George McGovern, John F. Kennedy
FILE - In this June 1960 file photo, U.S. Rep. George McGovern, joins Sen. John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in Sioux Falls, S.D.
updated 10/21/2012 8:30:09 AM ET 2012-10-21T12:30:09

George McGovern was an unwavering, often unrequited advocate for liberal Democratic causes. He pursued those goals in plainspoken, usually understated, Midwestern style. He was a dedicated, decent man, a devoted Democrat even when the party establishment turned away from him in defeat.

He wasn't good at political gamesmanship. He suffered his worst blunders when he strayed from straight talk in his doomed 1972 presidential campaign. It didn't fit the man and it shook the credibility he treasured.

McGovern was a partisan without the poison that increasingly infected American politics. In his career-long quest for programs to feed the hungry, in the U.S. and worldwide, he worked in partnership with Bob Dole, former Republican leader of the Senate where they'd both served.

Former Senator George McGovern dies, aged 90

During his years of political retirement — he lost his South Dakota Senate seat in 1980 — McGovern remained active, lecturing, teaching and writing. He even waged a token presidential campaign in 1984. He'd also run briefly for the 1968 nomination after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

In his 2011 book, "What It Means to Be a Democrat" he summed up his credo:

"Above all, being a Democrat means having compassion for others. ... It means standing up for people who have been kept down ..."

That was the essence of his program during four terms in the House, three in the Senate, and a doomed and crushed presidential campaign in 1972. By the time he was nominated for the White House, McGovern had been marginalized by rivals in his own party, who argued that he was too far left to be elected. That probably was so, but President Richard M. Nixon was the overwhelming favorite against any Democratic challenger.

McGovern got just 37 percent of the vote to Nixon's 61, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. Embittered, he considered whether to even stay in politics, especially as other Democrats made him a symbol of what ailed them and kept him off their stages. McGovernite became a label for losers. But he went back to the Senate, and within months he could joke ruefully about his landslide loss.

"I opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out," McGovern later joked of his reform commission, which had broadened the nominating process, driven out the old party bosses and ultimately made the presidential primaries the arenas for choosing nominees of both parties.

There was nothing strident about McGovern; even when his words were harsh, his delivery tended to be bland. As a young man, he had been a warrior, and a heroic one. As a senator, he opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam from the beginning, in 1963. Arguing in 1970 for legislation to cut U.S. war spending and force troop withdrawal, he offended his colleagues by telling them, "This chamber reeks of blood," vehement words delivered in the matter-of-fact McGovern style. His 1972 presidential campaign proposals included withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for draft evaders and steep cuts in the Pentagon budget.

For a time, he also advocated a $1,000 tax grant to every American to replace complex welfare and income support programs, saying the needy could spend it and the wealthy would pay it back in taxes. It came with no numbers, no estimate of the cost, although McGovern claimed, against arithmetic and logic, that it would balance out at zero. He dropped that idea, but the Republicans never did.

That spoke to one of his chronic political problems. He was an idea man, not a manager. Witness the uncontrolled chaos of his nominating convention, dramatized when assorted Democratic interest groups spent so much time talking that McGovern did not get to deliver his own acceptance speech until 2:48 a.m., long after the TV audience had gone to bed.

But one of his best-remembered, and most unfortunate, lines came later — after his unvetted selection of Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate turned into a political disaster with the disclosure that Eagleton twice had undergone electric shock therapy for depression. McGovern said he was "1,000 percent" for Eagleton and wasn't dropping him from the ticket. But he had to. Then he had to shop for a running mate, with five Democrats declining before Sargent Shriver finally said yes.

So if there'd been any doubt about his outcome against Nixon, it was erased before the fall campaign even began. McGovern was frustrated because Nixon stayed at the White House and seldom campaigned at all. McGovern called him the most corrupt president in American history, as The Washington Post published a succession of Watergate disclosures. Nixon just denied it all.

The political pain would ease. More devastating was the death in 1994 of his daughter, Teresa, who had suffered mental illness and alcoholism, and froze to death in a snowbank near a bar where she'd been drinking in Madison, Wis. "You never get over it, I'm sure of that," he said. "You get so you can live with it, that's all." McGovern and his wife Eleanor, who died in 2007, had four daughters and one son.

McGovern wrote a book, "Terry," about his daughter's life struggle, the family impact and his own worry that his political preoccupations had somehow contributed to her troubles. He used the proceeds to open the Teresa McGovern Center in Madison to help others afflicted by addictions.

As a candidate, McGovern had to fend off conservative claims that he was weak on national defense, a naive peacenik — that he had, according to the far right, shirked combat, which was a lie. He was a decorated World War II pilot with 35 combat missions in B-24 bombers.

It could have been a campaign asset, but he talked little about it. He did in a Labor Day speech: "I still remember the day when we were hit so hard over Germany that we were all ready to bail out. So I gave this order to the crew: 'Resume your stations. We're going to bring this plane home.' I say to you and to people everywhere who share our cause: 'Resume your stations. We're going to bring America home.'"

That last line became the standard closing of his campaign speech. But he didn't repeat the details of the mission that won him the Distinguished Flying Cross for safely landing his crippled B-24. Perhaps he should have said more about his service, he said later, "but I always felt kind of foolish talking about my war record — what a hero I was."

That he did not was typical George McGovern.

EDITOR'S NOTE — Walter R. Mears, who reported on government and politics for The Associated Press in Washington for 40 years, covered George McGovern in the Senate and in his 1972 presidential campaign.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: George McGovern

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  1. George McGovern sits in the cockpit of a training plane. Born in South Dakota, McGovern enlisted after hearing about the Pearl Harbor attacks. He flew a B-24 in combat missions during World War II and was honored with a Distinguished Flying Cross medal. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. George McGovern, then a congressman, joined then-Sen. John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail in Sioux Falls, S.D. in June 1960. Both went on to victory: Kennedy as president and McGovern as senator. McGovern was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1956 and then to the Senate, where he served from 1963 through 1980. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Mrs. Coretta Scott King, widow of the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., is flanked by Sens. Charles E. Goodell, left, and George S. McGovern, right, while marching in Washington, D.C., Nov. 15, 1969. A longtime advocate for ending the Vietnam War, McGovern joined thousands as part of the moratorium marchers on the National Mall. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota gives a press conference after announcing his candidacy for the presidency in Los Angeles on Jan. 21, 1971. (Ed Widdis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Sen. George McGovern, center, arrived in Little Rock, Ark., seeking support for his Democratic presidential nomination in early 1972. He was met at the Little Rock Airport by Joe Purcell, right, chairman of the state Democratic Party, and by Bill Clinton, a McGovern campaign worker who later became president. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sens. Hubert H. Humphrey, left, and George McGovern shake hands as they meet in Los Angeles, May 28, 1972, for the first of their nationally televised debates. (Jeff Robbins / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The Democratic Party presidential nominee Sen. George McGovern (right) and his running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton during the campaign, July, 26, 1972. (Anthony Korody / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. After a three-hour long closed meeting in Washington, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, left, and Sen. George McGovern, right, head in different directions, after McGovern announced that Eagleton was stepping down as his vice presidential running mate, Aug. 1, 1972. Eagleton made American political history when he withdrew from the Democratic Party ticket after revelations about electric shock treatment he had received for bouts of depression. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sen. George McGovern and Sargent Shriver in Washington, Aug. 8, 1972, after the Democratic National Committee endorsed Sargent Shriver as the new vice presidential nominee. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Terry McGovern, daughter of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. George McGovern, opening campaign contribution envelopes at McGovern Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Oct. 16, 1972. Helping her are Steve Cohen, a staff member and Mrs. Carol Donley. McGovern and his wife Eleanor had four children including Terry who suffered from addiction and died in 1994. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Sen. George McGovern holds up the hand of his wife Eleanor and announced to the crowd gathered in downtown Syracuse that today is their 29th wedding anniversary, and “that it has been a treat for the past 29 years” in a reference to the Halloween date, Oct. 31, 1972. McGovern began the final week of his battle for the presidency. McGovern, known as a great debater, met his wife during a debate in high school. Together they had four children. Eleanor died after a battle with cancer in 2007. (Bob Schutz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sens. George McGovern, left, and Bob Dole, center, appear before a Senate Agriculture Subcommittee in Washington, Oct. 8, 1975. They presented a food stamp reform plan which was illustrated by the chart in background. Having grown up during the dust bowl and the Great Depression, McGovern's spent most of his life working to end hunger, improve nutrition and support agriculture. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Former Sens. Bob Dole, left, and George McGovern receive a standing ovation May 30, 2000, at the National Nutrition Summit in Washington, D.C. McGovern was appointed as the Food for Peace director by John F. Kennedy in 1961 and was honored with Dole with the World Food Prize in 2008. (Michael Smith / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients George McGovern, left, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan congratulate each other during the ceremony in the East Room of the White House Aug. 9, 2000, in Washington, D.C. (Mario Tama / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rep. John Murtha, left, listens as former Sen. George McGovern testifies before the Congressional Progressive Caucus forum on, "The McGovern-Polk plan for U.S. military disengagement from Iraq," Jan. 12, 2007 in Washington, D.C. The forum was held as part of an ongoing effort to examine policy options for achieving U.S. military disengagement from Iraq and bringing U.S. troops home. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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