Senator George McGovern Dies in Sioux Falls

Oct 21, 2012

Former Senator George McGovern died today in hospice care in Sioux Falls. He was 90 years old. McGovern encountered age-related medical conditions that led to his death.

McGovern served in South Dakota in Congress for almost a quarter century, both as a U.S. Representative and Senator. McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race against Richard Nixon by a landslide; Nixon later resigned amid the Watergate Scandal.

The defining moments in the life of George McGovern include not only winning the democratic nomination for president in 1972, and not just the dismal loss to Richard Nixon that followed, but also, safely landing an airplane that the German army tried to blow out of the sky.

"We had 110 holes in that plane. Pieces of flack you know some of them as big as your fist, some of them a baseball some of them a golf ball, some of them you could throw a cat through," McGovern said.

McGovern was a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II. With two engines out, one of them on fire, and with damaged landing gear, he managed to wrestle the plane safely to the ground in one of the last bombing missions of the war. The feat won him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, McGovern and his wife Eleanor moved back to the Midwest. He completed a PhD in history on the G.I. Bill and in 1956 landed a seat in Congress as South Dakota's U.S. Representative. In 1962 McGovern moved up to the Senate. He was an unabashed liberal who won over voters in the conservative state of South Dakota. He did so with tireless amounts of work, crisscrossing the state, convincing voters one by one.

“I would tell the Republicans, it’ll be better for you if we have some competition in this state. I think your football team in this high school functions a little better if they get into the competition and have to fight for every yard.  So, that message caught hold across the state and I still think it’s a good one,” McGovern said.

But McGovern was not your run of the mill Democrat. He strongly opposed Vietnam War, advocated amnesty for draft dodgers, and supported a living wage for the poor. During the early 70s, McGovern became the mainstream voice of the anti-establishment, embraced by many of those protesting in the streets. Among them was Peter Yarrow, of the folk group Peter Paul and Mary. Yarrow says McGovern inspired an entire generation of Americans.

"There are few and far between that measure up to the dignity, honesty and fantastic commitment of George McGovern that kept this country strong and conscious for all these years," Yarrow says.

In his 1972 bid for the White House, McGovern was labeled too liberal for the mainstream, and his campaign failed to sway the electorate even here in South Dakota. That campaign was hobbled by controversy after his running mate Thomas  Eagleton left the ticket following stories of treatment for depression. McGovern described his loss to Richard Nixon as the most disheartening point in his life.

"I thought the program I spelled out there was the truth. I thought it was best for America, and I'll go to my grave believing that America would be better off had I been elected in '72 rather than the reelection of President Nixon," McGovern says.

Two years after the '72 election, Nixon left office in disgrace in the shadow of Watergate. McGovern stayed on as South Dakota's U.S. Senator until 1981 when he was defeated by Republican Jim Abdnor during the Ronald Regan landslide. McGovern later served as a U.N. Ambassador to the Agencies on Food and Agriculture. In 2008 he won the World Food Prize along with former Senator Bob Dole for their efforts to provide school lunches to children worldwide. President Bill Clinton lauded McGovern's achievements at the 2006 dedication of the McGovern Library in Mitchell.

"In the storied history of American politics, I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat.  Senator the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts," Clinton says. 

In his later years, McGovern didn't slow down much. He continued to make public appearances almost until up to the time he entered hospice care. He voiced support for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, opposition to the Iraq War and he came out against the Tea Party movement.

“I’m tired of hearing what a monster the federal government is. Some of these Tea Party people and others you’d think that Washington D.C. is a place kind of like a big monster that is just ready to pounce on us if we don’t watch," McGovern said. "That’s not been my experience with the people I know who work for the United States government. They are patriots, they work hard; they do their job conscientiously.”

While his political advisories might disagree, it remains true that throughout his life George McGovern won the admiration of many, on both sides of the aisle, for his willingness to consistently put his principals above politics.