SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — George McGovern, the three-term senator from South Dakota who carried the Democratic Party’s liberal banner in the Vietnam War era, launched a star-crossed presidential bid in 1972, and energized many leading Democrats of the past generation, died Sunday. He was 90.
In a public career spanning five-plus decades, Mr. McGovern may be best remembered as a presidential candidate of near-epic futility, in which he lost 49 of 50 states.
The senator’s liberal agenda — supporting civil rights and anti-poverty programs and denouncing the Vietnam War — were critical to his landslide defeat to Richard Nixon. But those views helped define the Democratic Party’s vision.
“In many ways, he revolutionized the Democratic Party,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and authority on congressional politics.
Among those who worked on Mr. McGovern’s 1972 campaign were Bill Clinton, a future governor and president; Hillary Clinton, a future senator and secretary of state, and Gary Hart, a future senator and presidential candidate.
Mr. McGovern, a minister’s son, was raised in a South Dakota farm community during the Depression and was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II.
Both experiences — seeing hobos begging for food at his family’s doorstep and witnessing emaciated child beggars in wartime Italy — molded his political career from the moment he was first elected to Congress in 1956.
In the early 1960s, he conceived the idea of the U.S. Food for Peace program, which gave foreign nations credit to buy surplus U.S. crops, and served under President John F. Kennedy as the program’s first director. In that position, he played a central role building the U.N.’s World Food Program, a humanitarian organization that has given food assistance to hundreds of millions of victims of war and natural disasters.
After winning his Senate seat in 1962, he spent much of his life working to expand food stamp and school lunch programs and championing civil rights and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the Senate.
After being defeated for re-election to the Senate in 1980, he served as the U.S. representative to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and as a U.N. global ambassador on world hunger. “It is in our self-interest to end hunger,” he wrote in a 1998 editorial. “After all, we live in one world. Rich and poor alike, we breathe the same air; we share a global economy. The chaos associated with political instability rooted in poverty and desperation is rarely contained within a single country.”
As part of his wide-ranging humanitarian interests, Mr. McGovern was synonymous with the anti-war movement.
In September, 1963, he became the first person to challenge the Vietnam War on the Senate floor, with five paragraphs tucked into a speech about disarmament.
But he voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, giving President Lyndon Johnson almost blank-check authority to escalate the war. By the next year, Mr. McGovern joined a small group of senators who called U.S. involvement in Vietnam a mistake.
After being re-elected to the Senate in 1968, Mr. McGovern led a commission to overhaul the Democratic Party’s nominating process. The experience proved crucial; Mr. McGovern entered the 1972 presidential race knowing the rules better than anyone else.
Mr. McGovern frequently sought support from Toledo-area voters in his 1972 campaign for president.
During the spring primary, he visited Toledo three times in the final week before the May 2 vote.
At the Dana Corp.’s Spicer Transmission plant in North Toledo on April 27, he shook hands at the gate before going inside for a tour. He then traveled to Fremont and Sandusky.
Sen. Edmund Muskie, who also sought the Democratic nomination, had just suspended his campaign. Mr. McGovern said he was surprised by the decision and called Mr. Muskie “an old friend, an able contender.” That left Mr. McGovern to compete against Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Henry Jackson to become the Democrats’ nominee against Richard Nixon.
Three days after the Spicer visit, Mr. McGovern was back for a Saturday appearance before crowds of more than 1,000 people who jammed the Retail Clerks Union Hall at Summit and Cherry streets. He spoke for 45 minutes.
On Monday, May 1, one day before the primary, Mr. McGovern returned to tour the American Motors Jeep Corp. plant.
He narrowly lost the Lucas County vote to Mr. Humphrey.
After receiving the nomination, Mr. McGovern returned to the Toledo area Oct. 18. He spoke at the Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee that night, wrapping up a day of policy speeches in Detroit and Cleveland. He stayed overnight in the Hillcrest Hotel before leaving for Philadelphia.
In 1986, he spoke at the University of Toledo. This time, his audience numbered just 100 people, according to an account in The Blade. There the long-time peace activist decried President Ronald Reagan’s push to increase military spending while cutting domestic spending.
He appeared at the University of Toledo in May, 1990, as keynote speaker for the Charles DeBenedetti Memorial Conference. Until his death in 1978, Mr. DeBenedetti was a professor in the UT history department and a prominent peace activist. Mr. McGovern also wrote the foreword of a book published as a result of that conference, Give Peace a Chance: Exploring the Vietnam Antiwar Movement.
At his address, Mr. McGovern criticized Democratic leaders in the Senate for their silent acceptance of GOP presidential policies under President George H. W. Bush to send troops to Panama.
He continued his antiwar stance during a 2004 appearance at UT’s law college. Mr. McGovern, who was 82 at the time and had written nine books, denounced President George W. Bush and his push for tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of higher education and job training. “They need a tax cut like they do a hole in the head,” he told the audience.
The 1972 race against Mr. Nixon was seen by most as a sure loss. The revelations of the Nixon administration’s involvement in the Watergate scandal — which stemmed from a 1972 break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters — had not yet sunk into the public’s consciousness.
The McGovern-Sargent Shriver ticket received only 38 percent of the popular vote, carrying just Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, for 17 electoral votes. Mr. Nixon won 520 electoral votes.
At the 1973 Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, Mr. McGovern joked, “Ever since I was a young man I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did.”
But the defeat hurt for a long time. Years later, after Walter Mondale, a former Democratic senator from Minnesota and vice president under President Jimmy Carter, was beaten by incumbent Ronald Reagan in the 1984 election, he asked Mr. McGovern how long it would take to get over the pain of losing in a landslide.
“I’ll let you know when I get there,” Mr. McGovern said.