The following year, McGovern led a Democratic Party reform commission that shifted to voters' power that had been wielded by party leaders and bosses at the national conventions. The result was the system of presidential primary elections and caucuses that now selects the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees.
In 1972, McGovern ran under the rules he had helped write. Initially considered a longshot against Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, McGovern built a bottom-up campaign organization and went to the Democratic national convention in command. He was the first candidate to gain a nominating majority in the primaries before the convention.
It was a meeting filled with intramural wrangling and speeches that verged on filibusters. By the time McGovern delivered his climactic speech accepting the nomination, it was 2:48 a.m., and with most of America asleep, he lost his last and best chance to make his case to a nationwide audience.
McGovern did not know before selecting Eagleton of his running mate's mental health woes, and after dropping him from the ticket, struggled to find a replacement. Several Democrats said no, and a joke made the rounds that there was a signup sheet in the Senate cloakroom. Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, finally agreed.
The campaign limped into the fall on a platform advocating withdrawal from Vietnam in exchange for the release of POWs, cutting defense spending by a third and establishing an income floor for all Americans. McGovern had dropped an early proposal to give every American $1,000 a year, but the Republicans continued to ridicule it as "the demogrant." They painted McGovern as an extreme leftist and Democrats as the party of "amnesty, abortion and acid."
While McGovern said little about his decorated service in World War II, Republicans depicted him as a weak peace activist. At one point, McGovern was forced to defend himself against assertions he had shirked combat.
He'd had enough when a young man at the airport fence in Battle Creek, Mich., taunted that Nixon would clobber him. McGovern leaned in and said quietly: "I've got a secret for you. Kiss my ass." A conservative Senate colleague later told McGovern it was his best line of the campaign.
Defeated by Nixon, McGovern returned to the Senate and pressed there to end the Vietnam war while championing agriculture, anti-hunger and food stamp programs in the United States and food programs abroad. He won re-election to the Senate in 1974, by which point he could make wry jokes about his presidential defeat.
"For many years, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and last year, I sure did," he told a formal press dinner in Washington.
Defeated in his bid for a fourth Senate term in the 1980 Republican landslide that made Ronald Reagan president, McGovern went on to teach and lecture at universities, and found a liberal political action committee. He made a longshot bid in the 1984 presidential race with a call to end U.S. military involvement in Lebanon and Central America and open arms talks with the Soviets. Former Vice President Walter Mondale won the Democratic nomination and went on to lose to President Ronald Reagan by an even bigger margin in electoral votes than had McGovern to Nixon.
He talked of running a final time for president in 1992, but decided it was time for somebody younger and with fewer political scars.
After his career in office ended, McGovern served as U.S. ambassador to the Rome-based United Nation's food agencies from 1998 to 2001 and spent his later years working to feed needy children around the world. He and former Republican Sen. Bob Dole collaborated to create an international food for education and child nutrition program, for which they shared the 2008 World Food Prize.
"I want to live long enough to see all of the 300 million school-age kids around the world who are not being fed be given a good nutritional lunch every day," McGovern said in 2006.
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