George McGovern, who lost to Nixon in 1972, dies at 90

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — 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.

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 proud liberal who had argued fervently

against the Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and


candidate for president, McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a

Sioux Falls hospice, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told

The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.

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.

"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, with details announced soon, 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.

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 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 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


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


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


"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


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."

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."

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


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


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


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


"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,


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


He talked of running a final time for president in 1992, but decided it was time for somebody younger and with fewer political


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.

Clinton and his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in a statement Sunday that while McGovern was "a tireless

advocate for human rights and dignity," his greatest passion was helping feed the hungry.

"The programs he created helped feed

millions of people, including food stamps in the 1960s and the

international school feeding

program in the 90's, both of which he co-sponsored with Senator

Bob Dole," they said, adding, "We must continue to draw inspiration

from his example and build the world he fought for."

McGovern's 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


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



"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."