U.S. Sen. George McGovern dies; lost 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon

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George McGovern — the Democratic U.S. senator from South Dakota who lost a landslide election in 1972 to Republican President Richard M. Nixon — died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.

McGovern was a proud liberal who had argued fervently against Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and three-time candidate for president.

McGovern's family had said late last week that McGovern had become unresponsive while in hospice care, and Hildebrand said he was surrounded by family and lifelong friends when he died.

A funeral will be held in Sioux Falls, with details announced shortly, 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 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.

McGovern's campaign left a lasting imprint on American politics. Former President Bill Clinton got his start in politics when he signed on as a campaign worker for McGovern in 1972 and is among the legion of Democrats who credit him with inspiring them to public service.

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.

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.

In 1962, he made his second run for the U.S. Senate, 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."

President Barack Obama remembered 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."

In 1972, McGovern was initially considered a longshot presidential candidate against Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, but he 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.

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.

In a statement, President Nixon’s daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, extended their condolences.

"Although he and our father were political rivals, they had much in common: a deep love of country; an abiding passion for the issues about which they cared; an unwavering commitment to serve the American people," they wrote.

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.

With contributions by Ed Joyce

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