George McGovern, former U.S. senator, presidential candidate, humanitarian, World War II hero turned anti-war advocate and dedicated public servant, died before dawn Sunday. He was 90 years old.
A spokesman for McGovern's family, Steve Hildebrand, told the Associated Press by telephone that he died peacefully at 5:15 a.m. Central Time Sunday at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D., surrounded by family and lifelong friends.
McGovern entered hospice care last week, and became "unresponsive" Wednesday, suffering "with a combination of medical conditions, due to age, that have worsened over recent months," according to a family statement.
“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. He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer,” a family statement released by Hildebrand said.
Hildebrand's statement said funeral services would be held in Sioux Falls and that the details would be announced shortly.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Sunday morning: “George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved. He signed up to fight in World War II and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.”
Born July 19, 1922, to a Methodist minister's wife in Avon, S.D., McGovern came from humble beginnings and kept a lifelong connection to his home state.
McGovern, a Democrat, served two terms representing South Dakota in the House of Representatives from 1957 to 1961. After a failed U.S. Senate bid in 1960, he was elected in 1962 and served until he was defeated for a fourth term in 1980, when he was ousted from the Senate along with a number of high-profile liberal Democrats in the Reagan landslide. During his brief hiatus between House and Senate service, he acted as the director of President John F. Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, resigning with the president’s support in 1962 to pursue the Senate seat.
A liberal Democrat deeply committed to social issues, McGovern entered the 1968 presidential race a mere two weeks before the Democratic Convention to rally the delegates of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated in June. Kennedy, like McGovern, was dedicated to the plight of the poor and hungry and against the war in Vietnam, and he was the front-runner when he was gunned down in Los Angeles the night of his California primary victory. The Democratic nomination ultimately went to Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, who led a bitterly divided party down to defeat by Richard Nixon.
In 1972, McGovern ran again for president, this time winning the Democratic nomination over the more establishment Humphrey and Sen. Edmund Muskie on the strength of his early and uncompromising opposition to the war. Announcing his candidacy on Jan. 18, 1971, he thanked South Dakota voters for allowing him to "state my convictions freely and honestly" a decade prior, despite how unpopular his antiwar stance was at the time. "Thoughtful Americans understand that the highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country deep enough to call her to a higher standard. "
McGovern lost to Nixon in one of U.S. history's greatest landslides, winning the electoral votes of only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. (520 to 17 electoral votes.) The longshot campaign was troubled from the start, and it was irretrievably damaged after a background check on his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, revealed that the Missouri senator had been treated for mental illness, a fact he failed to disclose in advance. McGovern replaced Eagleton, who resigned from the race, with Kennedy brother-in-law and Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, but his campaign would not recover.
“Tom and I ran into a little snag back in 1972 that in the light of my much advanced wisdom today, I think was vastly exaggerated,” McGovern said at an event with Eagleton in 2005. Noting 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.”
In spite of the overwhelming defeat, McGovern’s stirring words against the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, spoken in his nomination acceptance speech at the 1972 convention, were a lasting warning: "Let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.”
As a 19-year-old student at Dakota Wesleyan University, McGovern enlisted in the Army Air Corps days after Pearl Harbor, but he was not inducted until 1943. After a year-and-a-half of training, he was sent to the 455 Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force, based in Italy. Beginning Nov. 11, 1944, he flew 35 missions over Axis territory in Germany and Eastern Europe. He barely cheated death several times and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for a daring emergency landing, among other decorations.
Returning home after the war, McGovern graduated from Dakota Wesleyan and went on to earn a divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He soon decided against a career in the Methodist ministry, however, and earned master's and Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. He taught history at Dakota Wesleyan before entering politics.
While stationed in Italy during the war, McGovern witnessed the ravages of hunger, and from that point forward he became an indefatigable advocate for nutrition and food security. Reprising his service in the Kennedy administration, he was appointed by the Clinton administration as an ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1998 and remained there until 2001.
McGovern was married to Eleanor Stegeberg, whom he met in high school, for nearly 65 years before her death of heart failure in 2007. The couple had five children together; four daughters and one son. One of his daughters, Theresa, died from exposure after falling into a snowbank in Madison, Wis., in 1994. She was 45 years old at the time of her death and had suffered from alcoholism for most of her adult life. In 1996, McGovern published a memoir, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.” His son, Steven, who had also struggled with alcoholism, died in July at age 60.
McGovern leaves behind his three surviving daughters, Ann, Susan and Mary, 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, according to the New York Times.
In 2009, McGovern spoke of his hopes for his legacy. "After I'm gone, I want people to say about me: He did the best he could to end hunger in this country and the world," he told the St. Augustine Record. "Ending hunger is a solvable problem. It's well within our means."
On Wednesday, NBC reported that McGovern’s family encouraged supporters to donate to the charity Feeding South Dakota in his honor.