratic Convention, he did enter the race (to little effect) as a surrogate for the slain Robert F. Kennedy, a close friend, who once described Mr. McGovern as “the most decent man in the Senate.”
A year later, Mr. McGovern was in Chicago. He paid a courtesy call on Mayor Richard J. Daley and spoke of the need to heal the wounds left by the convention. “Yes,” Daley replied, “that is important because I think our presidential nominee in ’72 will either be you or young [Edward M.] Kennedy.”
Paving the way to Mr. McGovern’s nomination was his selection, in 1969, to head a committee on “party structure and delegate selection.” The McGovern Commission, as it became known, opened up of the selection process for 1972. As a result, the delegates chosen were far more representative of the liberal makeup of the party, but also far less representative of the electorate as a whole.
As House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. later put it, Mr. McGovern “was nominated by the cast of ‘Hair.’ ”
The front-runner for the nomination, Senator Edmund S. Muskie, was a moderate, as was Humphrey, Mr. McGovern’s leading challenger after Muskie’s campaign faltered. But Mr. McGovern’s opposition to the war energized a large and committed following, and he secured the nomination.
Opinion polls showed President Nixon enjoyed a commanding lead, and the personal contrast between the two was as striking as the political. The novelist Norman Mailer called his account of the 1972 conventions “St. George and the Godfather.” Mailer was a McGovern supporter, but even an unbiased observer would have to concede that the title got at a larger truth. In fact, as much as Mr. McGovern’s views, it was his perceived preachiness that disaffected many voters. “Come home, America,” he urged in his acceptance speech (which, through anarchic convention management, was not delivered until nearly 3 a.m. EDT). As many listeners were put off by Mr. McGovern’s suggestion that America had gone astray as were by doubts as to how he defined “home.”
Mr. McGovern’s hopes of winning the White House effectively ended soon after the convention with his handling of the disclosure that his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had undergone shock therapy for depression.
After initially backing Eagleton, Mr. McGovern removed him from the ticket, naming former Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver as his replacement. The damage had been done, however, and Mr. McGovern’s indecisive handling of the affair, and, in particular, the statement that he backed Eagleton “1,000 percent,” dogged the rest of the campaign. Almost as damaging was an earlier proposal of a $1,000-a-year guaranteed income. Though the measure little differed from Nixon’s own Family Assistance Plan, it was taken to be another example of Mr. McGovern’s radical bent.Continued...