Oct 21, 2012 / 7:13 am
George S. McGovern, a proud liberal who argued fervently against the Vietnam War as a senator from South Dakota and suffered one of the most crushing defeats in presidential election history against Richard Nixon in 1972, died before dawn Sunday. He was 90.
A spokesman for McGovern's family, Steve Hildebrand, told The Associated Press by telephone that McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a hospice in Sioux Falls, surrounded by family and lifelong friends.
"We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace. He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer," a family statement released by Hildebrand said.
A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern said he learned to hate war by waging it. In his disastrous race against Nixon, he promised to end the conflict in Vietnam and cut defence spending by billions of dollars. He helped create the Food for Peace program and spent much of his career believing the United States should be more accommodating to the former Soviet Union.
Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, often sounding more like the Methodist minister he'd once studied to be than a longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president.
And McGovern never shied from the word "liberal," even as other Democrats blanched at the label and Republicans used it as an epithet.
"I am a liberal and always have been," McGovern said in 2001. "Just not the wild-eyed character the Republicans made me out to be."
Americans voting for president in 1972 were aware of the Watergate break-in, but the most damaging details of Nixon's involvement wouldn't emerge until after Election Day. McGovern tried to make a campaign issue out of the bungled attempt to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and he called Nixon the most corrupt president in history, but the issue could not eclipse the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign.
McGovern was tortured by the selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton as the vice-presidential nominee, and 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, the decision to drop him from the ticket despite having pledged to back him "1,000 per cent."
It was at once the most memorable and the most damaging line of his campaign, and called "possibly the most single damaging faux pas ever made by a presidential candidate" by the late political writer Theodore H. White.
After a hard day's campaigning, Nixon did virtually none, McGovern would complain to those around him that nobody was paying attention. With R. Sargent Shriver as his running mate, he went on to carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning just 38 per cent of the popular vote.
"Tom and I ran into a little snag back in 1972 that in the light of my much advanced wisdom today, I think was vastly exaggerated," McGovern said at an event with Eagleton in 2005. Noting that Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, would both ultimately resign, he joked, "If we had run in '74 instead of '72, it would have been a piece of cake."
McGovern's campaign, nevertheless, left a lasting imprint on American politics. Determined not to make the same mistake, presidential nominees have since interviewed and intensely investigated their choices for vice-president. Former President Bill Clinton got his start in politics when he signed on as a campaign worker for McGovern and is among the legion of Democrats who credit him with inspiring them to public service.
"I believe no other presidential candidate ever has had such an enduring impact in defeat," Clinton said in 2006 at the dedication of McGovern's library in Mitchell, S.D. "Senator, the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts."
George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in the small farm town of Avon, S.D, the son of a Methodist pastor. He was raised in Mitchell, shy and quiet until he was recruited for the high school debate team and found his niche. He enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in his hometown and, already a private pilot, volunteered for the Army Air Force soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Army didn't have enough airfields or training planes to take him until 1943. He married his wife, Eleanor Stegeberg, and arrived in Italy the next year. That would be his base for the 35 missions he flew in the B-24 Liberator christened the "Dakota Queen" after his new bride.
In a December 1944 bombing raid on the Cezch city of Pilsen, McGovern's plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire that disabled one engine and set fire to another. He nursed the B-24 back to a British airfield on an island in the Adriatic Sea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. On his final mission, his plane was hit several times, but he managed to get it back safety, one of the actions for which he received the Air Medal.
In his first year in office, McGovern took to the Senate floor to say that the Vietnam War was a trap that would haunt the United States, a speech that drew little notice. He voted the following August in favour of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution under which President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the U.S. war in the southeast Asian nation.
While McGovern continued to vote to pay for the war, he did so while speaking against it. As the war escalated, so did his opposition. Late in 1969, McGovern called for a cease-fire in Vietnam and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops within a year.
He later co-sponsored a Senate amendment to cut off appropriations for the war by the end of 1971. It failed, but not before McGovern had taken the floor to declare "this chamber reeks of blood" and to demand an end to "this damnable war."
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.
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.
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