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.
A spokesman for Mr. McGovern's family, Steve Hildebrand, told The Associated Press that Mr. McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday, surrounded by family and lifelong friends.
"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.
He is also remembered for his bipartisan efforts, exemplified in a longtime working friendship with Mr. Dole, Kansas Republican. In 2000, the two men founded the George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program, a federally-funded effort to provide meals for children in the U.S. and three dozen other countries around the world.
In his later years, he worked to encourage greater civility in Washington and better public discourse on important issues.
George Stanley McGovern was born the son of a Wesleyan Methodist minister on July 19, 1922, in the small prairie town of Avon, S.D. His father, Joseph McGovern, played professional baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals but quit to attend seminary, disliking the immoral atmosphere of big league baseball. Although a lifelong Cardinals fan, young George McGovern preferred debating to sports.
While a member of his high school team, he debated (and lost to) a girl named Eleanor Stegeberg; they later fell in love and were married on Oct. 31, 1943. The couple would have five children, all born in South Dakota, and would stay together until Mrs. McGovern's death in 2007.
When the U.S. entered World War II, Mr. McGovern was a junior at Dakota Wesleyan University. He left and enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps. While stationed in Italy, he flew a B-24 bomber dubbed "Dakota Queen" in 35 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He came home in 1945 a decorated first lieutenant and finished his degree at Wesleyan.
From 1949 to 1953, Mr. McGovern taught history and political science while pursuing his doctorate in history at Northwestern University.
In 1955 he left teaching to help transform the South Dakota Democratic Party. The next year he upset a popular Republican incumbent to win a U.S. House seat. His first roll-call vote was in opposition to allowing President Eisenhower military intervention authority in the Middle East. The rest of his career would be marked by outspoken support of limiting American involvement in foreign affairs.
Mr. McGovern won a second House term in 1958 but lost his first bid for the Senate in 1960. Instead, President Kennedy appointed him director of Food for Peace, a program that helped impoverished nations by sending them surplus American crops.
In 1962, Mr. McGovern attempted a second run for the Senate and this time won by 604 votes. His first speech on the floor challenged U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, specifically Cuba. Never forgetting his roots, Mr. McGovern was known as a staunch supporter of American farmers.
After Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, Mr. McGovern tried and failed to clinch his party's nomination. His appetite whetted, he ran again four years later and received the Democratic endorsement. Adopting the slogan "Come Home, America," Mr. McGovern's platform was built around ending the Vietnam War, but an infamous speech delivered at 3 a.m. launched what turned out to be a disastrous campaign.
Even though he lost badly, the Nixon White House's efforts to ensure a victory planted the seeds for the Watergate scandal that led to Mr. Nixon's resignation. Mr. McGovern tried to highlight the break-in at the Watergate complex during the campaign, but few paid attention.
November brought a lopsided election: Mr. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia and received only 37.5 percent of the vote.
Mr. McGovern was known to admit later that Watergate made his loss less embarrassing, since "that victorious team of '72 spent 180 years in prison and the President resigned in disgrace."
He went on to win a third Senate term in 1974, but after failing to win a fourth in 1980, he made one last attempt for the White House in 1984, once again spreading his message of peace and keeping America out of foreign conflict. He dropped out of the race after losing the New Hampshire primary.
His humanitarian work dominated his later years. After serving as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agencies in Rome from 1998 to 2001, Mr. McGovern was appointed U.N. global ambassador on world hunger in 2001. He said that his work to end hunger is what he hopes to be remembered for.
A prolific author, Mr. McGovern found time to complete several books in his later years. Remarkably fit and healthy, Mr. McGovern celebrated his 88th birthday by jumping out of an airplane, and his 89th by driving a race car.
As for his infamous 1972 campaign, the former senator came to terms with it. In a 2006 interview with Airport Journals, Mr. McGovern said: "I've learned that sometimes, disappointment or a defeat can teach you as much or more than a victory can. Nixon was a great landslide winner in 1972, but I've never had any desire to trade places with him."
There will be a public viewing at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Thursday, with the funeral to follow the next day at Sioux Falls’ Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science.
Mr. McGovern's wife of 64 years, Eleanor, died in 2007. Survivors include three daughters, Ann, Susan and Mary; 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. A daughter, Teresa, died in 1994; and a son ,Steven, died in July.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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