“In many ways, he revolutionized the Democratic Party,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor and an authority on congressional politics. “His followers drove out the old guard. . . . Some would say it was the end of the old Democrats, but others would say, no, it opened up the party to women and others.”
Family spokesman Steve Hildebrand confirmed Sen. McGovern’s death to the Associated Press. The cause was not disclosed.
Among those who worked on his 1972 campaign were Bill Clinton, a future governor and president; Hillary Rodham Clinton, a future senator and secretary of state; and Gary Hart, a future senator and presidential candidate. Political consultant Robert Shrum and Washington lobbyist Gerald Cassidy also gained experience working for Sen. McGovern, as did future national security adviser Samuel R. Berger and future White House chief of staff John D. Podesta.
“George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved,” President Obama said Sunday in a statement. “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.”
Sen. McGovern, a minister’s son, was raised in a South Dakota farm community during the Depression and served in World War II. Both experiences — seeing people asking for food at his family’s doorstep and witnessing emaciated child beggars in wartime Italy — molded his political career from the moment he was elected to Congress in 1956.
In the early 1960s, he conceived the idea of the U.S. Food for Peace program, which gave foreign nations credit to buy surplus U.S. crops, and served under President John F. Kennedy as the program’s first director. In that position, he played a central role building the United Nations’ World Food Program, a humanitarian organization that has provided food assistance to hundreds of millions of victims of wars and natural disasters.
After winning his Senate seat in 1962, he spent much of his public life working on the expansion of food stamp and school lunch programs and championing civil rights and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in the Senate. After being defeated for reelection to the Senate in 1980, he served as the U.S. representative to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and as a U.N. global ambassador on world hunger.