George McGovern, presidential candidate and liberal icon, dies at 90by Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
George McGovern, the small-town South Dakota boy who won his party's nomination for president in 1972, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
McGovern will best be remembered for his crushing loss in the 1972 presidential race and longstanding opposition to the Vietnam War.
But he fought many other battles in a life that included a love for both the stark plains of South Dakota and Washington's rough-and-tumble politics.
THE '72 RUN FOR PRESIDENT
McGovern reached the summit of his political career when he secured the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in the summer of 1972. He triumphed over a field of candidates that included Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, and two Minnesotans -- Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy.
But McGovern was trounced by Republican Richard Nixon, who won every state except Massachusetts.
"We now bring it to an end tonight," said McGovern on election night in 1972. "I have just sent the following telegram to President Nixon: 'Congratulations on your victory.'"
Speaking in Sioux Falls to an auditorium full of supporters that night, McGovern looked past his landslide loss with a sense of optimism toward the future.
"We will shed no tears because all of this effort, I am positive, will bear fruit for years to come," McGovern said.
That proved true for many of his supporters, but especially so for McGovern himself. He eventually left elective politics, but he never left the public sphere.
Politically he was regarded as an old-school liberal, coming of age during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal in the 1930s and '40s. After his failed presidential run, McGovern stayed in the Senate until he was defeated in the 1980 election. But that was far from the end of his activist life.
In a 2005 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, a quarter century after his Senate loss, McGovern, 82 at the time, said he was as busy as ever.
"I am supposed to be retired, but my work schedule is every bit as long today as it was when I was in the United States Senate," he said. "You'll frequently see my light on at 1:30 in the morning."
McGovern was busy on a variety of issues, but the one that dominated his time was a lifelong effort to fight hunger, in the United States and around the world.
THE FIGHT AGAINST HUNGER
McGovern first witnessed hunger during the Dust Bowl years in South Dakota, according to historian Thomas Knock of Southern Methodist University, who is writing a biography of McGovern. McGovern's World War II service as a bomber pilot based in Italy brought him even closer to the issue.
"[He had] indelible memories of human suffering brought by the war," Knock said. "Especially seeing Italian children on the edge of starvation, which was far more extreme then anything he'd ever seen in South Dakota during the Great Depression."
During the war, McGovern witnessed human privation and death in nearly all its forms. Piloting a B-24 Liberator, he saw many friends die and had several close calls himself.
During one mission, anti-aircraft shrapnel punctured his plane with dozens of holes. He nursed the bomber to a safe landing, and for his actions, he won the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As a pilot, McGovern bombed enemy territory on dozens of missions and witnessed untold destruction. But World War II helped shape his skepticism about future wars, including Vietnam.
He was not a pacifist, but he came to believe there were very few wars worth the loss of life. The hunger he witnessed during the war helped lead him to an early emphasis on food issues in his political career.
McGovern won a position where he could make a major difference in the early 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy appointed him director of the U.S. Food for Peace program.
"McGovern really, really improved the program, and as I say, vastly expanded it," Knock said. "So that by 1962 or so, literally tens of millions of malnourished children in every part of the globe were getting a daily Food for Peace lunch."
During his Senate career, working with Republican Bob Dole of Kansas, McGovern helped expand food stamps and other nutrition programs. In 1998 he was appointed U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Agencies. Three years later he was named the U.N.'s ambassador on world hunger.
Reflecting on his hunger-fighting efforts in the 2005 MPR interview, McGovern said good food nourishes far more than muscle, bone and tissue.
"I don't know how you educate kids who have to sit there for five or six hours without a thing to eat. How do you do that?" he asked. "It's no wonder they drop out of school. It's no wonder their grades aren't very good. It's no wonder they're listless, not as productive as they might be."
THE DEATH OF HIS DAUGHTER
As McGovern toiled to prevent human tragedies caused by hunger, he also experienced personal tragedies.
His daughter, Teresa, was 45 when she died of exposure in 1994. Her death was partly a result of her alcohol addiction and mental illness. She lived and died in Madison, Wis., and a substance abuse facility there is named for her.
George McGovern recorded a testimonial for the facility that is posted on its website.
"I'm George McGovern, and I know firsthand the devastating effects that substance abuse and depression can have within a family," McGovern's statement said.
The loss of his daughter moved McGovern to try to help others facing similar challenges.
That McGovern would turn a family tragedy into something positive for others is typical, said former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
"He would call attention to causes and to important priorities in his life that affected him deeply," said Daschle. "Food was one of the biggest. But certainly after Terry's death, the extraordinary death toll that drugs and alcoholism and substance abuse takes, mattered a lot to George McGovern."
McGovern's wife, Eleanor, died in 2007; his son, Steve, died in July 2012. He is survived by three daughters, Ann McGovern, Susan McGovern and Mary McGovern-McKinnon, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Even through the most wrenching setbacks, McGovern maintained a sense of optimism. He demonstrated that most recently during his last public appearance on Oct. 6.
On that Saturday evening, McGovern joined the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portraits, for which he provided the narration. McGovern addressed the audience before the show began.
"The only problem with being 90 years old is that you keep looking around for old friends who have passed on to the world beyond," said McGovern. "I have no idea what's out there, but I somehow feel that it's going to be OK."
The narrative script for Copland's piece begins with the words, "Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history." McGovern seemed to live that. Far from escaping, he tried to use historical events as a lever to move others toward a better life.