George McGovern was the first presidential candidate I was old enough to vote for. McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign represented the triumph of the peace wing of the Democratic Party over the establishment wing. The party regulars had won the bitter and bloody contest of 1968, after the party split in three factions, but their triumph was short-lived, as the old guard's candidate, Hubert Humphrey, was defeated in the general election by Richard Nixon's law and order campaign. McGovern had picked up the mantle of Bobby Kennedy after Kennedy's assassination in 1968, but did not have time to mount a serious challenge to Humphrey. In 1972, however, McGovern managed to out-organize the regulars enough to win another divisive nominating contest. Those were the days when political conventions were exciting!--a little too exciting unfortunately. (McGovern's acceptance speech, which nobody watched at the time since it did not come on until about 2:00 a.m., is well worth watching today because its theme of restoring government to the people, is still so important.)
McGovern famously went on to a lopsided defeat in the 1972 general election, but had the last laugh when Nixon was forced to resign from office two years later in complete disgrace. When people question whether McGovern would have made a better president than Nixon, one possible response is to suggest that at least he would have finished his term in office without scandal. It's hard to imagine a straight arrow like George McGovern in any sort of scandal.
Anyway, in the fall of 1972, as a college freshman, I was handing out flyers for McGovern in Fort Tryon Park in upper Manhattan, and canvassing the Washington Heights neighborhood. We had nothing even remotely close to the sophistication of today's campaigns, and nowhere near the amount of information available. On election day, I was poll watching for McGovern in the same neighborhood. News of Nixon's crushing victory came through even before our precinct's polls had closed, lending my efforts a tremendous sense of futility. I have followed politics closely since that time, but never got involved again with the same level of enthusiasm and interest . . . until the 2008 Obama campaign.
George McGovern's passing reminds us that the spirit of hope and change is fleeting and fragile, and must be supported whenever it emerges. Powerful reactionary forces playing to the voters' hates and fears are always ready to stomp that spirit out. They are trying again this election year. They must not be allowed to succeed.