Former Sen. George McGovern, the liberal senator from conservative South Dakota, died on Sunday. He was 90 years old.
McGovern lost the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon by a landslide, carrying only Massachusetts. But his candidacy and opposition to the Vietnam War were embraced by a new generation of voters.
The defining moments in McGovern's life included not only winning the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, and not just the dismal loss to Nixon that followed, but also safely landing an airplane that the German army had tried to blow out of the sky.
"We had 110 holes in that plane. Pieces of flak; 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," he recalled.
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 doctorate in history on the GI Bill and in 1956 landed a seat in Congress as South Dakota's U.S. representative. In 1962, McGovern moved to the Senate. He was an unabashed liberal who won over voters in his conservative state.
But McGovern was not your run-of-the-mill Democrat. He strongly opposed the Vietnam War and advocated amnesty for draft dodgers and a living wage for the poor. During the early 1970s, 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 & 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 said.
In his 1972 bid for the White House, McGovern was labeled too liberal for the mainstream, and his campaign failed to sway the electorate in even his home state. 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 Nixon as the most disheartening point in his life.
"I thought the program I spelled out there was the truth," he said. "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 re-election of President Nixon."
Two years after the '72 election, Nixon left office in disgrace in the shadow of the Watergate scandal. McGovern stayed on as South Dakota's U.S. senator until 1981 when he was defeated by a Republican challenger in the Ronald Reagan landslide.
He later served as an ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2008, he won the World Food Prize along with former Sen. Bob Dole for their efforts to provide school lunches to children worldwide. President Clinton lauded McGovern's achievements at the 2006 dedication of the McGovern Library in Mitchell, S.D.
"In the storied history of American politics, I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat," Clinton said at the time.
In his later years, McGovern didn't slow down much. He opposed the Iraq War and supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. McGovern remained the liberal son of a staunchly conservative state who managed to win the admiration of many for consistently putting his principles above practical politics.