McGovern still mourns ’72 loss

Thirty-five years after his ill-fated presidential run, George McGovern remains wistful about what might have been.

Preparing to mark that anniversary this weekend – along with his 85th birthday next week – the onetime South Dakota senator often harks back to the mishaps that bedeviled his candidacy.

“I wouldn’t change anything about my life, except the outcome of the ’72 election,” he said in a recent conversation.

This weekend’s festivities, expected to attract several hundred former aides plus reporters who covered his candidacy, will focus less on that defeat than on two other areas:

¢ McGovern’s leadership, for more than four decades, in an enormous expansion of domestic and international programs to feed the hungry.

¢ How his campaign launched the careers of a generation of Democrats, most notably his young Texas field director, Bill Clinton. Co-campaign manager Gary Hart became a senator and made two presidential bids. Pollster Pat Caddell helped Jimmy Carter win the White House. Speechwriter Sandy Berger became President Clinton’s national security adviser.

In recalling a campaign that attracted fervent enthusiasm among anti-war Democrats and fierce opposition from party regulars, McGovern provided a surprising footnote to his biggest faux pas. That was choosing Sen. Tom Eagleton as his running mate and then dropping the Missouri Democrat after he disclosed his treatment for depression, including electric shock treatment.

It’s known that McGovern considered more than a dozen prospects, including the era’s most respected television newscaster, CBS’ Walter Cronkite.

But McGovern disclosed that the retired anchorman told him years later he would have accepted the No. 2 spot “in a minute.” Cronkite, 90 and ailing, did not respond to a request for comment.

“We would have been a lot better off, and I might have won that election,” McGovern declared, perhaps forgetting that vice presidents rarely affect the outcome and that he only carried a single state and Washington, D.C. If he had to do it again, he said, he would have kept Eagleton. “A lot of people have suffered from depression, including me,” he said.

While attending the funeral of his 1972 opponent, former President Richard Nixon, McGovern said, “I thought to myself: ‘He would have been better off, too, if I had won the election.”‘

Despite his overwhelming 1972 defeat, McGovern always harbored hopes of vindication.

In 1984, after losing his Senate seat, he made a brief, quixotic second presidential bid, finishing third in the Iowa caucuses after a strong debate showing.

In 1991, he mulled a third candidacy, stunning a group of veteran reporters by contending, with all seriousness, that the end of the Cold War might be the time for his goals of reduced defense spending and greater efforts at home.

He didn’t run – after strong resistance by his wife, Eleanor, who died last year – but he hoped to return to public service when Clinton was elected.

He was passed over for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but Clinton, after re-election, named him U.S. representative to U.N. hunger programs and awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In recent years, he has continued efforts to expand nutrition programs at home and abroad with a longtime Republican partner, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole.”When I first met him, I thought he was the meanest guy,” McGovern said of Dole, with whom he often tangled in the Senate over Vietnam. “But we’ve become good friends.”

In fact, Dole is a co-sponsor of one of the events in a weekend that will stress a successful life of service, not a campaign defeat.