McGovern's Political Career Only Part of Legacy

Associated Press + More

By KRISTI EATON and WALTER R. MEARS, Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — George McGovern never slowed down, never stopped working — not even after losing the 1972 presidential race in a historic landslide that would have politically felled many others.

Instead, he met defeat with humor, once joking that he had wanted to run for president in the worst way — and that he had done exactly that.

[PHOTOS: The Life of George McGovern.]

And after he eventually lost his U.S. Senate seat, he still refused to slink away, rather refocusing on his passion for feeding the hungry at home and abroad. He became ambassador to the United Nations' food and agriculture agency, was appointed the first UN Global Ambassador on World Hunger, and co-founded with former Sen. Bob Dole the Food for Education program for children in poverty-stricken countries.

An unapologetic liberal Democrat, he inspired countless others to embrace public service and to care. When his library and museum was dedicated in South Dakota in 2006, McGovern characteristically talked about his work to provide food to poverty-stricken children around the world.

"I want to live long enough to see all of the 300 million school-age kids around the world who are not being fed be given a good nutritional lunch every day," he said.

McGovern never reached that dream, but he inspired others to take up the cause.

"I believe no other presidential candidate ever has had such an enduring impact in defeat," former President Bill Clinton said at the dedication of McGovern's library in Mitchell, S.D. "Senator, the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts."

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 Hildebrand told The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.

McGovern's family said late last week that he had become unresponsive while in hospice care. He died surrounded by relatives and lifelong friends, Hildebrand said.

"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," the family said in a statement.

A public viewing is planned Thursday at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls. Funeral services will be Friday at Mary Sommervold Hall at the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science in Sioux Falls.

His daughter, Ann McGovern, has said that she and her family repeatedly suggested that her father lighten his schedule but he refused, insisting on giving talks, working as an adviser and writing even as he entered his ninth decade.

McGovern's candidacy in the 1972 election will forever tie him to the righteous side of 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 McGovern 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 the decision to drop him from the ticket 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression. McGovern let his running mate go 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.

After a hard day's campaigning — Nixon did virtually none — McGovern would complain to those around him that nobody was paying attention. With R. Sargent Shriver as his running mate, he went on to carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning just 38 percent of the popular vote in one of the biggest losses in American presidential history.