Former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern – whose unsuccessful 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon is remembered for having helped spark the Watergate office break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters that was eventually traced back to the Nixon White House – died early Sunday morning, said a family spokesman. He was 90.
McGovern was hospitalized last Dec. 2 in Sioux Falls, S.D., after he fell and injured his head on the sidewalk outside the Dakota Wesleyan University’s McGovern Library. Though he was later released, he had been in failing health throughout 2012, and on Oct. 8 he entered hospice care in Sioux Falls “with a combination of medical conditions, due to age, that have worsened over recent months,” said a statement from his family.
A lifelong resident of Mitchell, S.D., McGovern, who earned a Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II, was elected to his first of three terms in the Senate in 1962. At the time he received the Democratic nomination for President, Nixon had already been in the White House for four years and the Vietnam War was literally dividing the nation in two.
Vowing in his convention acceptance speech to end the war, McGovern said: “This is the time for truth, not falsehood. In a Democratic nation, no one likes to say that his inspiration came from secret arrangements by closed doors, but in the sense that is how my candidacy began. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties, a terrible war has been chartered behind closed doors.
“I want those doors opened and I want that war closed. And I make these pledges above all others: the doors of government will be opened, and that war will be closed.”
Distinguished Statesman and Family Man
Despite his stance – and the backing of Hollywood powerhouses like Warren Beatty and Barbra Streisand, who sang at concerts Beatty organized as fundraisers for McGovern – the candidate lost in a landslide to Nixon.
McGovern was reelected to the Senate in 1974, only to lose his seat to a Republican opponent in 1980. Despite the ups and downs, McGovern had a distinguished political career, and he remained a well-spoken, powerful force, serving as a lifelong advocate for U.S. and world food programs.
He met his wife, Eleanor, when the two were on the high-school debating team – on opposing sides – and, after marrying in 1943, they had five children, daughters Ann, Susan, Mary and Teresa (Terry), and son Steven, and several grandchildren.
Eleanor died in 2007, and Terry in 1994, after freezing to death while intoxicated – a devastating loss McGovern discussed at length in an interview with PEOPLE.
“This is too hard,” McGovern told the magazine. Then revealing the spirit that had guided him his entire life, he went on to say, “I just hope by talking about Terry, maybe it will help somebody else.”