George McGovern Biography

U.S. Representative (1922–2012)
Though he helped reform the Democratic Party, U.S. Senator George S. McGovern lost his 1972 presidential campaign to Richard Nixon.


Born in Avon, South Dakota, on July 19, 1922, U.S. Senator George McGovern worked to end the Vietnam War and helped reform the Democratic Party to better represent minority groups. He ran for the U.S. presidency in 1972 but was defeated by incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon. McGovern died on October 21, 2012, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, at the age of 90.

Early Years

George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in the small town of Avon, South Dakota. After graduating from Mitchell High School, where he was a member of the track team, McGovern served as a pilot in World War II. He received several air medals for his service, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross, an award honoring war heroes in the field of aviation.

Following the war, McGovern continued his education at Dakota Wesleyan University, earning a bachelor's degree in 1946. Contemplating a career as a minister, he went on to briefly attend Illinois' Garrett Theological Seminary before enrolling at Northwestern University, where he received both a master's degree and Ph.D. in American history. After leaving Northwestern, McGovern landed a teaching position (government and history) at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan.

Political Career

Following WWII, McGovern had developed a strong anti-war stance. When the Vietnam War began in the mid-1950s, he quickly became a staunch opponent of the conflict, also focusing on civil rights and fighting poverty.

McGovern's political activism soon translated to a bid for public service: In 1956, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against incumbent Republican Harold Lovre, and won. A Democrat, McGovern represented South Dakota's District 1. He won a second term in the House in 1958, against former South Dakota Governor Joe Foss.

McGovern made an unsuccessful run for the Senate in 1960, but won the election two years later. McGovern represented South Dakota in the Senate for nearly two decades, from 1963 to 1981.

During his Senate tenure, in 1972, McGovern made a run for the U.S. presidency, with a campaign focused on withdrawing troops from Vietnam and cutting spending at the Pentagon, among other issues. He lost the candidacy by a large margin, however, to incumbent Republican Richard Nixon. Of the 50 states, McGovern only won in one. It would be several more months before Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal (which began in 1972) would be revealed to the American public.

McGovern launched another bid for the presidential nomination in 1984, but ended it early when he failed to get traction in the early primaries.

Following his Senate career, beginning in the early 1990s, McGovern served as president of the Middle East Policy Council for seven years. He went on to work as a representative to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and then, in 2001, was appointed the U.N.'s first global ambassador on hunger.

Final Years

Outside of his public service, McGovern publshed several books, including a biography of President Abraham Lincoln, entitled Abraham Lincoln (2009). In 2001, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Bill Clinton), the highest civilian honor in the nation, for his WWII service.

McGovern died on October 21, 2012, at the age of 90, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was survived by daughters Ann, Susan and Mary, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His wife of more than six decades, Eleanor Stegeberg, died in 2007, and two of his children died of alcoholism, Teresa McGovern in 1994, and Steven McGovern in 2012.

President Barack Obama made a statement on October 21, 2012, after receiving news of McGovern's death: "George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved," Obama said. "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."

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