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George McGovern: A war hero who fought for peace

Former US Senator George McGovern was a war hero who inspired many in his opposition to the Vietnam War. Always a proud liberal, he was crushed in his 1972 challenge to Richard Nixon.

By Kristi Eaton, Walter R. MearsAssociated Press / October 21, 2012

In this 1971 photo, U.S. Sen. George McGovern makes a speech at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Walt Zeboski/AP

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D.

George S. McGovern, a proud liberal who argued fervently against the Vietnam War as a senator from South Dakota and suffered one of the most crushing defeats in presidential election history against Richard Nixon in 1972, died Sunday.

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"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,” Mr. McGovern's family said in a statement released by spokesman Steve Hildebrand. “He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer.”

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 conflict in Vietnam 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.

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Never a showman, he made his case with a style as plain as the prairies where he grew up, often sounding more like the Methodist minister he'd once studied to be than a longtime U.S. senator and three-time candidate for president.

And McGovern never shied from the word "liberal," even as other Democrats blanched at the label 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."

Americans voting for president in 1972 were aware of the Watergate break-in, but the most damaging details of Nixon's involvement wouldn't emerge until after Election Day. McGovern tried to make a campaign issue out of the bungled attempt to wiretap the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and he called Nixon the most corrupt president in history, but the issue could not eclipse the embarrassing missteps of his own campaign.

McGovern was tortured by 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.

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