Former South Dakota Senator and Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 George McGovern has died at the age of 90. No cause of death was immediately given.
Former Sen. George McGovern, the three-time Democratic presidential candidate who won his party’s nomination in 1972 on an anti-war platform but lost in a landslide to President Richard Nixon, has died. He was 90.
A family spokesman said the former U.S. Senator died early Sunday morning.
McGovern represented his home state of South Dakota for more than 20 years, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate, where he championed liberal social and economic reforms.
“I accept your nomination with a full and grateful heart,” McGovern told conventioneers when he won the party’s nomination for president.
Gary Hart, who would go on to run for president twice himself, was McGovern’s campaign manager. And a young future president, Bill Clinton, ran his campaign operations in Texas.
McGovern, an unabashed liberal, called for an immediate end to the Vietnam War.
But he lost in a landslide to then-President Richard Nixon after winning just one state, Massachusetts.
Before entering politics, McGovern flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He married his college sweetheart, Eleanor, during the war, and they had five children together. Eleanor died in 2008.
He was tapped by three presidents to represent the U.S. at the United Nations on issues ranging from disarmament to world hunger. He launched a program with former Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in 2002 to provide education and food to poor children in the U.S. and around the world.
“There is one problem that I think we can lick, absolutely, and that’s world hunger,” McGovern said at a 2000 press conference with Dole.
McGovern was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000 and the World Food Prize in 2008.
He stayed active until the end, backing then-Sen. Barack Obama in the 2008 election.
“Let’s seize that opportunity and vote Barack Obama for a more hopeful world,” McGovern said at an Obama rally.
McGovern made no secret of his agenda in 1972: retreat from Vietnam, gut the military budget, redistribute the wealth, and drastically increase regulations on businesses. Because he was upfront with the American people about his plans to remake America into a European-style social democracy, he was slaughtered by Nixon. The left learned a valuable lesson from that lopsided defeat and developed an entirely new vocabulary to talk about liberalism, making it sound far more reasonable and accessible to the electorate. “Fairness” replaced “redistribution” while “spending” morphed into “investments.” The word “liberal” was ditched in favor of “progressive” as the left tried to connect to the turn of the 20th century reformists. During his 1984 run for president, McGovern eschewed the new vocabulary and was irrelevant to the race.
By all accounts, McGovern was an honorable man. The fact that he promoted wretched ideas shouldn’t obscure the fact that the Republican opposition had little trouble working with him on many issues, including the problem of hunger in America — a cause that engaged his attention for most of his adult life. He served his country honorably and bravely in World War II, while promoting veterans’ causes both in the House and the Senate.
McGovern was an important figure in the 1960s and 1970s and will largely be remembered for coming out in opposition to the Vietnam War at a time when it was political suicide to do so. His cut and run strategy would have been disastrous if implemented, but how much worse would it have been compared to the eventual outcome of the war? We’ll never know.
I will always remember watching his acceptance speech at the 1972 convention — given after 1:00 a.m. because of the internecine platform fights that delayed the proceedings. His famous lament “Come home America…” seemed so out of touch with the times, so jarringly off-key, that many observers wrote his candidacy off that very night.
But being wrong politically is not a crime in America. And perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in McGovern’s mixed legacy: telling the truth and losing makes one a better man than lying in order to get elected.
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