F Scott Fitzgerald once bitterly remarked that there are no second acts in American lives. One wonders what the author of The Great Gatsby would have made of George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential contender who lost to Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in American history and who died yesterday at the age of 90.
In some ways, McGovern was a character straight out of Fitzgerald’s most famous novel. Like Nick Carraway, he was a midwesterner out of place among the elite, far from his native South Dakota; like Gatsby himself, he was chewed up and spat out by the “foul dust”—as it turned out, the foulest dust—in the American political establishment (the Watergate scandal would break a few months after he lost the election). Unlike those characters, however, McGovern had an afterlife.
When he ran for president, McGovern was the most progressive mainstream candidate in recent memory. As a senator and a second world war veteran, he was the first to condemn the US military presence in Vietnam, arguing in a 1963 speech—ten years before involvement officially ended—that the “trap we have fallen into there will haunt us in every corner of this revolutionary world if we do not properly appraise its lessons.” No one seemed to listen, but “haunt” was certainly the right word. As if that weren’t enough, he worked to reconfigure his party’s rules to include more women and minorities in its delegations.
In a 2005 interview, he told the New York Times that his presidential campaign didn’t work hard enough on cultivating the image of a “normal, healthy, ideal American.” As he put it: “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment.”
After a series of political slip-ups, including a botched vice-presidential selection, a rousing Miami convention speech delivered so late at night that next to nobody saw it, and a reneged promise to give every American $1,000 a year through the “demogrant” programme, McGovern only carried Massachusetts and Washington, DC—a stunning defeat by any standard. But that didn’t prevent him from continuing his involvement with the causes he cared so deeply about. Serving as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, he committed himself to combating child hunger.
Most refreshingly of all, he was never afraid to go for the jugular—even if no one was listening, which they hardly ever seemed to be. In 2008, for instance, he called for the impeachment of President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. “They have repeatedly violated the constitution. They have transgressed national and international law. They have lied to the American people time after time. Their conduct and their barbaric policies have reduced our beloved country to a historic low in the eyes of people around the world. These are truly ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ to use the constitutional standard,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
Similarly, last year, he published What It Means to Be a Democrat, a book that urged his party to remain true to its principles in the most trying of times. “We are the party that believes we can’t let the strong kick aside the weak,” he wrote. “We believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes and that everyone should have access to health care.”
Less than a month ago, the Washington Post ran what will probably remembered as his swan song, in which he evaluated his life and career. “I am just as proud of all the efforts I have made since 1972,” he wrote. He certainly should be. Taken together, those efforts constitute far more than just the proverbial second act: they form the saga of an American hero. A thwarted one, perhaps. But a hero nevertheless.