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George McGovern, War Critic Routed by Nixon, Dies at 90

George McGovern, War Critic Routed by Nixon in 1972
U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern sits for a portrait in 1972. Photographer: Bachrach/Getty Images

George McGovern, the Democratic presidential candidate whose opposition to the Vietnam War and mistake-prone campaign led to his 1972 loss to Richard Nixon in one of the biggest electoral landslides in U.S. history, has died at the age of 90.

McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. this morning at a hospice in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, surrounded by family and friends, according to an e-mailed statement from his family. His family said on Oct. 15 that he had moved to the Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls, following several health problems in the previous year.

The former senator from South Dakota, a symbol of the anti-war movement, won only 37.5 percent of the popular vote in 1972 compared with 60.7 percent for Nixon, who portrayed his opponent as radical and a threat to an imminent peace deal. The 1972 burglary at Washington’s Watergate office complex was designed to undermine the Democratic campaign. The resulting scandal forced Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974.

McGovern’s prospects went into a tailspin after his vice presidential running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, acknowledged to reporters that he had been hospitalized for depression and treated with electric shocks. McGovern declared himself “one thousand percent” behind Eagleton -- then, less than a week later, asked him to withdraw, replacing him on the ticket with Sargent Shriver.

Improved Vetting

“I did what I had to, but the Eagleton matter ended whatever chance there was to defeat Richard Nixon in 1972,” McGovern wrote in his autobiography. “In the minds of many Americans the Eagleton episode convicted me of incompetence, vacillation, dishonesty and cold calculation, all at the same time.”

The Eagleton misstep ushered in today’s rigorous vetting of potential vice presidential candidates.

It wasn’t the only problem with the McGovern campaign. His platform included a pledge to pay every American $1,000 a year in a bid to reduce poverty, a promise he abandoned before the election. He failed to secure the enthusiastic support of party leaders who saw him as an outsider.

“In the primaries, McGovern had been marginalized by rivals in his own party who argued that he was far left of the Democratic mainstream, a sort of liberal counterpart to the Goldwater of 1964,” Walter Mears, who covered the campaign for the Associated Press, wrote in his 2003 memoir.

On Election Day, Nixon beat McGovern in every state but Massachusetts. (McGovern also prevailed in the District of Columbia.) Only Lyndon Johnson won a U.S. presidential election by a larger margin, thrashing Republican Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 with more than 61 percent of the vote.

Conscience, Conviction

“George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House. A decorated bomber pilot in World War II, McGovern was “a hero of war” who “became a champion of peace,” Obama said.

Vice President Joe Biden, in a statement, called McGovern “a generous, kind, honorable man” who “believed deeply in public service.”

McGovern’s embrace of liberal causes and subsequent defeat at the polls “were formative experiences whose reverberations are still felt in the politics of the Democratic Party,” Bruce Miroff, a presidential historian at the State University of New York at Albany, wrote in a 2007 book on the 1972 election:

Identity Crisis

“It was the McGovern campaign, in its passions and in its tribulations, that gave birth to the continuing identity crisis of Democratic Party activists, torn between their hearts and their heads, between idealistic convictions about equality and peace originally forged in the struggles over civil rights and the war in Vietnam, and practical considerations of how to win elections in a country whose majority evidently does not share such convictions.”

In 1993, McGovern spoke to author David Maraniss of how the 1972 election had influenced one of his young campaign workers, who “seemed to take away the lesson of not being caught too far out on the left on defense, welfare, crime.” That worker was Bill Clinton, who would chart a more centrist, and successful, path to the presidency.

George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in Avon, South Dakota. The son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister, he grew up in Mitchell, a town in the eastern part of the state.

‘Painful Bashfulness’

“When I was small, my most serious handicap was a painful bashfulness in the presence of strangers,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My first year in school was a nightmare.”

Dancing, card-playing, smoking and drinking were all off-limits to McGovern as a Wesleyan Methodist. So was the theater, though McGovern became a lifelong movie lover after family friends from church took him, at around the age of 7, to see “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.”

He eventually overcame his fear of public speaking and received a scholarship to Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. Three years after he entered college, he won the 1943 Red River Valley debating tournament.

When he returned from the contest, he was called up for training in the Army Air Forces.

During World War II, he flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe. When his tour of duty was completed, he returned to Dakota Wesleyan to finish his degree in 1946. He later earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in American history and government from Northwestern University.

Political Start

McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, the college sweetheart he married in 1943, got their first taste of politics at the 1948 Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia to support former Vice President Henry Wallace’s bid for president.

Two years after joining the faculty at Dakota Wesleyan, he gave his first campaign speech before a live audience in support of Adlai Stevenson as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952. A year later, he resigned from Dakota Wesleyan and accepted a job to help resurrect the Democratic Party in South Dakota at an annual salary of $6,000.

While traveling across the state, he created an index card for each person he met, listing contact details, political affiliation, relatives, special talents and interests.

“It was a system that was to become a useful instrument in both my organizational success in South Dakota and my later successful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972,” he said. He carried a shoebox containing the cards in the front seat of his car.

In 1956, McGovern won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and moved with his wife and five children to Chevy Chase, Maryland, living next to Democratic Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Food Program

After McGovern lost his first bid for the Senate in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him the head of the Food for Peace program, which provided an outlet for farmers’ surplus as well as a boost for the U.S. merchant fleet, which was required to carry at least 50 percent or more of all shipments.

As he traveled overseas, he was required to get vaccinations from the White House dispensary, which was still reusing old syringes, even though the practice had been abandoned by the medical community. When McGovern contracted hepatitis from the needle, the White House medical team changed its policy.

McGovern won his Senate seat in 1962. Focusing on military expenditures, he set about trying to cut the “obvious fat” from the defense budget. As the Vietnam War escalated, he approached President Johnson about ending the conflict.

Presidential Snubs

“After 1965, Johnson never invited me back to the White House,” he wrote. “Nor was I ever there during Richard Nixon’s term. It was unusual treatment for a senator but it was the least of my concerns.”

After a trip to Da Nang in 1965, he vowed to crusade against the Vietnam War, “to join peace marches, sign petitions, lecture across the nation, appear on television, to do whatever might persuade the Congress and the American people to stop the horror,” he wrote.

McGovern won re-election bids to the Senate in 1968 and, following his unsuccessful bid for the White House, in 1974. Bidding for a fourth term in 1980, he was soundly defeated by Republican Representative James Abdnor, who portrayed McGovern as a national figure of the political left who devoted too little attention to South Dakota.

McGovern was president of the Middle East Policy Council from 1991 to 1998, ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome and the first UN global ambassador on hunger. President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honor, on Aug. 9, 2000.

The George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service was established at Dakota Wesleyan in 2006.

Iraq Invasion

McGovern criticized the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-wrote a 2006 book, “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.”

In 2007, after Vice President Dick Cheney said Democrats were reverting to McGovern’s “far-left platform” of the early 1970s, McGovern shot back in a Los Angeles Times column:

“The truth is that I oppose the Iraq war, just as I opposed the Vietnam War, because these two conflicts have weakened the U.S. and diminished our standing in the world and our national security.”

With Eleanor, who died in 2007, McGovern had five children -- Ann, Susan, Teresa, Steven and Mary. Teresa, who battled alcoholism and depression, died in 1994.

McGovern celebrated his 88th birthday in July 2010 by going tandem sky diving, a stunt he hoped would draw attention to his work to reduce childhood hunger. He told Florida Today that he hoped to live to 100 and “to see a world in which not one child goes to sleep hungry.”

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