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George McGovern, liberal stalwart, dies

Former senator fought poverty, Vietnam War

George McGovern had affection for Massachusetts, the only state he carried in the 1972 presidential election.

DOUG DREYER/ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE 2006

George McGovern had affection for Massachusetts, the only state he carried in the 1972 presidential election.

George S. McGovern, the three-term US senator from South Dakota who defied the odds to win the Democratic nomination for president in 1972 only to suffer at the hands of Richard Nixon one of the worst electoral defeats in US history, died Sunday in hospice care in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.

On Election Day, Mr. McGovern carried only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts, which added to political folklore the bumper stickers, “Massachusetts: The One and Only,’’ and “Don’t Blame Me, I’m from Massachusetts.”

 Mr. McGovern served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later headed the Food for Peace program.

SUZANNE KREITER/GLOBE STAFF/FILE 2001

Mr. McGovern served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later headed the Food for Peace program.

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“Just the assurance that one big, important state preferred me to go to the White House over the incumbent president meant a lot to me,” Mr. McGovern said in a 2004 Boston Globe interview. “I have genuine affection for Boston and Massachusetts.”

Mr. McGovern’s nomination marked a crucial turning point for the Democratic Party, which in just eight years went from Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory of 1964 to Mr. McGovern’s landslide defeat. The sharp leftward swing represented by Mr. McGovern’s nomination created enduring scars.

Employed by Democrats as well as Republicans, the terms “McGovernite” and “McGovern wing of the party” lived on in common, and derogatory, use long after Mr. McGovern was defeated for reelection to the Senate in 1980.

He lost his seat in the Reagan landslide of that year.

The GOP victory could be seen as climaxing the transformation of the Republican Party that began with Barry Goldwater’s loss to Johnson in 1964. Unlike 1964, which also saw a highly divisive triumph of one wing of the party over its mainstream, 1972 was an end rather than a beginning: the death knell of the famed FDR coalition, which had dominated US politics for 40 years and given the Democrats control of the White House for all but 12 of those years.

Mr. McGovern’s fervent opposition to US involvement in Indochina and the general perception of his radicalness -- best encapsulated, however inaccurately, as “acid, amnesty, and abortion,” a harshly reductive summary coined by then-Senate minority leader Hugh Scott -- thoroughly alienated three already wavering mainstays of the coalition: the South, labor, and white ethnics.

Yet Mr. McGovern’s leftism is easily exaggerated. The most popular Democrat of the past 40 years, President Bill Clinton, helped run the McGovern presidential campaign in Texas. And Mr. McGovern’s nomination could be seen as affirming an even longer-standing Democratic tradition than that of the FDR coalition: Midwestern progressives heading the ticket. William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and, later, Walter Mondale shared with Mr. McGovern heartland roots, unabashed liberalism, and a poor showing in the Electoral College. The most recent exemplar of that tradition, Barack Obama, met with more success.

In his 1977 autobiography, “Grassroots,” Mr. McGovern recalled that it was Stevenson, “my first genuine political hero,’’ who inspired him in 1952 to become more than a merely nominal Democrat. He had considered himself a strong progressive before that but had remained true to the Midwestern tradition of nonpartisanship and “voting the man.” It was one of the few legacies of the Great Plains he abandoned. From his flattened vowels to his high moral tone, Mr. McGovern remained very much a product of what the poet Hart Crane once called “the prairies’ dreaming sod.”

As the son of a Methodist minister, George Stanley McGovern came by that moral tone naturally. He was born on July 19, 1922, in Avon, S.D., a community of about 600 people. His parents were Joseph C. McGovern and Frances (McLean) McGovern. He excelled as a high school debater, despite what he later described as his “inhibited style of speech delivery,’’ and entered Dakota Wesleyan University, in Mitchell, S.D., to which the McGoverns had moved a few years after their son’s birth.

Mr. McGovern interrupted his studies to enlist in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Prior to shipping overseas, he married Eleanor Stegeberg, who had been a fellow student at Dakota Wesleyan, in 1943. He served as a B-24 pilot in Europe, flying 35 combat missions and receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters.

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree, in 1946, Mr. McGovern studied for the ministry at Northwestern University. He found himself increasingly drawn to the study of history, however, and switched to that discipline. He received his master’s in 1949 and doctorate in 1953. His doctoral thesis, “The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14,” was published in a revised version in 1972 as “The Great Coalfield War.”

Mr. McGovern taught history and politics at his Dakota Wesleyan for several years, then gave up academe in June 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic party. Crisscrossing the state, he compiled a file of 40,000 3x5 cards on individual voters and began to rebuild a party that then held only two seats in a 110-member legislature. Such assiduousness paid off in 1956, as Mr. McGovern was elected US representative in an upset victory over the Republican incumbent.

Having won reelection in 1958, Mr. McGovern challenged GOP senator Karl Mundt in 1960, losing to him by a single percentage point while running 18,000 votes ahead of the national ticket. Two years later, when Mr. McGovern took South Dakota’s other Senate seat by a margin of 597 votes, that one-point differential would have seemed enormous.

In between the races, he headed the Kennedy administration’s Food for Peace program, later detailing his experiences in a book, “War Against Want” (1964). Feeding the hungry remained an abiding concern for Mr. McGovern. During the 1970s, he joined with US Senator Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, to expand the federal government’s food stamp program. From 1998 to 2001 he served as permanent US representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.

In recognition of his work against hunger, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2000. Mr. McGovern was also author of “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time” (2001).

Agriculture had been Mr. McGovern’s primary concern in Congress, but the Vietnam War changed that. “From 1965 until the last American soldier left Vietnam in April 1975, the war was never far from my thoughts,” he once wrote.

He called his 1964 vote in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized US military action in Indochina “the one I most regret during my public career.’’

A leading critic of administration policy, he was urged to run against Johnson as an antiwar candidate in 1968. Mr. McGovern was tempted, but declined because he faced reelection. Two weeks before the Democratic Convention, he did enter the race (to little effect) as a surrogate for the slain Robert F. Kennedy, a close friend, who once described Mr. McGovern as “the most decent man in the Senate.”

A year later, Mr. McGovern was in Chicago. He paid a courtesy call on Mayor Richard J. Daley and spoke of the need to heal the wounds left by the convention. “Yes,” Daley replied, “that is important because I think our presidential nominee in ’72 will either be you or young [Edward M.] Kennedy.”

Paving the way to Mr. McGovern’s nomination was his selection, in 1969, to head a committee on “party structure and delegate selection.” The McGovern Commission, as it became known, opened up of the selection process for 1972. As a result, the delegates chosen were far more representative of the liberal makeup of the party, but also far less representative of the electorate as a whole.

As House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. later put it, Mr. McGovern “was nominated by the cast of ‘Hair.’ ”

The front-runner for the nomination, Senator Edmund S. Muskie, was a moderate, as was Humphrey, Mr. McGovern’s leading challenger after Muskie’s campaign faltered. But Mr. McGovern’s opposition to the war energized a large and committed following, and he secured the nomination.

Opinion polls showed President Nixon enjoyed a commanding lead, and the personal contrast between the two was as striking as the political. The novelist Norman Mailer called his account of the 1972 conventions “St. George and the Godfather.” Mailer was a McGovern supporter, but even an unbiased observer would have to concede that the title got at a larger truth. In fact, as much as Mr. McGovern’s views, it was his perceived preachiness that disaffected many voters. “Come home, America,” he urged in his acceptance speech (which, through anarchic convention management, was not delivered until nearly 3 a.m. EDT). As many listeners were put off by Mr. McGovern’s suggestion that America had gone astray as were by doubts as to how he defined “home.”

Mr. McGovern’s hopes of winning the White House effectively ended soon after the convention with his handling of the disclosure that his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, had undergone shock therapy for depression.

After initially backing Eagleton, Mr. McGovern removed him from the ticket, naming former Peace Corps director R. Sargent Shriver as his replacement. The damage had been done, however, and Mr. McGovern’s indecisive handling of the affair, and, in particular, the statement that he backed Eagleton “1,000 percent,” dogged the rest of the campaign. Almost as damaging was an earlier proposal of a $1,000-a-year guaranteed income. Though the measure little differed from Nixon’s own Family Assistance Plan, it was taken to be another example of Mr. McGovern’s radical bent.

Mr. McGovern took a little more than 38 percent of the popular vote and 17 electoral votes. “Dear George, If you must lose, lose big,” Goldwater wrote him in a consolation note.

“That letter gave me the first big lift I had after the election,” Mr. McGovern later recalled.

Within a matter of months, the unfolding Watergate scandal discredited Nixon and gave Mr. McGovern a new luster. “As the Watergate scandal deepened,” he ruefully put it, “it seemed that no one had voted for Nixon. Soon I felt like a version of Will Rogers: I had never met a person who didn’t support me, though I’d lost 49 states.”

In 1974, Mr. McGovern won reelection to the Senate. After his defeat in 1980, he announced his candidacy for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination. He withdrew from the race after the Massachusetts primary, where he had finished a respectable third. He also briefly considered a run for the presidency in 1992, but never entered the race.

A year before that, while taking a flight from Washington to New York, Mr. McGovern found himself sitting next to Nixon. “We had a nice talk,” Nixon told an aide the next day. “He was always a very decent guy” and, Nixon added, “had the guts to stand up for what he believed in.”

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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