George McGovern dead at 90 – The Star-Ledger
Former Sen. George McGovern — the 1972 Democratic presidential anti-war candidate who lost to President Richard Nixon in a historic landslide election — has died. He was 90 years old.
A family spokesman, Steve Hildebrand, said in a statement that the former senator died at 5:15 a.m. in a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The South Dakota liberal had a long career as an influential politician, historian and author. Best known for his strong opposition to the Vietnam War and his staggering loss to Nixon, he also had a distinguished career in public service in the House of Representatives, the Senate and with the United Nations.
“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Sunday. “He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.”
On the issues, McGovern was a leading liberal Democrat who advocated for fighting world hunger, protecting farmers and ending the war in Vietnam.
Born in the small town of Avon, S.D. , on July 19, 1922, McGovern and his family moved to Mitchell, S.D. , in 1928. McGovern’s father was a Wesleyan Methodist reverend and both his parents were staunch Republicans. McGovern thrived on his high school debate team and went on to enroll at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1940.
In college, McGovern was a popular student who was elected class president twice. He learned to fly then, as well, serving as a member of the government’s Civilian Pilot Training Program and getting his pilot’s license. McGovern later told the publication Airport Journals that “frankly, I was scared to death on that first solo flight. But when I walked away from it, I had an enormous feeling of satisfaction that I had taken the thing off the ground and landed it without tearing the wings off.”
During his university years, he also fell in love with Eleanor Stegeberg — who McGovern had first met when she and her twin sister beat him during a high school debate — and the couple married in 1943 after McGovern was called up for service in WWII.
McGovern flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was posted to the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group at San Giovanni Field in Italy in September 1944 and tasked with bombing oil refineries and other strategic locations throughout Europe. His plane was dubbed the Dakota Queen after his wife, and his first daughter, Ann, was born while he was serving in the war. McGovern was discharged in July 1945 with the rank of First Lieutenant.
The young pilot had resolved during his time fighting abroad to become a history professor on his return to the U.S., and he graduated from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946. McGovern then studied at Garrett Theological Seminary for a year before enrolling in Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., for his post-graduate history degrees.
His first notable foray in politics was in 1948, when he supported the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace and attended the Progressive Party of 1948′s convention before deciding he would not vote for the candidate in the general election. And in 1952, McGovern aligned himself with Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for president and became a passionate supporter, even naming his son, Steven, after the candidate.
He left his teaching post in 1955 to serve in the South Dakota Democratic Party and soon embarked on his own political career — he was elected to the House in 1956 and became the first Democrat to head to Congress from South Dakota in 22 years. He focused on agriculture, labor reform and rural issues. McGovern ran for the Senate in 1960 but lost to the Republican incumbent.
After McGovern’s failed Senate campaign, President John F. Kennedy appointed the South Dakotan as the first Food for Peace director in 1961. He resigned just a year later to take another shot at winning a Senate seat — this time, though, McGovern won.
It would be the first of three terms in the Senate. Along with his lifelong focus on farm-support and rural issues, McGovern also became a leading advocate against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, especially after visiting South Vietnam in 1965.
“I had the great good fortune to go to work for Senator George McGovern when I was just nineteen years old, and I was a part of his Senate ‘Hunger Committee’ staff for four years as I finished my schooling,” Jack Quinn, former counsel to President Bill Clinton and a Washington lawyer, told POLITICO.
“I recall George as a man of great principle, someone who brought urgent and passionate energy to his efforts to end a war — in Vietnam — that he thought was a tragic mistake for our country, who shone a spotlight on the profound wrong of hunger in America, and who objected loudly to intolerance and injustice,” Quinn added. “He was a war hero who sought peace; a humble man who couldn’t bear the idea of hungry children in this land of plenty; and a man of belief whose passion never led to speak ill of his opponents.”
In 1968, McGovern was approached to run as a challenger to President Lyndon B. Johnson but refused. The year was a tumultuous one for McGovern, and just minutes before Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy was assassinated, McGovern had been speaking to him on the phone. McGovern announced his own candidacy two months later — just before the 1968 Democratic National Convention — but the nomination went to Hubert Humphrey. McGovern then went on to co-chair the McGovern-Fraser Commission, which transformed the nomination process for presidents with new rules for selecting and seating delegates.
The South Dakota senator tried to end the Vietnam War through the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment in 1970, but the Senate rejected the legislation. In support of his amendment, McGovern famously said on the Senate floor, “Every senator in the chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood.”
He ran again for president in 1972 with the slogan “Come Home, America,” promising to withdraw every American serving in the military from Southeast Asia if he made it to the White House. His liberal, anti-war grass-roots campaign proved a bust with voters, however, and his run was marred by the revelation that his vice presidential pick, Thomas Eagleton, previously had been treated for depression with electro-shock therapy and was on anti-psychotic medication. Eagleton resigned and was replaced by Sargent Shriver, but the Democratic candidate’s campaign never recovered
The 1972 election had the lowest voter turnout since 1948, and incumbent President Richard Nixon’s ticket destroyed McGovern/Shriver with 60.7 percent to 37.5 percent of the popular vote and 520 electoral votes to 17 electoral votes. Only Massachusetts and D.C. went for McGovern.
Marty Nolan, the former Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe and a veteran political reporter, recalled that McGovern carried memories of his failed presidential bid long after 1972.
Nolan said he and McGovern had breakfast at Boston’s famed Parker House hotel during the 2004 Democratic convention and as the South Dakotan made his way from the hotel to a nearby speech at the city’s Old South Church he was mobbed by admirers. “In the two-block walk, he was stopped by about 20 people, shaking his hand and thanking, him,” Nolan said. “By the time he crossed Washington St., a crowd awaited, applauding him.”
Massachusetts was the only state McGovern carried in 1972 and he was delighted to be back somewhere he was appreciated.
“He later told me, “I’ve heard Bostonians have a good memory, but they don’t just keep grudges,’” recalled Nolan. And McGovern added: “That greeting was certainly satisfying after 32 years.”
After his monumental defeat, McGovern returned to the Senate. He joked at 1973′s Gridiron dinner that “ever since I was a young man, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did,” according to The Washington Post. He continued his career in the Senate until he was voted out in 1980 along with many others in the Reagan Revolution.
In his post-Senate career, McGovern taught history, gave speeches and even made another unsuccessful bid for president in 1984 but withdrew after finishing third in the Massachusetts primary.
McGovern — who had long been interested in global affairs and had served as a U.N. delegate to the General Assembly in 1976 and a U.N. delegate for the Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 — served as president of the Middle East Policy Council from 1991 to 1998 before his appointment as ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in 1998. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 2000 for his work on world hunger and a year later became the first U.N. global ambassador on hunger.
He wrote a number of books throughout his life, and his service in World War II was featured in Stephen Ambrose’s “The Wild Blue.” When he turned 88, McGovern jumped out of an airplane, and at 89, he drove a race car, according to his hometown paper, The Daily Republic. That year, 2011, McGovern also published his final book, “What it Means to be a Democrat.”
NBC’s Tom Brokaw, a fellow South Dakotan, said, “George McGovern led a life all South Dakotans should be proud of – World War II hero, teacher, member of JFK’s Administration, Congressman. Senator, Presidential candidate and life long humanitarian. With his friend Bob Dole he passionately believed America’s agricultural bounty – food – could win America friends and relieve unnecessary suffering the world over. And though he traveled widely he always returned to his prairie roots, making his home in Mitchell and teaching new generations of South Dakotans. God bless this great man.”
In his personal life, McGovern had five children with his wife. His daughter Teresa died in 1994, and McGovern wrote a book about her struggle with alcoholism two years later, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.” McGovern’s wife, Eleanor, died of heart disease in 2007, and his son, Steven, died in July 2012. McGovern’s daughter Ann said in a statement at the time of his death that her brother had long battled alcoholism.
McGovern, who had split time between Florida and South Dakota for a number of years, was admitted to a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D., in Oct. 2012.
- Jonathan Martin contributed to this story.