The history books dutifully record that George McGovern, the Democratic senator from South Dakota, lost the 1972 presidential election to Republican Richard Nixon by a huge margin, but that remains half the story of his life: He never lost his claim to being a great American.
Mr. McGovern, who died Sunday in Sioux Falls at the age of 90, was a three-time candidate for president. But for disastrous luck and timing in the 1972 campaign, the result -- if not different, because he was to the left of the American electorate in that angry era -- might at least have been closer.
As it was, this leader of uncommon talents and decency never lost his dignity. Though 49 out of 50 states did not agree in the general election, he was a better man than President Nixon, as the Watergate scandal would prove.
When Nixon resigned in disgrace two years later, with the threat of impeachment hanging over his head, the waste and hopelessness of the Vietnam War had become more obvious to a nation that had dismissed Mr. McGovern's anti-war position as a peacenik-hippie caricature. A decorated bomber pilot in World War II, he was never what his critics assumed, just a plain-talking leader of firm principles.
Ending the war was an issue in 1972, but the death knell of Mr. McGovern's campaign was choosing as a running mate Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, who turned out to have undergone electro-shock therapy for depression.
Just as GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater, after his 1964 annihilation, became a model for conservative members of his party, Mr. McGovern influenced up-and-coming liberals by his principled example. In defeat, he retained the respect of friend and foe.