It is with heavy hearts this morning that we say farewell to one of the most principled and committed progressive leaders of the twentieth century. George McGovern, who served the United States in the U.S. Senate for many years and nobly challenged scoundrel Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1972, has died at the age of ninety. His passing was not unexpected; his family announced just a few days ago that he had been placed in hospice care due to declining health.
At approximately 5:13 AM Central Time this morning, after having been unconscious for several days, McGovern’s life came to an end.
“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,” McGovern’s children said in a statement released through spokesman Steve Hildebrand.
Condolences and tributes flowed in almost immediately.
“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved,” said President Barack Obama. “He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family. ”
“Jill and I are profoundly saddened to hear about George McGovern’s passing. I was honored to serve with him, to know him, and to call him a friend,” added Vice President Joe Biden. “George believed deeply in public service. It defined him as a Senator and as a man. And he never stopped serving for his entire life – whether it was his courage in World War II, his time in Congress, or his fight to eliminate hunger at home and abroad.”
“Above all, George McGovern was a generous, kind, honorable man. He will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family today.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton, who organized Texas for McGovern in 1972, released a joint statement celebrating his life.
“We first met George while campaigning for him in 1972. Our friendship endured for forty years. As a war hero, distinguished professor, congressman, senator and ambassador, George always worked to advance the common good and help others realize their potential,” they said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi remembered McGovern (who served as JFK’s Food for Peace director) as a tireless champion for the hungry.
“George McGovern once said that after he had passed away, he wanted people to say, ‘He did the best he could to end hunger in this country and the world.’ Indeed, he did,” Pelosi said. “He was a humanitarian with a tactical touch, and he saved the lives of many at home and abroad.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hailed McGovern as a great patriot.
“Senator McGovern put principle over politics and stood up for what he believed in. He lived his values, dedicating his life to fighting the scourge of poverty here at home and around the world. The forces of social justice lost a great fighter today, and Senator McGovern will be sorely missed,” Reid said.
Many Republicans also spoke highly of McGovern. John McCain remembered McGovern as “a gentleman”, while the daughters of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon released a statement praising McGovern’s public service. And on CNN’s State of the Union, Newt Gingrich told host Candy Crowley that McGovern was “a great guy.”
CANDY CROWLEY: Tomorrow night’s debate, the last before the election will focus solely on foreign policy. It is certain to include the specific, including the who knew what, when question surrounding the murders of four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi to the big picture debate over America’s role in the global village. Joining me now for a preview debate, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Bill Richardson and former Speaker of House Newt Gingrich.
I want to get to that but I first want to get just your remembrances of Senator George McGovern who died today at the age of 90 because in — in some ways he played a pivotal role as a Democratic Candidate in 1972 in the midst of a war.
BILL RICHARDSON: He was a great statesman. I knew him quite well and I’m very saddened. I think he’ll be remembered, obviously for his stance on the war in Vietnam, for his bomber missions. But also, for his contributions on agriculture, on hunger.
And then the Democratic Party, he transformed the Party, the primary system, getting minorities involved. He was a gigantic figure and a classy god, good guy.
CANDY CROWLEY: You probably had absolutely nothing in common with Senator McGovern politically.
NEWT GINGRICH: No, George — George actually was a very complicated person. He had served as a bomber pilot in World War II, he was not a pacifist and his argument over Vietnam was about that particular war.
He was a citizen; I remember being with him at the U.S. Embassy in Rome for dinner one night and talking about he and Goldwater, I mean, he said, one of the nice things about losing badly enough is you don’t have lots of regrets about what one thing might you have changed.
And he had a very good sense of humor and he was a very down to earth guy who, later on in life, ran a small business, a bed and breakfast and wrote a great article on all the problems we had heaped up on small business through the regulations he had sponsored.
Just a great guy.
During his life, McGovern served as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. He never lost his sense of humor, despite losing campaigns in 1960 (for U.S. Senate), 1972 (for the presidency), and 1980 (for reelection to the U.S. Senate).
He never remained silent when he thought he could lend his voice to an important cause. He had a sharp mind and the ability to think long-term, which is something we at NPI value very highly.
On September 1st, 1970, McGovern delivered a speech against the undeclared war in Vietnam, which he opposed. He said:
There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Several decades later on February 13th, 2003 (Permanent Defense’s one-year anniversary), McGovern spoke to CNN’s Judy Woodruff, explaining why he was urging George W. Bush not to launch an invasion of Iraq. He said:
You know, I think most people would agree that had it not been for that 9/11 attack, we wouldn’t even be here talking about Saddam Hussein. The irony of that is that he had nothing to do with that attack. Iraq had nothing to do with it. This was Osama bin Laden’s work. He was the mastermind. He planned it – and his al Qaeda network, that little band of desert radical young men that he’s assembled.
So I don’t see the connect between that and this march to war in Iraq. I disagree with the president. I don’t think Iraq is a threat to the most mighty military power in the history of the world.
I want to make one thing clear: I don’t enjoy criticizing the policies of my government. I love this country more than life itself. And that’s why I came here today, as I have other places: to try to plead with our leaders to not drop an American army into that Middle East tinderbox. The consequences of that are almost beyond imagination.
I remember after Winston Churchill tried to talk our leaders out of going into Vietnam, we said we have information that the Communists are doing this and doing that. He said, “The only thing certain about a war is that nothing is certain about a war.” I tremble at the consequences of putting an American army into that area. I think it’s going to inflame the whole Arab world, and doubtless many other countries. And that’s what we don’t need right now.
Emphasis is mine.
McGovern’s words were prescient then and sobering now. He saw the consequences of going into Iraq, and spoke out against the invasion loudly before it happened. And afterwards, as the occupation dragged on and the conflict consumed more lives and more money, he went before Congress to press for a withdrawal of American forces. Along with his commitment to feeding the hungry, it is his exemplary advocacy against costly wars that we will remember him for.
Rest in peace, Senator McGovern. Your voice and wisdom will be greatly missed.