George McGovern, a former U.S. senator from South Dakota and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, died Sunday morning, October 21. He had just been admitted to hospice care in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, which is where he passed away. He was 90.
McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in Avon, S.D. He had just married Eleanor Stegeberg on October 21, 1943, when he left to fly a B-24 in World War II. He flew 35 missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In 1956, he ran for Congress and became the first Democrat from South Dakota to be elected to the House of Representatives in 22 years. After two terms, he ran for the Senate in 1960, but lost.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy asked McGovern to open an agency to send surplus food abroad. By year’s end, McGovern had Kennedy’s “Food for Peace” program operating in a dozen countries. The following year, he became the first Democrat elected to the Senate from South Dakota in 26 years. His chief interest was world peace. He challenged the United States’ “Castro fixation,” denounced America’s capacity for nuclear “overkill” and proposed a $4-billion reduction in the U.S. defense budget. He also supported Medicare, school lunches and the war on poverty.
In 1963, McGovern became one of the first politicians to warn against the war in Vietnam, eventually opposing increased military involvement and ultimately deeming the conflagration a “moral debacle.”
He launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1968, losing the Democratic Party’s nomination to Hubert Humphrey. But, although he earned the party’s nomination four years later, his campaign was troubled from the start. He initially chose Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri to be his running mate. When Eagleton admitted that he’d had shock therapy to treat his depression, he bowed out of the race. This was a time when no one discussed mental health issues openly, especially men. McGovern selected Sargent Shriver of Maryland to replace Eagleton, but the public relations damage was too great to overcome. McGovern lost in a landslide to incumbent President Richard Nixon. Ironically, it was McGovern’s campaign that led to the notorious Watergate fiasco.
McGovern was an icon of liberalism in America. He condemned the Iraq War and proposed impeachment for both President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton sent McGovern to Rome as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2000, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. A year later, the U.N. made him its first global ambassador to ease hunger. In 2008, McGovern and his former Senate colleague Bob Dole shared the World Food Prize, often called the Nobel Prize for combating hunger.
Eleanor McGovern died in 2007. Their son, Steven, died this past July. McGovern is survived by his daughters, Ann, Susan and Mary, 10 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren.