George McGovern, former presidential candidate, dies

9:22 AM, Oct 21, 2012   |    comments
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Chuck Raasch and Jonathan Ellis, USA TODAY

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - George McGovern, the three-term senator from South Dakota and 1972 presidential candidate whose candidacy was marred by a running mate forced to withdraw over mental health issues, has died. He was 90.

McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. local time Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, surrounded by family and lifelong friends, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told The Associated Press.

McGovern entered Dougherty Hospice House on Oct. 14 and two days later his family issued a statement saying he was unresponsive. McGovern had suffered from several health scares in the last year, including a serious fall in December prior to a live C-SPAN broadcast on his presidential campaign.

Though routed by Richard Nixon, McGovern's 1972 campaign influenced the Democratic Party in the decades that followed and greatly changed the party's rules over how future presidential candidates and party leaders were chosen. He devoted much of his last three decades to anti-hunger issues, teaming with former senator Bob Dole, a Republican and one-time adversary in the Senate, to establish school-lunch programs in some of the world's poorest nations.

"In the storied history of American politics, I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat," former president Bill Clinton said while was speaking in 2006 at the opening of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, S.D.

Clinton, along with his future wife, Hillary Rodham, were among the legions of young people who worked or volunteered for the 1972 McGovern campaign in what was the first presidential election following the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which set the voting age at 18. McGovern based his campaign on a call to end the Vietnam War, which McGovern had opposed in the Senate. But his "Come Home America" theme was derailed when his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was forced to withdraw after it was revealed he had received treatment for depression and exhaustion.

McGovern then chose Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver as his running mate. They won only one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. McGovern even lost his home state of South Dakota to Nixon, something he would always consider a low point of his public career.

Born in Avon, S.D., on July 19, 1922, McGovern's father was a Wesleyan Methodist minister and minor league baseball player. The family moved to Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace, in 1928, and after graduating from high school in 1940, McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan. McGovern credited a high school debate coach, along with college forensic instructors, for instilling an interest in public speaking and service.

It was at Dakota Wesleyan that McGovern began dating his future wife, Eleanor Stegeberg, of Woonsocket, S.D. They had met as high school students when Eleanor and her twin sister, Ila, defeated McGovern and a partner in a debate. . They had five children.

During World War II, McGovern flew a B-24 bomber in the European Theater, completing 35 combat missions and earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing harrowing missions in which he nursed his wounded bomber to emergency landings, including one off the Yugoslav coast. On his final mission, with a gunner seriously wounded, McGovern managed to land his badly damaged bomber back at his home airfield in Italy.

After his combat missions were over, McGovern spent his final months as a military pilot flying food into cities of war-ravaged Europe. He would later say he vividly saw the effects of hunger.

"He has an exciting life in many respects, even in terms of presidential candidates," said Thomas Knock, a history professor at Southern Methodist University who is writing a two-volume biography of McGovern. "The story of his service in the war reads almost like a movie script."

After the war, he finished college at Dakota Wesleyan in 1946 and earned master's and doctoral degrees from Northwestern University in Illinois.

As a veteran who had fought in war, McGovern said he was attracted to Progressive Party nominee Henry Wallace, who opposed the military buildup of the Cold War.

"The Russians had 27 million people killed in World War II; the whole country was laid to waste - I mean the physical country as well as the people," he said in a 2011 interview. "And, it seemed to me they would probably be the last country in the world that wanted to start World War III. And so, when Henry Wallace, who had been secretary of Agriculture, and later vice president, when he started saying what I thought, I swung over to him. And there were probably some radicals in the party way out in left field, but it didn't include me. I was that ex-Republican who was looking for somebody who would lift the banner of peace."

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