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Former Sen. George McGovern (S.D.), a mild-mannered champion of liberal causes and the 1972 Democratic nominee for president, died today after being moved into hospice care on Oct. 15. He was 90.
McGovern served two terms in the House and 18 years in the Senate. He built a legacy in Congress as a leading voice behind the national school lunch program and food stamps, and he is credited with establishing the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program.
But McGovern will always be best known for his presidential run against incumbent Richard Nixon in 1972. In that race, McGovern lost the popular vote 61 percent to 37 percent, at the time the second-largest landslide in modern times.
Later, as the Watergate scandal unfolded, news reports revealed that Nixon’s campaign had engaged in illegal activity as it attempted to sabotage the Democratic primary candidates.
The scandal, which came to light after a June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate complex, eventually forced Nixon to resign in 1974. Some have argued that the break-in was intended to bring down Democratic nominee and frontrunner Edmund Muskie in order to set up a race against the more vulnerable McGovern.
McGovern’s campaign was plagued by problems after winning a bruising primary for the nomination. After his victory, Democratic opponents mockingly said his liberal platform stood for amnesty, abortion and acid. Shortened to triple A — as in “the triple-A candidate” — the moniker stuck throughout his campaign.
The tag stemmed from a column that appeared shortly after the 1972 Democratic convention by conservative writer Robert Novak, which included a quote from an unnamed Democratic Senator.
“The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot,” Novak quoted the anonymous Senator as saying. “Once middle America — Catholic middle America, in particular — finds this out, he’s dead.”
In a 2007 interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Novak disclosed that the source of the quote was Sen. Thomas Eagleton (Mo.), whom McGovern had chosen to be his running mate. Eagleton had died in March 2007, freeing Novak from his journalistic obligation not to reveal a source.
“That was a secret that was kept until ... his death, and ... a lot of people said I had made up the name,” Novak said. “I had gone to Tom Eagleton and asked him if I could clear myself, since the campaign was long over, use his name. He said: ‘Oh, he had to run for re-election. The McGovernites would kill him if they knew he had said that.’ But it was Tom Eagleton.”
Eagleton was only on the McGovern ticket for just a few weeks. He withdrew after it emerged that he had received electroshock therapy for depression, causing some to raise questions about his ability to handle the job should he become president.