Associated Press file, 1972

Presidential candidate George McGovern, left, announces his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, center, is stepping aside.

A hero to the left, he lost presidential race to Nixon

Published: Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 4A

George McGovern, the U.S. senator who won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 1972 as an opponent of the war in Vietnam and who was then trounced by President Richard M. Nixon in the general election, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.

His death was announced by the family. He had been moved to hospice care in recent days after being treated for several health problems in the last year.

In a statement, President Barack Obama called McGovern "a champion for peace" who was a "statesman of great conscience and conviction."

To the liberal Democratic faithful, McGovern remained a standard-bearer well into his old age, writing and lecturing even as his name was routinely invoked by conservatives as synonymous with what they considered the failures of liberal politics.

He never retreated from those ideals, however, insisting on a strong, "progressive" federal government to protect the vulnerable and expand economic opportunity while asserting that history would prove him correct in his opposing not only what he called "the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam" but also the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

McGovern went to Washington as a 34-year-old former college history teacher and decorated bomber pilot in World War II. Elected to the Senate in 1962, McGovern left no special mark in his three terms, but he voted consistently in favor of civil rights and anti-poverty bills, was instrumental in developing and expanding food stamp and nutrition programs, and helped lead opposition to the Vietnam War in the Senate.

The war was the cause he took into the 1972 election, one of the most lopsided in U.S. history. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia and won just 17 electoral votes to Nixon's 520.

The campaign was the backdrop to the burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and by the Nixon organization's shady fundraising practices and sabotage operations, later known as "dirty tricks," which were not disclosed until after the election.

Republicans portrayed McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and outside the mainstream of American thought. McGovern resented that characterization mightily.

"I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie," he said in an interview for this obituary in 2005 in his home in Mitchell. "My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I'm what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.

"But we probably didn't work enough on cultivating that image," he added, referring to his campaign organization. "We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment. It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image."

McGovern was 49 and in his second Senate term when he won the 1972 Democratic nomination, outdistancing a dozen or so other aspirants, including Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, the early frontrunner; former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the nominee in 1968; and Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, a populist with a segregationist past who was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt during the primaries.

McGovern benefited from new party rules he had been largely responsible for writing, and from a corps of devoted young volunteers, including Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, who took time off from Yale Law School to work on the campaign in Texas.

The nominating convention in Miami was a disastrous start to the general election campaign. There were divisive platform battles over Vietnam, abortion, welfare and court-ordered busing to end racial discrimination. The eventual platform was probably the most liberal one ever adopted by a major party in the United States. It advocated immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, abolition of the draft, a guaranteed job for all Americans and a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line.

Several prominent Democrats declined McGovern's offer to be his running mate before he chose Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri. The convention was barely over when word got out that Eagleton had been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for what was called nervous exhaustion, and that he had undergone electroshock therapy.

McGovern declared that he was behind his running mate. But less than two weeks after the nomination, Eagleton was dropped from the ticket and replaced by Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law and former director of the Peace Corps. The campaign never recovered.

In the 2005 Times interview, McGovern said he had handled the matter badly.

"I didn't know a damn thing about mental illness," he said, "and neither did anyone around me."

George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in a parsonage in Avon, S.D., a town of about 600 people where his father, Joseph, was the pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church.

The family moved to Mitchell, in southeastern South Dakota, when George was 6. He went to high school and college there, enrolling at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, McGovern joined the Army Air Corps, and before going overseas, in 1943, he married Eleanor Stegeberg.

What he called "the big tragedy of my life" occurred in 1994. His daughter Teresa J. McGovern, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, froze to death at 45, acutely intoxicated, in a parking lot snowbank in Madison, Wis. A son, Steven, died in July. McGovern's survivors include three daughters.

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