I just learned, this very instant, that George McGovern passed away. I hadn’t thought about him much over the years—no particular reason to, as he’d been out of politics for a long time—but he was one of the more significant public figures of my youth. I first heard of him in the spring of 1972, during the Democratic party primary campaign. I was in the 10th grade at the American school in Ankara, Turkey, and very interested in politics, keeping up with US and world affairs via the International Herald-Tribune, Newsweek, and the BBC World Service. I decided then that he was my man for the nomination and, on the last day of school, told my English teacher, Mrs. Davis, so (in a private conversation; she revealed to me that she was a Democrat and for McGovern too; and in a school run by the US Defense Dept and where most of the students were US Air Force dependents). During the DNC in July I happened to be in Budapest, where I had no way of following it, as the IHT and other Western newspapers were unavailable. To find out who McGovern’s running mate was I picked up a copy of a local paper on a park bench—no doubt the Communist party daily Népszabadság—, found a short dispatch on the US (I didn’t understand a word, of course) and saw the name Thomas Eagleton. I worked on the campaign in the late summer and fall, now in Evanston, Illinois, going to McGovern HQ in downtown Evanston every day after school, plus on Saturdays, to stuff envelopes and take leaflets, buttons, and bumper stickers to hand out at the el stations or outside supermarkets. Evanston had been a conservative town but was trending liberal—and McGovern ended up carrying it—but I felt a lot of negativity, when not downright hostility (e.g. in front of an el station a 60ish man in a suit knocked the leaflets out of my hand and looked like he wanted to punch me). I thought McGovern was great—as did my diehard Democrat family and friends—but had no illusions that he had any chance of winning. And I was surprised to learn that my fellow campaign volunteers actually believed he could. But I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of Nixon’s landslide. It was not a festive atmosphere at campaign HQ on election night, where I watched the returns (on NBC). At least he won Massachusetts. And that night was doubly disappointing for liberals in Evanston and adjoining north shore Chicago suburbs, as Abner Mikva, the liberal Dem candidate in the IL 9th CD—many kids at the high school worked on his campaign—, lost in a cliffhanger to the incumbent Republican congressman.
Great bumper sticker during the Watergate scandal: Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.
Losing his Senate seat in the 1980 Republican landslide was another downer. I knew Reagan was going to win that one—though was stunned by his margin of victory—but did not anticipate 12 Dem incumbent senators losing reelection and the Senate going GOP. That was a stunner times ten. And for a man of McGovern’s stature to lose to a GOP non-entity named James Abdnor. That was tough. I didn’t take McGovern’s short-lived candidacy for the 1984 nomination too seriously, though a few friends did work on it (I was in Chicago at the time) and it did rehabilitate him with the national Democratic party, which had avoided bringing up his name after the ’72 debacle. In 1984 McGovern showed himself to be what he had always been: the conscience of American liberalism and simply a decent man. There was, of course, no way anyone as far to the left as he could ever be elected to national office. Which is too bad.