"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 Cezch 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 masters 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.
While McGovern continued to vote to pay for the war, he did so while speaking against it. As the war escalated, so did his opposition. Late in 1969, McGovern called for a cease-fire in Vietnam and the withdrawal of all U.S. troops within a year. He later co-sponsored a Senate amendment to cut off appropriations for the war by the end of 1971. It failed, but not before McGovern had taken the floor to declare "this chamber reeks of blood" and to demand an end to "this damnable war."
McGovern first sought the Democratic presidential nomination late in the 1968 campaign, saying he would take up the cause of the assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He finished far behind Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who won the nomination, and Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who had led the anti-war challenge to Johnson in the primaries earlier in the year. McGovern later called his bid an "anti-organization" effort against the Humphrey steamroller.
"At least I have precluded the possibility of peaking too early," McGovern quipped at the time.
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