In the long roll-call of characters involved in the Watergate scandal, there is usually one curious omission – the name of the intended victim.
This was Richard Nixon's Democratic opponent in the 1972 presidential election, George McGovern, who has died at the age of 90. To this day no one has ever satisfactorily explained why Nixon's campaign managers thought it necessary to bug the Democratic national committee or indulge in other shenanigans that eventually brought the nation's first presidential resignation. It was clear throughout that McGovern had ensured his own defeat long before he took to the hustings.
His problems began in the shambles of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which had gathered in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal from the election and the assassination of his likeliest replacement, Robert Kennedy. Racked by prolonged demonstrations against the Vietnam war and the violent police response, the delegates barely seemed to understand what they were doing when they voted at 1am (after seven incomprehensible hours of procedural wrangling) to accept a minority report from the rules committee.
Against the advice of the committee's majority, this report stipulated that each state's Democratic party should give members "a full, meaningful and timely opportunity to participate in the selection of [convention] delegates". No one had the least idea what this meant, but McGovern was appointed to head a reform commission to flesh out its pieties.
Though Kennedy had once described him as "the most decent man in the Senate", McGovern had already demonstrated a serious personal failing – a need to be all things to all men. Several times during his Senate career he had made mutually incompatible deals with other legislators, and thus made enemies of those whom he had let down. Under his weak chairmanship, the commission, most of whose members lost interest in its arcane disputes and stopped attending, fell under the influence of a politically correct faction that vigorously transformed an ill-conceived aspiration into an electoral disaster.
The new rules laid down that state delegations must set quotas to ensure that they fully represented the wider community, particularly in the proportion of women, black people and young people. It may have been socially admirable, but it brought mayhem. In many states the rules were used by leftwing activists to discriminate against the white males who comprised the administrative core of the party.
Such manoeuvres ensured, for example, that only 30 of the 255 Democratic members of Congress managed to secure accreditation to the 1972 convention in Miami. Even more damaging, none of the party's big city mayors – already endorsed by huge electorates in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia – survived the new process, and the trade union barons were equally cast out.
The practical outcome was organisationally disastrous. The Democrats had dumped the old-timers who had experience where it mattered most, those who had organised the anonymous thousands who set up meetings, stuffed envelopes, canvassed back streets and got the voters to the polls. When the new-style delegates overwhelmingly nominated McGovern as their presidential candidate, the AFL/CIO trade union federation, still smarting from his failure to vote as promised on an important closed-shop amendment, flatly refused to endorse him.
On top of this, McGovern immediately inflicted his own wounds. After a great deal of fruitless casting around for a running mate, he opted for his sixth choice, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Barely had the announcement been made than it brought a flurry of reports that Eagleton had suffered three bouts of mental illness requiring hospital treatment.
Initially, McGovern held firmly to his choice. Five days later, in the face of catastrophic falls in the opinion polls and in campaign contributions, Eagleton was dropped and Sargent Shriver proclaimed as the new vice-presidential candidate.
McGovern's campaign never recovered from the shifts and turns of this incident, but an already dismal performance was exacerbated by his rash promise of a guaranteed annual income for every American family. With no consideration of financial controls, he proposed a tax credit of $1,000 a year to every citizen. He was never able to give a convincing analysis of the plan, and it served mainly to outrage blue-collar and middle-class voters unable to grasp why their tax payments should apparently be offered to layabouts.
Underlying these repeated gaffes was McGovern's personal separation from the mainstream of American life. He had been born in a hamlet in South Dakota. After graduating from the local Wesleyan college, he became a bomber pilot during the second world war and emerged with a Distinguished Flying Cross. Initially, he resumed his education at a religious seminary but decided to change direction and, with a PhD in history, started teaching at his old college. After a year, however, he moved into full-time politics to help establish the Democratic party in an overwhelmingly Republican state. In 1956 he was elected to Congress, and in 1960 to the Senate.
His Senate colleagues regarded him as an enigma, best summed up by Eugene McCarthy, probably the nearest to McGovern in general outlook. "Talking to George," he once said, "is like eating a Chinese meal. An hour after it's over you wonder whether you really ate anything." McGovern became noted for the high moral tone of his speeches, declaring on one occasion that: "I want this nation we all love to turn away from cursing, and hatred, and war to the blessings of brotherhood and love."
Unfortunately this Christian fervour was unaccompanied by any coherently presented policies or administrative ability, and his presidential election bid quickly descended into chaos. In the largest voter turnout ever recorded, Nixon carried every state bar Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. A still-righteous McGovern returned to the Senate, but remained a fringe figure until his defeat in the 1980 election. His involvement in anti-hunger initiatives for international organisations lasted from his appointment by President John F Kennedy as director of Food for Peace in 1961 until the final years of his life.
He and his wife, Eleanor, suffered a traumatic family loss in 1994 when their alcoholic daughter, Terry, froze to death at the age of 45 in a snowdrift. Following her death they established a foundation to help other alcoholics. Eleanor died in 2007, and their son, Steve, in July 2012. McGovern is survived by their three other daughters.
• George Stanley McGovern, politician, born 19 July 1922; died 21 October 2012
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010