Former senator George McGovern, 90, dies
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George McGovern, the three-term senator from South Dakota who carried the Democratic Party's liberal banner in the Vietnam War era, launched a star-crossed bid for the presidency in 1972 and energized many of the leading Democrats of the past generation, died Sunday at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
Family spokesman Steve Hildebrand confirmed the death to The Associated Press. The cause was not disclosed.
In a public career spanning more than five decades, Mr. McGovern may be best remembered as a presidential candidate of near-epic futility, in which he lost 49 of 50 states. The senator's liberal agenda -- supporting civil rights and anti-poverty programs and strongly denouncing the Vietnam War -- was critical to his landslide defeat to President Richard Nixon. But those views also helped define the future vision of the Democratic Party.
Among those who worked on Mr. McGovern's 1972 campaign were Bill Clinton, a future governor and president; Hillary Rodham Clinton, a future senator and secretary of state; and Gary Hart, a future senator and presidential candidate.
Mr. McGovern, a minister's son, was raised in a South Dakota farm community during the Depression and was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II. Both experiences -- seeing hobos begging for food at his family's doorstep and witnessing emaciated child beggers in wartime Italy -- molded his political career from the moment he was first elected to Congress in 1956.
In the early 1960s, he conceived the idea of the U.S. Food for Peace program, which gave foreign nations credit to buy surplus U.S. crops, and served under President John Kennedy as the program's first director. In that position, he played a central role building the U.N.'s World Food Program, a humanitarian organization that has provided food assistance to hundreds of millions of victims of war and natural disasters.
After winning his Senate seat in 1962, he spent much of his public life working on the expansion of food stamp and school lunch programs and championing civil rights and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the Senate. After being defeated for re-election to the Senate in 1980, he served as the U.S. representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and as a U.N. global ambassador on world hunger.
As part of his wide-ranging humanitarian interests, Mr. McGovern was synonymous with the antiwar movement. In September 1963, he became the first person to challenge the burgeoning Vietnam War on the Senate floor, with five paragraphs tucked into a speech about disarmament.
But Mr. McGovern voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, giving President Lyndon Johnson almost blank-check authority to escalate the war. By the next year, Mr. McGovern joined a small group of senators who called U.S. involvement in Vietnam a mistake.
Allard Lowenstein, the organizer of a dump-LBJ movement, asked Mr. McGovern to challenge Johnson in the 1968 presidential primaries, but he refused. After Johnson unexpectedly withdrew, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., battled incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a late entry, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., until Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968.
Mr. McGovern, who had been a Kennedy supporter, got into the race shortly before the party's tumultuous Chicago convention, but his 18-day campaign made little splash. Humphrey received the Democratic nomination, and Nixon won the general election.
With Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., Mr. McGovern proposed an end to the Vietnam War by Dec. 31, 1971. The McGovern-Hatfield Amendment failed on a 55-39 Senate vote in 1970, but millions of Americans embraced Mr. McGovern as a prophet; millions of others considered him a traitor.
After being re-elected to the Senate in 1968, Mr. McGovern led a commission to overhaul the Democratic Party's nominating process. The result was that candidates could gain the nomination only by winning delegates in contested primary elections, rather than by making backroom deals with statehouse and big-city pols.
The experience proved crucial; Mr. McGovern entered the 1972 presidential race knowing the rules better than anyone else.
He launched his campaign with a letter to 200,000 supporters asking for donations. He campaigned on a pledge to immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from Vietnam and to cut the Pentagon's budget by 40 percent.
His underdog primary campaign vanquished numerous competitors, including onetime front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and conservative Alabama Gov. George Wallace. After Wallace was paralyzed from an attempted assassination while on the campaign trail in Laurel, Md., the former governor withdrew from the Democratic primaries and much of his support went to Nixon in the general election.
The race against Nixon was seen by most as a sure loss. The revelations of the Nixon administration's involvement in the Watergate scandal -- which stemmed from a 1972 break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters -- had not yet sunk into the public's consciousness.
During the 1972 Democratic National Convention, McGovern lost a critical opportunity to reach millions of television viewers when a chaotic floor fight delayed his acceptance speech until nearly 3 a.m.
He offered the vice presidential slot to several prominent Democratic lawmakers, but he was turned down. When Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri accepted the No. 2 position, McGovern said he backed him "a thousand percent."
Within two weeks, Eagleton stepped down amid revelations that he had undergone psychiatric treatment.
Mr. McGovern replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law who was founding director of the Peace Corps and U.S. ambassador to France. But the campaign never recovered.
"I wish I had stayed with my initial judgment to keep Tom" on the ticket, Mr. McGovern told The Washington Post in 2005. "I could have stood up for him had I known more about mental illness at the time."
The McGovern-Shriver ticket received only 38 percent of the popular vote, carrying just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, for 17 electoral votes. Nixon won 520 electoral votes.
At the 1973 Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, Mr. McGovern was able to joke, "Ever since I was a young man I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way -- and I did." But the defeat hurt for a long time.
George Stanley McGovern, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, was born July 19, 1922, in Avon, S.D., and grew up in Mitchell, S.D. He left Dakota Wesleyan University to serve as an Army Air Forces B-24 bomber pilot during World War II. He flew 35 missions over Europe, with his exploits described in Stephen Ambrose's "The Wild Blue" (2001). He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals.
After the war, Mr. McGovern graduated from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946. He received a master's degree in 1950 and a doctorate in 1953, both in American history from Northwestern University.
He returned to South Dakota to teach history and government at Dakota Wesleyan, and created a Democratic base for two successful runs for the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning in 1956.
After his first bid for a U.S. Senate seat failed in 1960, he joined the new Kennedy administration and began his work on alleviating hunger. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate from South Dakota by 597 votes, a rare win by a liberal Democrat in a heavily Republican state.
After Mr. McGovern's overwhelming loss in the 1972 election, Democrats lost three of the next four presidential contests. That prompted the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to urge the party's subsequent nominees to avoid "McGovernism," which it defined as far-left stances that were out of sync with Middle America. By 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president on a moderate platform that steered away from hard-left positions.
McGovern won re-election to the Senate in 1974 but was targeted for defeat by Republicans in 1980 and lost by a wide margin to then-Rep. James Abdnor.
In 2000, Mr. Clinton awarded Mr. McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor.
Mr. McGovern wrote more than a dozen books, including a biography of President Abraham Lincoln, published in 2009.
The George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University is named for him and his wife of 63 years, the former Eleanor Stegeberg, who died in 2007 at 85.
First Published October 22, 2012 12:00 am