Americans of a certain age may best remember former Sen. George McGovern for his emphatically failed presidential bid in 1972. It included a wild and tumultuous nominating convention that left him giving, after 2 a.m. in the eastern time zone, a moving acceptance speech to a sleeping nation.
That debacle would end unscripted conventions. Mr. McGovern lost 49 of 50 states to President Richard Nixon, as he denounced the Vietnam war and advocated new anti-poverty programs.
Mr. McGovern, a three-term Democratic senator from South Dakota, died Sunday at age 90. A proud liberal before the term became a four-letter word, Mr. McGovern opposed the Vietnam war as early as 1963. He was right long before his country was willing to admit it.
Despite its outcome, Mr. McGovern’s presidential campaign had a lasting influence on the Democratic Party. It inspired and enlisted many Democratic stalwarts of the next generation, including former President Bill Clinton.
A lifelong peace activist and champion of humanitarian causes, Mr. McGovern said his combat experience inspired much of his work against war and hunger. A decorated bomber pilot in World War II, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1944.
Mr. McGovern was elected to Congress in 1956, and later became the first director of President John Kennedy’s Food for Peace program. He played a central role in building the United Nations’ World Food Program.
Working with Republican Sen. Bob Dole, Mr. McGovern helped expand food stamp and school lunch programs. In 2008, the two men were named co-recipients of the World Food Prize. Their lasting friendship and work together to fight hunger reflect an era of bipartisanship that today seems almost quaint.
After he retired from electoral politics, Mr. McGovern wrote books on U.S. history and spoke out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Decent and principled, he refrained from making personal attacks or demonizing his opponents.
In a far more crass and less principled political era, George McGovern’s fairness, compassion, civility, and work as a humanitarian — not a failed presidential run — constitute his enduring legacy.