By Chuck Raasch and Jonathan Ellis, USA TODAY
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - George McGovern, the three-term senator from South Dakota and 1972 presidential candidate whose candidacy was marred by a running mate forced to withdraw over mental health issues, has died. He was 90.
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 entered Dougherty Hospice House on Oct. 14 and two days later his family issued a statement saying he was unresponsive. McGovern had suffered from several health scares in the last year, including a serious fall in December prior to a live C-SPAN broadcast on his presidential campaign.
Though routed by Richard Nixon, McGovern's 1972 campaign influenced the Democratic Party in the decades that followed and greatly changed the party's rules over how future presidential candidates and party leaders were chosen. He devoted much of his last three decades to anti-hunger issues, teaming with former senator Bob Dole, a Republican and one-time adversary in the Senate, to establish school-lunch programs in some of the world's poorest nations.
McGOVERN: Forgotten Man of Watergate
"In the storied history of American politics, I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat," former president Bill Clinton said while was speaking in 2006 at the opening of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D.
Clinton, along with his future wife, Hillary Rodham, were among the legions of young people who worked or volunteered for the 1972 McGovern campaign in what was the first presidential election following the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which set the voting age at 18. McGovern based his campaign on a call to end the Vietnam War, which McGovern had opposed in the Senate. But his "Come Home America" theme was derailed when his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was forced to withdraw after it was revealed he had received treatment for depression and exhaustion.
McGovern then chose Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver as his running mate. They won only one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. McGovern even lost his home state of South Dakota to Nixon, something he would always consider a low point of his public career.
Born in Avon, S.D., on July 19, 1922, McGovern's father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister and minor league baseball player. The family moved to Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace, in 1928, and after graduating from high school in 1940, McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan. McGovern credited a high school debate coach, along with college forensic instructors, for instilling an interest in public speaking and service.
UPBRINGING: McGovern shaped by Dakotas
It was at Dakota Wesleyan that McGovern began dating his future ife, Eleanor Stegeberg, of Woonsocket, S.D. They had met as high school students when Eleanor and her twin sister, Ila, defeated McGovern and a partner in a debate. . They had five children.
During World War II, McGovern flew a B-24 bomber in the European Theater, completing 35 combat missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing harrowing missions in which he nursed his wounded bomber to emergency landings, including one off the Yugoslav coast. On his final mission, with a gunner seriously wounded, McGovern managed to land his badly damaged bomber back at his home airfield in Italy.
After his combat missions were over, McGovern spent his final months as a military pilot flying food into cities of war-ravaged Europe. He would later say he vividly saw the effects of hunger.
"He has an exciting life in many respects, even in terms of presidential candidates," said Thomas Knock, a history professor at Southern Methodist University who is writing a two-volume biography of McGovern. "The story of his service in the war reads almost like a movie script."
After the war, he finished college at Dakota Wesleyan in 1946 and earned master's and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University in Illinois.
As a veteran who had fought in war, McGovern said he was attracted to Progressive Party nominee Henry Wallace, who opposed the military buildup of the Cold War.
"The Russians had 27 million people killed in World War II; the whole country was laid to waste - I mean the physical country as well as the people," he said in a 2011 interview. "And, it seemed to me they would probably be the last country in the world that wanted to start World War III. And so, when Henry Wallace, who had been secretary of Agriculture, and later vice president, when he started saying what I thought, I swung over to him. And there were probably some radicals in the party way out in left field, but it didn't include me. I was that ex-Republican who was looking for somebody who would lift the banner of peace."
Early one morning in 1952, McGovern was painting his university-provided house while listening to the acceptance speech of Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson. It was a speech that won him over to the Democratic Party.
McGovern tried to volunteer for Stevenson's campaign in South Dakota, but he found that Stevenson didn't have an organization in the state. So McGovern became the chief spokesman for the campaign in South Dakota, a position he parlayed into rebuilding a moribund Democratic Party in the state.
Using 3-by-5 note cards, McGovern compiled a filing system of potential supporters, building the party county by county. As he rebuilt support for Democrats, McGovern was also building a base from which to launch his own political career.
He won a U.S. House seat in 1956, and in 1960, challenged popular Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D, a conservative Republican whose campaign was boosted by advertisements in state newspapers featuring FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Mundt won, and President John F. Kennedy appointed McGovern as the first director of the Food for Peace Program, an effort to send food to poor nations. The program had charitable as well as strategic goals of building allies during the Cold War. For McGovern, the program marked the starting point of a crusade that he would fight the rest of his life: Feeding the hungry in the United States and in poverty-stricken nations.
"He loved the program," Knock said. "It really is his great humanitarian achievement."
In 1962 McGovern returned to South Dakota and won a Senate seat. By 1963, he was criticizing the war in Vietnam, well before it was a major political issue. McGovern stepped into the 1968 presidential race as an anti-war candidate. Beleaguered by Vietnam, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek re-election, and Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. In a tumultuous year in which Martin Luther King also was assassinated, McGovern lost the Democratic nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who went on to fall to Nixon in the general election.
McGovern again sought the nomination in 1972. At first, he started out as a long-shot candidate against such establishment figures as Maine Sen. Ed Muskie. After a fierce party primary struggle, McGovern prevailed as the nominee, in large part for his stance against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
His candidacy against Nixon stumbled from the start, beginning with a middle-of-the night acceptance speech that occurred after most Americans were already asleep.
A far bigger error came in his selection of Eagleton as a vice presidential running mate. After the selection, the nation learned that Eagleton had been treated for mental health problems. Amid pressure, Eagleton stepped down and was replaced by Shriver, the brother-in-law of the late President Kennedy.
Although McGovern's anti-Vietnam War stance energized younger Americans, who were able to vote at age 18 for the first time, McGovern's landslide loss to Nixon was one of the worst defeats in presidential history. His efforts to highlight the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel had little effect on the campaign.
Despite that defeat, McGovern's candidacy sparked a new aura of Democratic activism, inspiring others, like Bill and Hillary Clinton, to enter public life.
To critics, McGovern's rise helped polarize the nation's political institutions. His ascendancy in 1972 expressed the polarization that emerged in the 1960s over Vietnam, race riots and the civil rights movement, said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, and a scholar on American liberalism.
Siegel, who worked on the McGovern campaign, became a critic of the Democratic Party that McGovern helped create. Democratic politics have been influenced by the interest groups that helped McGovern secure the nomination, and Siegel said it's a party "without a moderate wing."
"The Democratic Party that emerges is a Democratic Party that can't talk about the collapse of black families," Siegel said. "It can't talk about the evils of North Korea."
McGovern rejected such criticisms, arguing that Democrats too often betrayed their principles.
"If anything, I don't think the Democrats have been strong enough in clinging to their principle," he said in the 2011 interview. "You can say they were too ideological. Well, I don't think you hold political convictions just to be able to spout out a complicated philosophy or ideology. You try to support what you think is in the best interests of the country. My qualms with the Democrats in recent decades is they aren't strong enough in dissenting from policies that they should be able to see are against our best interest."
After winning a third Senate term in 1974, McGovern oversaw some of his greatest triumphs. Working with Dole, a Kansan and fellow World War II veteran, the two helped create the modern Food Stamp and school lunch programs.
But by 1980, it was apparent McGovern's political career was nearing its end. He lost his re-election campaign that year to Rep. Jim Abdnor, little known outside his state but much admired inside it, during a Republican landslide ushered in by Ronald Reagan.
Four years later, McGovern flirted with another bid for the presidency, but his political career ended. He went on to write books on American history and, as an elder statesman, advocated against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2001, he was named an ambassador to the United Nations World Food Program.
Besides his work on hunger issues, McGovern will best be remembered for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and to other wars.
"I don't know anybody alive today that thinks the war in Vietnam was a good investment for the United States," he said in November, 2011. "It weakened us militarily. It weakened us economically. It weakened us politically, and it weakened us morally. I'm not a moralist in the sense of wanting to always claim that I represent the moral position, but I do think we were going against fundamental American principles of morality when we were carpet-bombing a primitive little country like Vietnam."
Ellis also reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.