SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- George McGovern once joked that he had wanted to run for president in the worst way -- and that he had done so.
It was a campaign in 1972 dishonored by Watergate, a scandal that fully unfurled too late to knock Republican President Richard M. Nixon from his place as a commanding favorite for re-election. The South Dakota senator tried to make an issue out of the bungled attempt to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee, calling Nixon the most corrupt president in history.
But the Democrat could not escape the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign. The most torturous was the selection of Missouri Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton as the vice presidential nominee and, 18 days later, following the disclosure that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression, the decision to drop him from the ticket despite having pledged to back him "1,000 percent."
It was at once the most memorable and the most damaging line of his campaign, and called "possibly the most single damaging faux pas ever made by a presidential candidate" by the late political writer Theodore H. White.
After a hard day's campaigning -- Nixon did virtually none -- McGovern would complain to those around him that nobody was paying attention. With R. Sargent Shriver as his running mate, he went on to carry only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, winning just 38 percent of the popular vote in one of the biggest landslides losses in American presidential history.
"Tom and I ran into a little snag back in 1972 that in the light of my much advanced wisdom today, I think was vastly exaggerated," McGovern said at an event with Eagleton in 2005. Noting that Nixon and his running mate, Spiro Agnew, would both ultimately resign, he joked, "If we had run in `74 instead of `72, it would have been a piece of cake."
A proud liberal who had argued fervently against the Vietnam War as a Democratic senator from South Dakota and three-time candidate for president, McGovern died at 5:15 a.m. Sunday at a Sioux Falls hospice, family spokesman Steve Hildebrand told The Associated Press. McGovern was 90.
McGovern's family had said late last week that McGovern had become unresponsive while in hospice care, and Hildebrand said he was surrounded by family and lifelong friends when he died.
"We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace. He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer," the family said in the statement.
A funeral will be held in Sioux Falls, with details announced soon, Hildebrand said.
A decorated World War II bomber pilot, McGovern said he learned to hate war by waging it. In his disastrous race against Nixon, he promised to end the Vietnam War and cut defense spending by billions of dollars. He helped create the Food for Peace program and spent much of his career believing the United States should be more accommodating to the former Soviet Union.
Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, sounding often more like the Methodist minister he'd once studied to become than longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president he became.
And he never shied from the word "liberal," even as other Democrats blanched at the word and Republicans used it as an epithet.
"I am a liberal and always have been," McGovern said in 2001. "Just not the wild-eyed character the Republicans made me out to be."
McGovern's campaign, nevertheless, left a lasting imprint on American politics. Determined not to make the same mistake, presidential nominees have since interviewed and intensely investigated their choices for vice president. Former President Bill Clinton got his start in politics when he signed on as a campaign worker for McGovern in 1972 and is among the legion of Democrats who credit him with inspiring them to public service.
"I believe no other presidential candidate ever has had such an enduring impact in defeat," Clinton said in 2006 at the dedication of McGovern's library in Mitchell, S.D. "Senator, the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts."
George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in the small farm town of Avon, S.D, the son of a Methodist pastor. He was raised in Mitchell, shy and quiet until he was recruited for the high school debate team and found his niche. He enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in his hometown and, already a private pilot, volunteered for the Army Air Force soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Army didn't have enough airfields or training planes to take him until 1943. He married his wife, Eleanor Stegeberg, and arrived in Italy the next year. That would be his base for the 35 missions he flew in the B-24 Liberator christened the "Dakota Queen" after his new bride.
In a December 1944 bombing raid on the Czech city of Pilsen, McGovern's plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire that disabled one engine and set fire to another. He nursed the B-24 back to a British airfield on an island in the Adriatic Sea, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. On his final mission, his plane was hit several times, but he managed to get it back safety -- one of the actions for which he received the Air Medal.
McGovern returned to Mitchell and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan after the war's end, and after a year of divinity school, switched to the study of history and political science at Northwestern University. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees, returned to Dakota Wesleyan to teach history and government, and switched from his family's Republican roots to the Democratic Party.
"I think it was my study of history that convinced me that the Democratic Party was more on the side of the average American," he said.
In the early 1950s, Democrats held no major offices in South Dakota and only a handful of legislative seats. McGovern, who had gotten into Democratic politics as a campaign volunteer, left teaching in 1953 to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Three years later, he won an upset election to the House; he served two terms and left to run for Senate.
Challenging conservative Republican Sen. Karl Mundt in 1960, he lost what he called his "worst campaign." He said later that he'd hated Mundt so much that he'd lost his sense of balance.
President John F. Kennedy named McGovern head of the Food for Peace program, which sends U.S. commodities to deprived areas around the world. He made a second Senate bid in 1962, unseating Sen. Joe Bottum by just 597 votes. He was the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from South Dakota since 1930.
In his first year in office, McGovern took to the Senate floor to say that the Vietnam war was a trap that would haunt the United States -- a speech that drew little notice. He voted the following August in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution under which President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the U.S. war in the southeast Asian nation.