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George McGovern, R.I.P.
THERE is a durable tragedy of the American West about men trampled by changing times. Geronimo defies a technological invader and becomes a fairgrounds novelty. Shane rides off into the sunset never to come back. Butch and Sundance are tracked by modernity all the way to Bolivia. And Sen. George McGovern, son of the South Dakota plains, loses to Dick Nixon 17 electoral votes to 520.
As a teen, Mr. McGovern aspired to be a Methodist minister like his father. But his salvationist impulse was deflected from the pulpit to politics, with a stopover in the cockpit of a B-24 above Hitler's Germany. Observing the poverty of the Great Depression and of wartime Europe persuaded the heroic young pilot (the Distinguished Flying Cross, four Air Medals) to abandon his family's Republican affiliation and to embrace the spirit of the New Deal.
Representing South Dakota's 1st House District from 1956-60, Mr. McGovern ran for the Senate, lost, joined the Kennedy administration as the first director of the Food for Peace Program, and in 1962 tried again for the Senate. This time he won--just as a U.S. foreign-policy endeavor began that soon evolved into the Vietnam War.
Mr. McGovern voted for the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which allowed Lyndon Johnson to escalate military action against the Vietnamese communists. But the senator didn't stay a hawk long. He soon viewed the war as an exercise in anti-communist hysteria fit only to weaken the country and destroy young lives. In 1969, he gave a blistering Senate speech:
Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval--young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.
In 1972 Mr. McGovern converted this zeal into action by winning the Democratic nod and taking on Nixon. Undeterred by the manifest failures of the Great Society, he evangelized for such left-wing ideals as government-mandated full employment, a minimum household income--and an immediate pullout from Indochina. The electorate was moving the other way. Mr. McGovern carried Massachusetts and D.C.; "McGovernism" became a synonym for ideologically intoxicated failure.
He preached the progressive gospel still--only to lose his Senate seat in the 1980 Reagan landslide. Yet he never shied from the word "liberal" or trimmed his sails by a wrinkle. Dead at 90, George McGovern led a life of decency, courage, and honor. Time may have passed him by; eternity sets a more comfortable pace.