McGovern, From WWII Pilot To Embattled Candidate

Former Sen. George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president 40 years ago this fall, has died at age 90, with his family gathered near him in South Dakota.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk more now about the life of Senator George McGovern, who died over the weekend in South Dakota at age 90. Many people will recall one thing about McGovern: his 1972 presidential campaign. The electoral map from that year is still astonishing to see: two tiny, blue blots, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, amid a sea of red for President Richard Nixon.

It was one act in a distinctive American life, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: George McGovern was born in the tiny farm community of Avon, South Dakota, the son of a Wesleyan Methodist church pastor. He grew up poor, witnessing the depression and the Dust Bowl first hand. That experience would have a profound effect on him and on his long career in Congress. But McGovern's very first call to service came, as it did for so many of his generation, with the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 19 years old. He spoke on C-SPAN about that experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF C-SPAN BROADCAST)

SENATOR GEORGE MCGOVERN: I signed up for the Air Force. I wanted to be a pilot. I even knew what kind I wanted to be. I wanted to be a bomber.

GONYEA: McGovern flew the B-24, a workhorse known as the Liberator. In nearly three dozen missions over enemy territory, his plane took hits. He survived close calls. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. McGovern married his wife Eleanor while on wartime leave. When peace came, he used the G.I. Bill to finish college. After grad school, he worked as history professor at a small, South Dakota college.

But ultimately, George McGovern's calling was politics. He was inspired by FDR and the New Deal and Adlai Stevenson, and he won a seat in Congress in 1956. As a young member, he focused on rural issues and the interests of farmers in South Dakota. After two terms in the House, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost. But he tried again two years later, won a Senate seat and returned to Washington in 1963.

That was the year he seized on the issue that would later propel him to national prominence: the war in Vietnam.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The newest troops in South Vietnam for the United States. This is part of their first, hideous action.

GONYEA: In 1968, McGovern worked for the presidential candidacy of a fellow senator, Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated two months before the Democratic Convention. In 1972, McGovern ran for president himself, challenging the early frontrunner, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. Muskie's campaign faltered, and McGovern emerged as the favorite of the surging anti-war movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: Peace is not at hand. It is not even in sight.

GONYEA: As a candidate in 1968, President Nixon had pledged to end the war. In 1972, it was still going, and going badly. McGovern hit the issue hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: There is no honor in four more years of bombing innocent children across the face of Indochina.

GONYEA: But after winning the nomination dramatically that summer, McGovern's campaign stumbled badly, becoming a textbook case of how not to run for the White House. Even at the rambunctious convention that nominated him, McGovern was not able to make his acceptance speech until 2:48 in the morning, Eastern Time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: I'm happy to join you for this benediction of our Friday sunrise service.

GONYEA: That lost opportunity to speak to the nation was followed by a greater disaster. News broke after the convention that McGovern's running mate, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton, had a medical history that included depression and exhaustion and electric shock therapy. Eagleton was forced from the ticket, but the McGovern campaign, always a long-shot bet, never really recovered.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It is now clear that Richard Nixon is the winner of this election. If what we have learned so far from the votes already cast continues to happen as the polls close across the country, the president will be reelected in a landslide.

GONYEA: McGovern carried just one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: And I have just sent the following telegram to President Nixon: Congratulations on your victory. I hope that in the next four years, you will lead us to a time of peace abroad and justice at home. You have my full support in such efforts, with best wishes to you and your gracious wife Pat, sincerely, George McGovern.

GONYEA: Former Senator Gary Hart, himself a two-time presidential candidate, was a longtime friend of McGovern, and his campaign manager in 1972.

GARY HART: He was a much better candidate than many in the media gave him credit for. But it must be said that defeating an incumbent president - and we were still in the Vietnam War at the time - it's very, very difficult under any circumstances. And that has to be taken into account when judging his performance.

GONYEA: The first reports of the Watergate scandal were starting to come out during the '72 campaign. McGovern ran TV ads about corruption in the White House, yet the scandal didn't take hold until after Nixon was inaugurated. It would bring his second term to an end in less than 19 months. McGovern often talked about how he never fully got over that year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: And I'll go to my grave believing American would be better off had I been elected in '72 rather than the reelection of President Nixon.

GONYEA: McGovern returned to the Senate, where he would serve eight more years before losing a bid for a fourth term amidst the Ronald Reagan landslide of 1980. In 1984, McGovern again sought the presidency, though his underfunded candidacy was more about raising issues than winning delegates. He retired, but didn't disappear. He maintained a full schedule, always proud of his liberal politics and eager to argue for progressive policies.

He went back to teaching. He also spoke out about personal issues, including a daughter who struggled with alcohol and died at the age of 45. He talked about her on WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1996.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCGOVERN: If I could just pass on a word of advice to other people who have this dilemma about what to do with an alcoholic in the family, I think if you're going to follow that course of putting some distance between you and the alcoholic, you should accompany that by frequent calls, at least once a week, just to see how they're doing, to tell them you love them.

GONYEA: That was a side of George McGovern the public didn't know, but his public career was and remains a source of inspiration to many political figures, says former Senator Hart.

HART: A whole generation of young activists were motivated by the McGovern campaign and stayed active, and have made a tremendous contribution to the country.

GONYEA: George McGovern died at age 90 in hospice care and surrounded by family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a fitting moment, perhaps, to recall the final words of that fateful acceptance speech in the middle of the night during a campaign 40 years ago this summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MCGOVERN: So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home. And now is the time to meet that challenge. Good night, and Godspeed to you all.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You hear Don Gonyea right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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