It's always struck me that, more than any modern Democratic standard-barer, there was an essential elusiveness about George McGovern; all paths that should seemingly lead to him in fact led to other places.
McGovern is most famous for running against Richard Nixon for president in the 1972 election, of which 3 things are almost always remembered:
1. He lost in one of the biggest landslides in history, losing every region but Massachusetts & the District of Columbia, for a grand total of 520 to 17 in the Electoral College.
2. His campaign was the victim of the infamous Watergate scandal & coverup, which subsequently brought down the administration that had beaten him by a record 18 million popular votes.
3. His campaign was covered by Hunter S. Thompson, whose journalism became the classic Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72.
The first two points are the biggies, for McGovern's loss in 1972 & Nixon's coverup of the Watergate scandal in 1974 stand as the twin peaks of American failure in the troubled 1970s.
Both have come to signify partisan extremism to the point of caricature: On one side, you had McGovern, the liberal's liberal — a populist pacifist who wanted to end the Vietnam War abroad & poverty at home — but was working with a Democratic Party that was so disorganized & inept, he could barely make a dent in the national map. On the other side, you had Nixon, the conservative's conservative — a cynic so paranoid & untrusting that he authorized the burglary of the Democratic headquarters of his opponent — all to help guarantee a victory in an election he was never going to lose. The fact that the Democrats ran McGovern in hindsight feels like a philosophical gesture rather than a tactical one, much like how the Republicans ran Barry Goldwater in 1964 (albeit on a directly opposite party platform).
The third point about Thompson's book is obviously the most superfluous one, except for this: As a nonfiction account of the 20th century American political scene from the inside, it's as gripping as Robert Warren Penn's All the King's Men is as a fiction account, which is to say it is the best. &, if we are to take Thompson at his word, it was he who began the rumors of early frontrunner Ed Muskie's alleged use of drugs, which opened the door for the dark horse McGovern to get the nomination.
All of which is well & good, but actively deflects away from George McGovern, the person. In the modern age of politics-as-the-cult-of-personality, McGovern feels like a final holdover from an earlier era where things didn't revolve around a 24-hour pop-culture theater.
Or, maybe it's all just a way of sidestepping the fact that George McGovern was not as straightforward as he seemed — his famous (some would say infamous) pacifism came from his experience as a World War II fighter pilot, where he flew more than 2 dozen missions over Europe in a B-24 & earned a Distinguished Flying Cross when he was struck by enemy fire & had to crash-land on an island in the Adriatic. This was a man who knew the horrors of war firsthand & wanted to prevent it from happening again — or, in the case of Vietnam, continuing to happen — to the nation's youth. For all the grief he's gotten over the years as an antiwar coward, he was one of the most distinguished soldiers to run on a major ticket in his era.
With this war & peace at his core, other contrasts begin to take shape. He was a Democrat from the traditionally Republican state of South Dakota, in which he all but single-handedly revived the Democratic party & eventually earned three terms as its senator. He was a history professor who eventually earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University to become one of the few modern academics to seek major office, in the tradition of Jefferson, Wilson, & (perhaps) Kennedy. & he was an elderly statesman who kept eternally young, calling for Bush & Cheney's impeachment for the Iraq War in 2008 & staying active in political commentary until relatively recently.
I, for one, first seriously considered Barack Obama as a presidential candidate after reading McGovern's endorsement of him in a Rolling Stone interview. His endorsement was much like him at his best: Clear, level-headed, honest, & with integrity.
I got to see McGovern speak one time 4 years earlier, during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He was giving a talk at the Old South Meeting House with former Governor Michael Dukakis, & I worked directly across the street at Borders. I was on cash register during the time of their talk, so I waited for the line to wane & ran across the street to catch what I could as though I had just stepped out for a quick break. (This was the kind of junk you could get away with working at Borders; is it any wonder that they are no longer in business?)
Dukakis went on & on, as he was prone to do, but when it (finally) came to McGovern's turn, his words were every bit measured & refined as Dukakis's were rambling & chattery. McGovern was the picture of an elderly statesman, & he spoke softly but clearly, with nothing less than grace:
"Last night at the Democratic National Convention, I saw 3 men give the speeches of their careers. First, was Al Gore. Now, where was that fighting spirit 4 years ago?! & next, was Jimmy Carter—"
I began clapping almost instinctually, such that McGovern looked up a bit startled, but not at all upset, as I led the room in applause. He gave us a second, & continued where he left off.
"—next was Jimmy Carter. That man gets better & better every day, doesn't he? & then finally Bill Clinton, who is always at his peak."
His words were wistful & charming as they retold the narrative of the modern Democratic party, leading up to John Kerry, who, in what I can only describe as the misty-eyed nostalgia of 2004, looked as though he could — & would — become our next president.
In other words, my own personal memory of McGovern leads everywhere but to him.