George McGovern, the United States senator who won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972 as an opponent of the war in Vietnam and a champion of liberal causes, and who was then trounced by President Richard M. Nixon in the general election, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
His death was announced in a statement by the family. He had been moved to hospice care in recent days after being treated for several health problems in the last year. He had a home in Mitchell, S.D., where he had spent his formative years.
“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 statement said.
To the liberal Democratic faithful, Mr. McGovern remained a standard-bearer well into his old age, writing and lecturing even as his name was routinely invoked by conservatives as synonymous with what they considered the failures of liberal politics.
He never retreated from those ideals, however, insisting on a strong, “progressive” federal government to protect the vulnerable and expand economic opportunity while asserting that history would prove him correct in his opposing not only what he called “the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam” but also the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A slender, soft-spoken minister’s son newly elected to Congress — his father was a Republican — Mr. McGovern went to Washington as a 34-year-old former college history teacher and decorated bomber pilot in World War II. He thought of himself as a son of the prairie as well, with a fittingly flat, somewhat nasal voice and a brand of politics traceable to the Midwestern progressivism of the late 19th century.
Elected to the Senate in 1962, Mr. McGovern left no special mark in his three terms, but he voted consistently in favor of civil rights and antipoverty bills, was instrumental in developing and expanding food stamp and nutrition programs, and helped lead opposition to the Vietnam War in the Senate.
520 to 17
That was the cause he took into the 1972 election, one of the most lopsided in American history. Mr. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia and won just 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520.
The campaign was the backdrop to the burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and by the Nixon organization’s shady fund-raising practices and sabotage operations, later known as “dirty tricks,” which were not disclosed until after the election.
The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and outside the mainstream of American thought. Fair or not, he never lived down the image of a liberal loser, and many Democrats long accused him of leading the party astray.
Mr. McGovern resented that characterization mightily. “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2005 in his home in Mitchell. “My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.
“But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image,” he added, referring to his campaign organization. “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment.
“It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.”
Mr. McGovern was 50 years old and in his second Senate term when he won the 1972 Democratic nomination, outdistancing a dozen or so other aspirants, including Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, the early front-runner; former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the nominee in 1968; and Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, a populist with a segregationist past who was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt in Maryland during the primaries.
Mr. McGovern benefited from new party rules that he had been largely responsible for writing, and from a corps of devoted young volunteers, including Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, who took time off from Yale Law School to work on the campaign in Texas.
The nominating convention in Miami was a disastrous start to the general election campaign. There were divisive platform battles over Vietnam, abortion, welfare and court-ordered busing to end racial discrimination. The eventual platform was probably the most liberal one ever adopted by a major party in the United States. It advocated immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, abolition of the draft, a guaranteed job for all Americans and a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line.
Several prominent Democrats declined Mr. McGovern’s offer to be his running mate before he finally chose Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri.
Mr. McGovern’s organization was so disorganized that by the time he went to the convention rostrum for his acceptance speech, it was nearly 3 a.m. He delivered perhaps the best speech of his life. “We reject the view of those who say, ‘America, love it or leave it,’ ” he declared. “We reply, ‘Let us change it so we can love it more.’ “
The delegates loved it, but most television viewers had long since gone to bed.
The Eagleton Debacle
The convention was barely over when word got out that Mr. Eagleton had been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for what was called nervous exhaustion, and that he had undergone electroshock therapy.
Mr. McGovern declared that he was behind his running mate “a thousand percent.” But less than two weeks after the nomination, Mr. Eagleton was dropped from the ticket and replaced by R. Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law and former director of the Peace Corps.
The campaign never recovered from the Eagleton debacle. Republicans taunted Mr. McGovern for backing everything a thousand percent. Commentators said his treatment of Mr. Eagleton had shown a lack of spine.
In the 2005 Times interview, Mr. McGovern said he had handled the matter badly. “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness,” he said, “and neither did anyone around me.”
With a well-oiled campaign operation and a big financial advantage, Nixon began far ahead and kept increasing his lead. When Mr. McGovern proposed deep cuts in military programs and a $1,000 grant to every American, Nixon jeered, calling the ideas liberalism run amok. Nixon, meanwhile, cited accomplishments like the Paris peace talks on Vietnam, an arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, a prosperous economy and a diplomatic opening to China.
On election night, Mr. McGovern did not bother to call Nixon. He simply sent a telegram offering congratulations. Then, he said, he sat on his bed at the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls and wrote his concession speech on hotel stationery.
In his book on the campaign, “The Making of the President 1972,” Theodore H. White wrote that the changes Mr. McGovern had sought abroad and at home had “frightened too many Americans.”
“Richard M. Nixon,” Mr. White wrote, “convinced the Americans, by more than 3 to 2, that he could use power better than George McGovern.”
Mr. McGovern offered his own assessment of the campaign. “I don’t think the American people had a clear picture of either Nixon or me,” he said in the 2005 interview. “I think they thought that Nixon was a strong, decisive, tough-minded guy and that I was an idealist and antiwar guy who might not attach enough significance to the security of the country.
“The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation’s well-being.”
His staff, he said, urged him to talk more about his war experience, but like many World War II veterans at the time, he was reluctant to do so.
How long, he was asked, did it take to get over the disappointment of losing? “You never fully get over it,” he replied. “But I’ve had a good life. I’ve enjoyed myself 90 percent of the time.”
George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in a parsonage in Avon, S.D., a town of about 600 people where his father, Joseph, was the pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A disciplinarian, his father, who was born in 1868, tried to keep his four children from going to the movies and playing sports. His mother, the former Frances McLean, was a homemaker about 20 years her husband’s junior.
The family moved to Mitchell, in southeastern South Dakota, when George was 6. He went to high school and college there, enrolling at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, Mr. McGovern joined the Army Air Corps, and before going overseas, in 1943, he married Eleanor Stageberg, who had grown up with an identical twin on a South Dakota farm. They had met at Dakota Wesleyan.
Mr. McGovern was trained to fly the B-24 Liberator, a four-engine heavy bomber, and he flew dozens of missions over Germany, Austria and Italy.
On his 30th mission, his plane was struck by enemy fire and his navigator was killed. Lieutenant McGovern crash-landed the plane on an island in the Adriatic. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for the exploit.
After his discharge, Mr. McGovern returned to Mitchell — his father had recently died — and resumed his studies at Dakota Wesleyan. He graduated in 1946 and went to Northwestern University for graduate studies in history.
With a master’s degree, he returned to Dakota Wesleyan, a small university, to teach history and political science. “I was the best historian in a one-historian department,” he said in an interview in 2003. During summers and in his free time, he continued his graduate work and received a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern in 1953.
Mr. McGovern left teaching to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party, and almost single-handedly revived a moribund party in a heavily Republican state.
Month after month, he drove across South Dakota in a beat-up sedan, making friends and setting up county organizations. In 1956, gaining the support of farmers who had become New Deal Democrats during the Depression, he was elected to Congress himself, defeating an overconfident incumbent Republican. He became the first Democratic congressman from his state in more than 20 years.
After two terms he left the House to run for the Senate in 1960 and was soundly beaten by the sitting Republican, Karl E. Mundt. He then became a special assistant to the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, and director of Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, an effort to provide food for the hungry in poor countries.
In 1962, Mr. McGovern ran for the Senate again, and this time he won, by 597 votes, defeating Joseph H. Bottum, a Republican filling the term of Senator Francis H. Case, who had died in office.
In the Senate, Mr. McGovern became a reliable vote for Democratic initiatives and a leader on food and hunger issues as a member of the Agriculture Committee. But he was more interested in national politics than in legislation. After Robert F. Kennedy, fresh from his victory in the California presidential primary, was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, the Kennedy camp encouraged Mr. McGovern to enter the race as an alternative to Humphrey and Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota. Mr. McGovern did so but was unable to catch up to Humphrey.
Almost from the moment the 1968 campaign ended, Mr. McGovern began running for the 1972 nomination. He traveled the country, recording on index cards the names of potential supporters he met. He also became chairman of a Democratic Party commission on delegate selection, created after the fractious 1968 national convention to give the rank and file more say in picking a presidential nominee.
What became known as the McGovern commission rewrote party rules to insure that more women, young people and members of minorities were included in delegations. The influence of party leaders was curtailed. More states began choosing delegates on the basis of primary elections. And the party’s center of gravity shifted decidedly leftward.
Though the rules were not written specifically to help Mr. McGovern win the nomination, they had that effect.
After he was crushed by Nixon in the election, Mr. McGovern returned to the Senate and began campaigning for re-election in 1974. At the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner in 1973, he told the assembled Washington elite, “Ever since I was a young man, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did.”
Mr. McGovern was re-elected to the Senate in 1974, a landslide year for Democrats after Watergate. He defeated Leo K. Thorsness, a novice politician.
It proved to be Mr. McGovern’s last success in elective politics. As the conservative movement gained force, Mr. McGovern’s popularity dropped.
In 1980, he was defeated by James Abdnor, a plain-spoken Republican congressman who had clung to Ronald Reagan’s coattails and was helped by anti-McGovern advertisements broadcast by the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
Unlike some of his peers, Mr. McGovern did not become wealthy in office, and he said he had no interest in lobbying afterward. Instead, he earned a living teaching, lecturing and writing. He briefly owned a motor inn in Stratford, Conn., and a bookstore in Montana, where he owned a summer home. But neither investment proved profitable.
A Father’s Heartbreaking Loss
What he called “the big tragedy of my life” occurred in 1994. His daughter Teresa J. McGovern, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, froze to death at 45, acutely intoxicated, in a parking lot snowbank in Madison, Wis.
His eyes welled up as he talked about it 11 years later. “That just about killed me,” he said. “I had always had a very demanding schedule. I didn’t do everything I could as a father.”
As therapy, Mr. McGovern researched and wrote a book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism,” published in 1997. (An addiction-treatment center named after her was established in Madison.)
That year, President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. McGovern ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Agricultural Organization. He moved to Rome, and he worked on plans for delivering food to malnourished people around the world. In 2000, Mr. Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
After four years in Rome, the McGoverns moved back to Mitchell, where they lived in a ranch-style house owned by Dakota Wesleyan and helped raise money for a university library that was named after him and his wife. The university is also home to the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service, a research and educational institution founded in 2006. He also had a home in St. Augustine, Fla.
Eleanor McGovern died in 2007 at age 85. A son, Steven, who had also struggled with alcoholism, died in July at 60.
Mr. McGovern’s survivors include three daughters — Ann, Susan and Mary — 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Mr. McGovern remained robust in old age. To celebrate his 88th birthday, he sky-dived in Florida. Last fall, he was hospitalized twice, once after falling and hitting his head outside the Dakota Wesleyan library before a scheduled C-Span interview, and another time for fatigue after completing a lecture tour. But he rebounded and resumed making public and television appearances this year.
Mr. McGovern remained a voice in public affairs, notably in 2008, when, in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, he called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for their prosecution of the war in Iraq.
He published books regularly, on history, the environment and other subjects. In “Out of Iraq” (2006), written with William R. Polk, he argued for a phased withdrawal from Iraq, to end in 2007. In his final book, “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” released in November 2011, he despairs of an “insidious” political atmosphere in Washington while trying to rally Democrats against “extremism” in the Republican ranks.
“We are the party that believes we can’t let the strong kick aside the weak,” Mr. McGovern wrote. “Our party believes that poor children should be as well educated as those from wealthy families. We believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes and that everyone should have access to health care.”
With the country burdened economically, he added, there has “never been a more critical time in our nation’s history” to rely on those principles.
“We are at a crossroads,” he wrote, “over how the federal government in Washington and state legislatures and city councils across the land allocate their financial resources. Which fork we take will say a lot about Americans and our values.”
David E. Rosenbaum, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, died in 2006. William McDonald contributed reporting.