SHORTLY after his 1984 landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale found himself standing alongside George McGovern at a luggage carousel on the bottom level of the old Washington National Airport. Mr. Mondale posed a plaintive question to Mr. McGovern.
“George,” he asked the former South Dakota senator, who lost 49 states in his presidential race a dozen years earlier, “how long does it take for the hurt to wear off?”
“Fritz,” Mr. McGovern said to the former vice president, who also lost 49 states, “I’ll call you when it does.”
For Mr. McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, the hurt never fully went away. It lingered largely because his loss was to Richard Nixon, who resigned in disgrace two years later.
Though the sting of defeat remained, Mr. McGovern lived long enough to see the end of the use of his name as a synonym for wild-eyed liberalism and feckless pacifism. While it would be a stretch to say that today we are all McGovernites, many Americans — veterans of World War II and the Vietnam peace movement, veterans of the Senate, including a surprisingly large number of Republican lawmakers who were his friends and admirers — happily describe themselves that way.
Owing to his stand against the Vietnam War, Mr. McGovern in 1972 rarely discussed his war record. But in the years that followed, the dimensions of his World War II heroism, displayed in the crucible of three dozen B-24 Liberator missions in Europe that won him the Distinguished Flying Cross, emerged.
He also earned plaudits for his groundbreaking work as a senator in the fight against hunger at home and abroad, and for his service as ambassador to the United Nations’ food and agricultural agencies.
Mr. McGovern won opprobrium from conservatives for his outspoken antiwar position — a passion that prompted him to run for president after Sen. Robert Kennedy was killed in 1968.
He ran again in 1972. His opponents ridiculed him as a proponent of “amnesty, abortion, and acid,” a trifecta of liberalism at a time of bitter divisions in the country. This was a potent but not entirely fair critique.
“He was no mad radical,” recalled Frank Mankiewicz, the campaign’s press secretary. “He was a New Dealer who believed in government helping people, but was no socialist. He was a self-reliance guy. But he felt if the weather made your crops fail, maybe you should get a little help.”
Where Mr. McGovern, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University and wrote an acclaimed biography of Abraham Lincoln, may have had no equal was in an arena far from Washington — the prairie classroom.
As a young man, he returned to his alma mater, tiny Dakota Wesleyan University, fired with intellectual energy. He imparted that fire to his students.
“I was a freshman coming out of a town of 500 and we were reading Lincoln Steffens and [John] Montague, writers I didn’t know even existed before his course,” said Dorothy Schwieder, who later became a historian at Iowa State University. “I ended up majoring in history, but really, I majored in George McGovern.”
Scores of people he touched, many of whom contentedly voted for Mr. Nixon in 1972, could say much the same thing.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org