(Reuters) - Former Democratic Senator George McGovern, remembered for a devastating defeat by Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election and his efforts to fight world hunger, was near death on Wednesday at a South Dakota hospice center, his family said.
McGovern, 90, was admitted to a hospice suffering from a combination of medical conditions due to age that have worsened in recent months, his family said in a statement.
“The senator is no longer responsive,” the statement said. “He is surrounded by his loving family and close friends.”
McGovern, who served in the Senate for South Dakota from 1963 to 1981, challenged Nixon in 1972 on a platform opposing the war in Vietnam. He suffered one of the most lopsided defeats in U.S. history, taking only 37.5 percent of the vote and carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.
Later as Nixon’s presidency unraveled in the Watergate scandal, bumper stickers saying “Don’t blame me, I‘m from Massachusetts” and buttons saying “Don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern” began to appear.
But McGovern’s legacy stretches well beyond his terms in Congress and presidential bids, to social issues including world hunger and AIDS, said Donald Simmons, director of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota.
“Outside of the U.S., he is known for his real humanitarian efforts and I think that will be one of his greatest long term legacies,” Simmons said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern flew combat missions over Europe as a B-24 bomber pilot during World War Two, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956, and re-elected two years later. After McGovern lost a U.S. Senate election in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him the first director of the Food for Peace Program.
He also ran for president in 1968 after the assassination of front-runner Robert F. Kennedy and a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.
McGovern said he had moved on from his 1972 defeat but 12 years later another defeated Democratic presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, asked him how long it took to get over losing in a landslide. “I’ll let you know when I get there,” McGovern replied.
As a soft-spoken academic from South Dakota - he was a history and political science professor at Dakota Wesleyan - and a decorated pilot, McGovern did not fit the model of many of the leaders of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
McGovern became a campaigner for world food issues in his post-politics life, often joining former Senator Bob Dole in his work. He wrote several books, including an autobiography, the story of his daughter’s struggle with alcoholism, and “What it Means to Be a Democrat” released last year.
He also continued to make television appearances and write editorials and commentaries, Simmons said. McGovern often lamented what he saw as a lack of a true public debate on policy issues from members of both parties, he said.
McGovern had been hospitalized several times in the past year after complaining of fatigue after a book tour, a fall before a scheduled television appearance and dizzy spells.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.
On Wednesday, McGovern’s family encouraged people to donate to Feeding South Dakota (www.feedingsouthdakota.org) if they planned to offer remembrances of the senator.
McGovern and wife Eleanor, who died in 2007, had five children.
Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Bill Trott