George McGovern died today at the age of 90. It seems that everyone somehow has good memories of him, and thinks of him somehow as a champion of liberalism or even libertarianism–a man of principle as it were.
Of course, what I remember most about him was his 1980 Senate campaign. He was trailing badly in the polls, in part because he was out of touch with his own constituency, and in part because his pro-abortion stance had made him a target for national pro-life organizations. It still looked like he had a chance of keeping his seat until the weekend before the election, when he and Democratic candidates in general suffered a polling meltdown in the face of the Reagan revolution.
I still remember watching TV on election day, and hearing reports not just that McGovern was losing badly, but that his campaign was busy giving away television sets on the Indian reservations in order to buy votes in a hopeless attempt to turn the tide. This was in 1980, so it is impossible to find out on the Internet whether this story had any truth. However, it certainly seemed plausible at the time, and the pundits on TV–people who either knew him personally or knew all of the Beltway scuttlebutt about him–believed it was true.
McGovern was just a typical Washington DC politician, a member of a privileged and remote class, who happened to be very, very liberal. The terrible scandals of the Nixon administration and the continuation of the war in Vietnam for a pointless, hollow peace, in no way vindicate McGovern, because he was completely devoid of even the smallest modicum of judgement, because he was out of touch with not just his constituency, but the American people as a whole, and because he was a failure as a politician. He would have been a much worse president than Nixon ever was.
And that is saying a lot.