After the war, Sen. McGovern graduated from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946. Torn between the ministry and the study of history, he attended the old Garrett Theological Seminaryin Evanston, Ill., for one year before transferring to Northwestern University, where he received a master's degree in 1950 and a doctorate in 1953, both in American history.
He returned to South Dakota to teach history and government at Dakota Wesleyan. He had been a delegate to the Progressive Party convention in 1948, but he found its politics too radical. Given the chance to become executive secretary of South Dakota’s moribund Democratic Party, he created a base for two successful runs for the U.S. House of Representatives, beginning in 1956.
After his first bid for a U.S. Senate seat failed in 1960, he joined the new Kennedy administration and began his work on alleviating hunger. In 1962, he was elected to the Senate from South Dakota by 597 votes, a rare win by a liberal Democrat in a heavily Republican state.
Exile and influence
After Sen. McGovern’s overwhelming loss in the 1972 election, Democrats lost three of the next four presidential contests. That prompted the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to urge the party’s subsequent nominees to avoid “McGovernism,” which it defined as far-left stances that were out of sync with Middle America. By 1992, Bill Clinton was elected president on a moderate platform that steered away from hard-left positions.
Sen. McGovern won reelection to the Senate in 1974 but was targeted for defeat by Republicans in 1980 and lost by a wide margin to then-Rep. James Abdnor. Angered by the political attacks, Sen. McGovern founded the political interest group Americans for Common Sense in 1981. He launched a brief presidential bid for the 1984 nomination, promoting a national health-care system and reductions in the military budget, but he ended his bid after losses in the early primaries.
He served as president of the Middle East Policy Council from 1991 to 1998, after which President Clinton appointed him representative to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.
In 2000, Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. At the ceremony, Clinton called Sen. McGovern “not only a hero in war but a stalwart voice for peace in Vietnam. . . . For decades, his conviction never wavered, nor has his early commitment to bringing food to the hungry.”
In 2001, Sen. McGovern was appointed the first U.N. global ambassador on hunger and published “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time,” in which he proposed a plan to alleviate world hunger by 2030. In 2008, he and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) shared a $250,000 award from the World Food Prize Foundation for their work combating hunger among children.
Sen. McGovern wrote more than a dozen books, including a biography of President Abraham Lincoln, published in 2009.
The George and Eleanor McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University is named for him and his wife of 63 years, the former Eleanor Stegeberg, who died in 2007 at 85.
One of their daughters, Teresa McGovern, an alcoholic, collapsed and froze to death in 1994 in the snow near Madison, Wis. She was 45. The family’s efforts to cope became the subject of one of Sen. McGovern’s books, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.”
In The Washington Post, reviewer Carolyn See likened the book to William Styron’s classic “Lie Down in Darkness” for its “brooding inevitability” as it details the story of “a precariously stable family trying to hold on to a child who — because of drugs, drink, depression — cannot be held on to, and who sinks away, into some form of oblivion.”
Sen. McGovern’s son, Steven McGovern, died in July. At the time, Sen. McGovern’s daughter Ann said her brother had had “a long struggle with alcoholism.”
Survivors include three daughters, Ann, Susan and Mary; and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Sen. McGovern was often asked to reflect on the significance of his ill-fated 1972 race. He said it was notable for motivating and training a generation of young Democrats who became the party’s future leaders.
“For the last 25 years,” he told the Dallas Morning News in 1998, “I’ve been running into mayors and state legislators and city council people and governors and others who say that that was where they got their first real fire for politics.”