Will: How McGovern Made This

The former bomber pilot's spry walk belies his 85 years, he dresses like a boulevardier—gray slacks, blue blazer, shirt with bright-red stripes and white collar—and tucks into a robust breakfast. Long ago, he began shaping the Democrats' presidential nomination process into the one that has his party's two contenders locked in a long march to Pennsylvania's April primary. He has seen important aspects of American politics move in his direction in the 36 years since he lost 49 states to Richard Nixon.

The belittling of George McGovern, especially by Democrats, only waned as memory of him faded after he lost his bid for a fourth Senate term in the 1980 Reagan landslide. But his story is fascinating, and pertinent to current events.

This minister's son was raised on South Dakota's parched prairies during the Depression. He remembers hiking home to the town of Mitchell by following the railroad tracks in a blinding dust storm. He was only the second major-party nominee with a Ph.D. (Woodrow Wilson was the first), which he earned at Northwestern University under Arthur Link, Wilson's foremost biographer.

Like Wilson, a minister's son, McGovern was a political moralist. He also was a tenacious politician, who, inspired by the untenacious Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign the year before, went to work for the South Dakota Democratic Party in 1953, when it held only two of 110 seats in the state legislature. Just four years later McGovern was in Congress, where his first roll-call vote was in opposition to granting President Eisenhower broad authority for military intervention in the Middle East.

In tumultuous 1968, with the Tet Offensive and two assassinations (of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) in five months, two insurgent candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, sought the Democratic nomination. It was won by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who competed in no primaries. More than one third of the delegates to the riotous convention in Chicago had been selected in 1967, months before President Lyndon Johnson decided to retire.

McGovern was named chairman of a commission to reform the nomination process, which put the party on a path to the proliferation of caucuses and primaries allocating delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all—the long, winding path Obama and Clinton are on. In 1972, McGovern became the first winner under the democratized process. Then he was buried by the demos, Nixon vs. McGovern.

Nixon was, McGovern notes, running nationally for the fifth time (only FDR had done that) and was at his pre-Watergate apogee, fresh from the opening to China and a strategic-arms agreement with Moscow. McGovern was bitterly opposed all the way to the Miami convention by the Democratic constituencies he was displacing. He says Barry Goldwater had warned him, "Don't get fatigued," but he reached Miami exhausted, lost control of the convention (he delivered his acceptance speech at 2:30 a.m.) and disastrously selected a running mate, Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton, who did not disclose previous psychiatric problems and was forced off the ticket.

Still, McGovern thinks he could have won with a running mate then called "the most trusted man in America"—Walter Cronkite. Before choosing Eagleton, McGovern considered asking Cronkite, who recently indicated he would have accepted.

Bruce Miroff, a political scientist and admirer of McGovern, argues in his new book, "The Liberals' Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party," that although McGovern's domestic proposals featured redistributions of wealth, this was Ivy League, not prairie, populism. Branded the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion" (the Democrats' platform, adopted six months before the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade legislated a liberal abortion policy, did not mention abortion), McGovern became the first candidate since the New Deal to lose the Catholic and labor union vote. So 1972, more than 1968, was the hinge of the party's history. In 1972, Miroff writes, "college-educated issue activists" supplanted the "labor/urban machine coalition."

George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, had dropped out of high school at age 14. Speaking about McGovern's 1972 convention, where 39 percent of the delegates had advanced degrees, he said: "We heard from people who look like Jacks, acted like Jills and had the odor of Johns about them." The Reagan Democrats of 1980 were incubated eight years earlier.

McGovern won only 14 percent of Southern white Protestants. This, Miroff notes, made Democrats susceptible four years later to the appeal of a pious Southerner. Thus did a disaster compound itself.

In September 1963, McGovern became the only senator who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration. He came by his horror of war honorably in 35 B-24 missions over Germany, where half the B-24 crews did not survive—they suffered a higher rate of fatalities than did Marines storming Pacific islands. McGovern was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak-leaf clusters. In his 70s he lost a 45-year-old daughter to alcoholism. Losing a presidential election, he says softly, "was not the saddest thing in my life." Time confers a comforting perspective, giving consolations to old age, which needs them.