George McGovern, former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, dies
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 Senate.
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."
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 nominees.
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 delivered 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 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.
"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.
Defeated in 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. 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 Nixon.
He talked of running a final time for president in 1992, but decided it was time for somebody younger and with fewer political scars.
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.
"I want to live long enough to see all of the 300 million school-age kids around the world who are not being fed be given a good nutritional lunch every day," McGovern said in 2006.
His 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 years. 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 "anything reckless."
"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."
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