The Democratic Party presidential nominee Senator George McGovern, right, and his running mate Senator Thomas Eagleton during their campaign for election in 1972. Photo by Anthony Korody/Getty Images
A war hero, U.S. Senator, presidential candidate and champion of liberal causes, George McGovern died in hospice care near his home in South Dakota Sunday. He was 90.
Best known for his landslide loss to President Richard Nixon in 1972, during his three terms in the Senate McGovern became the leader and spokesman of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. He was a staunch anti-war advocate and an early critic of America’s involvement in Vietnam, sponsoring legislation in 1970 to force its end.
McGovern spent much of his life serving his country. As a young pilot he flew bombing raids over Nazi Germany during World War II and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. After returning home and earning his Ph.D in history from Northwestern University in 1953, he was elected in 1956 to represent South Dakota in the House of Representatives, where he served two terms, and then to the Senate, where he served from 1963 to 1981.
The Avon, S.D., native ran unsuccessfully for president three times, including two short-lived bids, in 1968 and 1984. During one of the most bizarre Democratic conventions of the century, in 1972 he overcame odds to cinch the presidential nomination, not delivering his acceptance speech until 3 a.m., long after many viewers had gone to bed.
But that fall, against incumbent Richard Nixon, McGovern carried only one state — Massachusetts — and Washington, D.C. Despite that loss, it was later found that Nixon’s re-election committee had violated laws during the campaign, including when it broke into the Watergate Hotel. Nixon resigned in 1974.
Following his own exit from politics in 1981, McGovern focused on addressing humanitarian causes and world hunger in particular. He continued to teach and authored books and editorials on politics, public policy and foreign affairs, among other issues.
In October 1988, weeks before the election of George H.W. Bush, McGovern visited the MacNeil/Lehrer Report to discuss the state of the race with Barry Goldwater, who lost his own presidential race as the Republican nominee in 1964. (See the video below.)
With Jim Lehrer moderating, the two described what it means to be a liberal or a conservative and what role they believed government should play in society.
“When you ask the individual American whether he favors let’s say rural electrification or Social Security or student loans, or Medicare, by margins of two, three or four to one, maybe ten to one in some cases, they say yes,” McGovern said. “Well, those programs are the guts of American liberalism. So liberalism, because of, I think, of a lot of political propaganda, has come to be a term that carries some rather odious connotations, and yet, the programs that it’s responsible for generally are endorsed by the American public.”