George McGovern: Statesman, American Hero, Dies At 90

One never forgets his or her first love. Most guys never forget their first car. And a political columnist never forgets his or her first campaign.

Former Senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern  (D-S.D.) died early this morning at 90 surrounded by family and friends in a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D., a constituency he served as a Congressman and Senator.

Born in 1922, McGovern attended schools in South Dakota and entered Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. As with other collegians of his wartime era, McGovern enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, and flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot in Europe in World War II. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. McGovern returned to his alma mater to finish his degree, graduating in 1946. He then earned a Masters and a Ph.D. from Chicago’s Northwestern University, before taking up a teaching position on the faculty of Dakota Weslayan in 1950, as a professor of history and political science.

McGovern won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1956, and served in the Kennedy Administration running the Food For Peace program after an unsuccessful Senate run. He won a Senate seat in 1968, and was reelected in 1974. McGovern would return to academia after 1980s conservatism came into power.

In his 1972 Presidential campaign, McGovern ran opposing the foundering and divisive  war in Vietnam and U.S. support of dictators and military juntas.

While most accounts footnoted Senator McGovern as losing the 1972 presidential campaign in a “landslide,” winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbis, Nixon & Co.’s “victory” would be short lived. Watergate would enter the political vernacular, as scandal would take down a presidency stained by “dirty tricks” and “anything goes” campaign tactics. Nixon’s “Law and Order” platform would crumble as one senior official after another was indicted, convicted, and sent to Federal prison. First Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, and ultimately President Nixon himself, would resign in disgrace. Nixon would later be pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford (R).

Nixon’s “Peace With Honor” pledge over the unpopular morass in Vietnam would end in a final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975, as Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces closed on the city, defeating the faltering South Vietnamese regime.

Senator McGovern would later teach, lecture, and advise on political matters. President Clinton awarded McGovern with the Medal of Freedom in 2000. McGovern remained active on hunger issues.

In the 1990s, I last saw Sen. McGovern at a marathon reading of Irish novelist James Joyce’s epic Ulysses at The Irish Times, a saloon on Capitol Hill in Washington. Bushmills on the rocks, I remember pouring, as the elder statesman climbed the small stage to read his slice of classic Irish literature.

Even as a decorated former combat pilot in the Second World War, Senator McGovern would remain a strident and unabashed voice against what he viewed as the all-too-frequent U.S. military involvement in global conflicts until his death.

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May George McGovern rest in peace.