Former South Dakota Sen. George S. McGovern, a lion of liberal causes in U.S. politics for more than a half-century whose loss in the 1972 race to President Richard M. Nixon would have profound consequences for the course of American politics, died Sunday morning at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
Remembered as a liberal icon whose presidential campaign was a testing ground for many of the party’s future leaders, Mr. McGovern served as a South Dakota congressman from 1957 to 1961 and senator from 1963 to 1981. He lost his 1972 presidential bid against Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in American history, shortly before the Watergate scandal took down the Nixon administration.
“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,” the McGovern family said in a statement.
Mr. McGovern, a decorated pilot during World War II, was one of the earliest opponents in Congress to U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration and was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
An academic who taught history and political science before running for office, Mr. McGovern was the second man with a doctorate to run for president on a major-party ticket. Former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy called him “the most decent man in the Senate” and said Mr. McGovern was admired in Washington both for his ability and his character.
President Obama remembered Mr. 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.”
Mr. McGovern stunned the political world with his run to the Democratic nomination in 1972, beating a slew of better-known candidates such as Edmund S. Muskie and Hubert H. Humphrey with a movement of supporters dedicated to ending the Vietnam War. His acceptance speech, delivered to exhausted delegates in Miami at 3 a.m., memorably demanded, “Come home, America,” to the war.
Among those prominent in his insurgent campaign were such future party stars as Gary Hart and Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The Clintons said in a statement Sunday that while Mr. 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 ‘90s, both of which he co-sponsored with Senator Bob Dole,” they said. “We must continue to draw inspiration from his example and build the world he fought for.”
But Mr. McGovern’s presidential campaign was hobbled from the start by his selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton as a running mate, though he later withdrew following revelations of his past psychiatric care. Derided as the candidate of “acid, abortion and amnesty,” Mr. McGovern and new running mate Sargent Shriver were easily beaten by Nixon.
After leaving Congress, Mr. McGovern forged a new career with his efforts to fight world hunger during and after his long political career. His humanitarian work earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 2000 and the World Food Prize in 2008.
Named the first director of the Food for Peace Program by President Kennedy, he later served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Agencies and was the U.N. global ambassador on world hunger.