"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."
A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern said he learned to hate war by waging it. In his disastrous race against Nixon, he promised to end the Vietnam War and cut defense spending by billions of dollars. He helped create the Food for Peace program and spent much of his career believing the United States should be more accommodating to the former Soviet Union.
Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, often sounding more like the Methodist minister he once studied to become than the longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president he became.
And he never shied from the word "liberal," even as other Democrats blanched at the word and Republicans used it as an epithet.
"I am a liberal and always have been," McGovern said in 2001. "Just not the wild-eyed character the Republicans made me out to be."
McGovern's campaign, nevertheless, left a lasting imprint on American politics. Determined not to make the same mistake, presidential nominees have since interviewed and intensely investigated their choices for vice president. Clinton got his start in politics when he signed on as a campaign worker for McGovern in 1972 and is among the legion of Democrats who credit him with inspiring them to pursue public service.
President Barack Obama remembered McGovern in a statement Sunday as "a statesman of great conscience and conviction."
"He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe," the president said. "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 Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in the small farm town of Avon, S.D, the son of a Methodist pastor. He was raised in Mitchell, shy and quiet until he was recruited for the high school debate team and found his niche. He enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in his hometown and, already a private pilot, volunteered for the Army Air Force soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Army didn't have enough airfields or training planes to take him until 1943. He married his wife, Eleanor Stegeberg, and arrived in Italy the next year. That would be his base for the 35 missions he flew in the B-24 Liberator christened the "Dakota Queen" after his new bride.
In a December 1944 bombing raid on the Czech city of Pilsen, McGovern's plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire that disabled one engine and set fire to another. He nursed the B-24 back to a British airfield on an island in the Adriatic Sea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. On his final mission, his plane was hit several times, but he managed to get it back to safety — one of the actions for which he received the Air Medal.
McGovern returned to Mitchell and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan after the war's end, and following a year of divinity school, shifted to the study of history and political science at Northwestern University. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees, returned to Dakota Wesleyan to teach history and government, and switched from his family's Republican roots to the Democratic Party.
"I think it was my study of history that convinced me that the Democratic Party was more on the side of the average American," he said.
In the early 1950s, Democrats held no major offices in South Dakota and only a handful of legislative seats. McGovern, who had gotten into Democratic politics as a campaign volunteer, left teaching in 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Three years later, he won an upset election to the House; he served two terms and left to run for Senate.