SIOUX FALLS, S.D. | George McGovern once joked that he had wanted to run for president in the worst way — and that he had done so.
It was a campaign in 1972 dishonored by Watergate, a scandal that fully unfurled too late to knock Republican President Richard M. Nixon from his place as a commanding favorite for re-election. The South Dakota senator tried to make an issue out of the bungled attempt to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee, calling Nixon the most corrupt president in history.
A proud liberal who had argued fervently against Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and three-time candidate for president, McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. local time Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, surrounded by family and lifelong friends, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.
The family had said late last week that McGovern had become unresponsive while in hospice care.
“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,” the family said in the statement.
Hildebrand said funeral services were to be held in Sioux Falls and details would be announced shortly.
McGovern could not escape the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign of 1972. The most torturous was 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 percent.”
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 percent of the popular vote in one of the biggest landslides losses in American presidential history.
“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.”
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 Vietnam War and cut defense 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, sounding often more like the Methodist minister he’d once studied to become than longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president he became.
And he never shied from the word “liberal,” even as other Democrats blanched at the word 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.”
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 Czech 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.
McGovern returned to Mitchell and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan after the war’s end, and after a year of divinity school, switched to the study of history and political science at Northwestern University. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees, returned to Dakota Wesleyan to teach history and government, and switched from his family’s Republican roots to the Democratic Party.
“I think it was my study of history that convinced me that the Democratic Party was more on the side of the average American,” he said.
In the early 1950s, Democrats held no major offices in South Dakota and only a handful of legislative seats. McGovern, who had gotten into Democratic politics as a campaign volunteer, left teaching in 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Three years later, he won an upset election to the House; he served two terms and left to run for Senate.
Challenging conservative Republican Sen. Karl Mundt in 1960, he lost what he called his “worst campaign.” He said later that he’d hated Mundt so much that he’d lost his sense of balance.
President John F. Kennedy named McGovern head of the Food for Peace program, which sends U.S. commodities to deprived areas around the world. He made a second Senate bid in 1962, unseating Sen. Joe Bottum by just 597 votes. He was the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from South Dakota since 1930.
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 favor 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 first sought the Democratic presidential nomination late in the 1968 campaign, saying he would take up the cause of the assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He finished far behind Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who won the nomination, and Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had led the anti-war challenge to Johnson in the primaries earlier in the year. McGovern later called his bid an “anti-organization” effort against the Humphrey steamroller.
“At least I have precluded the possibility of peaking too early,” McGovern quipped at the time.
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.
After losing 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.
His opposition to armed conflict remained a constant long after he retired. Shortly before Iowa’s caucuses in 2004, McGovern endorsed retired Gen. Wesley Clark, and compared his own opposition to the Vietnam War to Clark’s criticism of President George W. Bush’s decision to wage war in Iraq. One of the 10 books McGovern wrote was 2006’s “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now,” written with William R. Polk.
In early 2002, George and Eleanor McGovern returned to Mitchell, where they helped raise money for a library bearing their names. Eleanor McGovern died there in 2007 at age 85; they had been married 64 years, and had four daughters and a son.
“I don’t know what kind of president I would have been, but Eleanor would have been a great first lady,” he said after his wife’s death in 2007.
One of their daughters, Teresa, was found dead in a Madison, Wis., snowdrift in 1994 after battling alcoholism for years. He recounted her struggle in his 1996 book “Terry,” and described the writing of it as “the most painful undertaking in my life.” It was briefly a best seller and he used the proceeds to help set up a treatment center for victims of alcoholism and mental illness in Madison.
Before the 2008 presidential campaign, McGovern endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination but switched to Barack Obama that May. He called the future president “a moderate,” cautious in his ways, who wouldn’t waste money or do “anything reckless.”
“I think Barack will emerge as one of our great ones,” he said in a 2009 interview with The Associated Press. “It will be a victory for moderate liberalism.”
McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service: https://www.mcgoverncenter.com
EDITOR’S NOTE — Walter R. Mears, who reported on government and politics for The Associated Press in Washington for 40 years, covered George McGovern in the Senate and in his 1972 presidential campaign.