October 21, 2012

George McGovern: A proud liberal, activist to the end

The longtime senator left a lasting imprint on U.S. politics and inspired legions of Democrats.

By KRISTI EATON and WALTER R. MEARS The Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - George McGovern once joked that he had wanted to run for president in the worst way -- and that he had done so.

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In this Jan. 20, 2012, photo, George McGovern speaks during First Coast Technical College's winter commencement ceremony on in St. Augustine, Fla. McGovern, the Democrat who lost to President Richard Nixon in 1972 in a historic landslide, has died at the age of 90.

File photo/The Associated Press

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In this photo from July 24, 2010, former U.S. Sen. George McGovern speaks in Columbus, Neb. McGovern, whose anti-Vietnam War stance in his 1972 presidential race against Richard Nixon led to one of the worst electoral defeats in U.S. history, died on Sunday at the age of 90.

File photo/The Associated Press

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It was a campaign in 1972 dishonored by Watergate, a scandal that fully unfurled too late to knock Republican President Richard M. Nixon from his place as a commanding favorite for re-election. The South Dakota senator tried to make an issue out of the bungled attempt to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee, calling Nixon the most corrupt president in history.

But the Democrat could not escape the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign. The most torturous was the selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton as the vice presidential nominee and, 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, the decision to drop him from the ticket despite having pledged to back him "1,000 percent."

It was at once the most memorable and the most damaging line of his campaign, and called "possibly the most single damaging faux pas ever made by a presidential candidate" by the late political writer Theodore H. White.

With R. Sargent Shriver as his running mate, McGovern went on to carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning just 38 percent of the popular vote in one of the biggest landslides losses in American presidential history.

McGovern noted at an event with Eagleton in 2005 that Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, would both ultimately resign. He joked, "If we had run in '74 instead of '72, it would have been a piece of cake."

A proud liberal who had argued fervently against the Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and three-time candidate for president, McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, family spokesman Steve Hilde- brand told The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.

Hildebrand said he was surrounded by family and lifelong friends when he died.

"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 family said in a statement.

A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern said he learned to hate war by waging it. In his disastrous race against Nixon, he promised to end the Vietnam War and cut defense spending by billions of dollars. He helped create the Food for Peace program and spent much of his career believing the United States should be more accommodating to the former Soviet Union.

Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, sounding often more like the Methodist minister he'd once studied to become than a longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president.

And he never shied from the word "liberal," even as other Democrats blanched at the word and Republicans used it as an epithet.

"I am a liberal and always have been," McGovern said in 2001. "Just not the wild-eyed character the Republicans made me out to be."

McGovern's campaign, nevertheless, left a lasting imprint on American politics. Determined not to make the same mistake, presidential nominees have since intensely investigated their choices for vice president. Former President Bill Clinton got his start in politics when he signed on as a campaign worker for McGovern in 1972 and is among the legion of Democrats who credit him with inspiring them to public service.

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Additional Photos

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In this photo taken May 28, 1972, U.S. Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., is shown on TV 's "Face the Nation."

File photo/The Associated Press

  


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