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George McGovern


US presidential candidate who became a byword for political disaster after he lost 49 of 50 states to Richard Nixon

GEORGE McGovern, the former senator for South Dakota, who died last Sunday aged 90, stood as the Democratic candidate in America's 1972 presidential campaign -- a race that ended in a crushing landslide victory for Richard Nixon and ensured that McGovern's name became a byword for disaster.

Political activists born long after the events could recite the result:

McGovern, standing on a platform of fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, won Massachusetts. Richard Nixon, the incumbent, won the other 49 states. McGovern's defeat was so resounding, he even failed to carry his home state of South Dakota.

Pundits attributed his dismal performance to the fact that, in opposing the Vietnam War, McGovern seemed to voters to be attacking the country and, worse still, the troops in the field. It was a charge he bitterly resented, as he himself had served with distinction in the Second World War when, as a B24 bomber pilot, he had won the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. His advisers urged him to play up his war record to counter accusations of lack of patriotism. But he felt that it smacked too much of boasting.

McGovern may have been a political failure, but his self-deprecating, serene demean-our during the campaign endeared him to allies and opponents alike.

McGovern himself always had regrets about the election. "I have to live with the knowledge that, not only did I lose the election, but I lost it to the most discredited man ever to occupy the White House," he wrote. Afterwards he received a letter from fellow failed (Republican) presidential candidate Barry Goldwater: "Dear George, If you must lose, lose big." The letter, he said, had given him a "big lift".

The son of a Methodist preacher, George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922 at Avon, South Dakota. He was educated at Mitchell High School before going on to Dakota Wesleyan University to study History. McGovern was twice elected class president and won a state contest with a speech on the topic My Brother's Keeper, an avowal of his belief in man's responsibility to his fellow man.

His studies were interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He volunteered for the Army Air Corps, and less than three years later was piloting an unwieldy B-24 Liberator bomber, nicknamed the Dakota Queen. He completed 35 missions over Europe; his 30th almost proved fatal when his aircraft was badly damaged over Vienna and his navigator killed. McGovern managed to nurse the bomber away from the conflict zone to make a crash-landing on the island of Vis in the Adriatic. The achievement won him a Distinguished Flying Cross.

He was discharged in the rank of first lieutenant in 1945, the same year he joined the Democratic Party, which he felt was "more on the side of the average American" than the Republican Party. He considered training for the ministry but enrolled instead at Northwestern University in Chicago, where he earned a doctorate.

He returned to Dakota Wesleyan University in 1950 as a professor of history and political science. In 1955 he left to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party, and the following year stood as a candidate for the House of Representatives. Partly as a result of voter dissatisfaction with Republican farm aid policy, he took the seat from the Republican incumbent, becoming the first Democrat to be elected to Congress from South Dakota in 22 years.

McGovern soon established his reputation as a liberal who favoured high federal support for farming, small businesses, education and health care.

Reelected in 1958, he made a bid for the Senate in 1960 and lost. The following year, President Kennedy named him Special Assistant to the President and first director of the Food for Peace Programme, which organised the distribution of millions of tonnes of food aid to developing nations.

Elected to the Senate in 1962, McGovern served as a member of the Senate committees on agriculture, nutrition, forestry and foreign relations, and on the Joint Economic Committee, campaigning to expand aid and nutrition programmes.

Personal experience of conflict had convinced McGovern that war was not a solution to the world's problems, and during the Sixties he led calls for reductions in the defence budget. He criticised America's "Castro fixation".

In 1965 McGovern declared himself opposed to American involvement in Vietnam. After visiting the conflict zone later the same year, he suggested it had been a mistake to assume that the fundamental issue was military rather than political, asserting that "the negotiations ought to be primarily between the two competing groups in South Vietnam". As a result of making anti-communism its guiding principle in Asia, he suggested, the US had allowed itself to become "identified with corrupt, stupid and ineffective dictators".

McGovern's brilliant grassroots campaigning won him the nomination for the 1972 presidential election, but his handling of the Thomas Eagleton affair, in which he announced complete support for his running mate (whose depression was not detected by a brief background check) before dropping him for Sargent Shriver, together with Republican charges of lack of patriotism, contributed to his defeat by Nixon.

McGovern served as a US delegate to the UN under Presidents Ford and Carter. He lost a bid for a fourth Senate term in 1980, his pro-abortion stance making him a target for the increasingly influential religious Right.

After leaving the Senate, McGovern held a number of visiting professorships and opened a motel in Stratford, Connecticut which struggled for a few years before going bankrupt. He was briefly and unsuccessfully involved in the 1984 Democratic primaries, his campaign notable for a speech in which he explained to party members why he needed their vote: "I didn't have a job. My apartment burned down and I had a real nice dog but he died. If you want to house the homeless and comfort the afflicted, vote for me. I am one of these eight candidates who really does need that house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

McGovern's later life was overshadowed by the death, in 1994, of his daughter Terry, who fell down into the snow in Madison, Wisconsin, in a drunken stupor and froze to death. In 1996 McGovern published a brutally candid memoir about her battle with drink, and launched a crusade to warn Americans of the evils of the bottle.

McGovern served as president of the Middle East Policy Council from 1991 to 1998, when President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. In 2001 he was appointed the first UN global ambassador on hunger. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.

A vocal opponent of the Iraq War, in 2006 McGovern was co-author of Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now. McGovern's other books include War Against Want (1964); A Time of War, A Time of Peace (1968); The Great Coalfield War (1972); The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time (2001); The Essential America (2004); and What It Means to Be a Democrat (2011).

He married, in 1943, Eleanor Stegeberg, with whom he had four daughters and a son. Eleanor died in 2007, and their son died in July 2012.

Sunday Independent