George McGovern dies; lost 1972 presidential bid
By KRISTI EATON and WALTER R. MEARS October 21, 2012 9:56AM
FILE - In this July 14, 1972 file photo, Sen. George S. McGovern makes his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. At left is his running mate, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri, and at right, convention chairman Lawrence F. O'Brien. A family spokesman says, McGovern, the Democrat who lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972 in a historic landslide, has died at the age of 90. According to the spokesman, McGovern died Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 at a hospice in Sioux Falls, surrounded by family and friends. (AP Photo)
Updated: November 23, 2012 6:17AM
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.
But the Democrat could not escape the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign. 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.
A proud liberal who had argued fervently against the Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and three-time candidate for president, Mr. McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told the Associated Press. Mr. McGovern was 90.
“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.
A funeral will be held in Sioux Falls, Hildebrand said.
A decorated World War II bomber pilot, Mr. 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.
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,” Mr. McGovern said in 2001. “Just not the wild-eyed character the Republicans made me out to be.”
Mr. 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 Mr. McGovern in 1972 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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 safely — one of the actions for which he received the Air Medal.
Mr. 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.
President Barack Obama remembered Mr. McGovern in a statement Sunday as “a statesman of great conscience and conviction.”
“He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe,” the president said. “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.”
After his career in office ended, Mr. 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.
Mr. McGovern’s opposition to armed conflict remained a constant long after he retired. Shortly before Iowa’s caucuses in 2004, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.