MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Former Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., the rumpled hill farmer who became dean of the Senate, friend of presidents and champion of rural interests in Washington, died Friday at a nursing home. He was 92.
Aiken's wife Lola and daughter Dorothy Morse were with him when he died, apparently of natural causes, at 9:05 a.m.
Gov. Richard Snelling said the state had lost 'a living piece of Vermont history,' and ordered state flags lowered to half staff.
During his 34 years in the Senate, Aiken helped father the food stamp and post-World War II 'Food for Peace' programs, and helped set up the Farmers Home Administration, the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Rural Electrification Administration.
He also played a key role in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rural Development Act, the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and federal control of commercial nuclear power plants.
But he was perhaps best known outside Vermont for two remarks - typical of his down-to-earth approach -- during the traumatic political years near the end of his career.
In 1966, newspapers reported Aiken told the Senate the U.S. should end the Vietnam War by simply declaring victory and withdrawing its troops.
Actually, he had said U.S. troops should only withdrew to central positions within Vietnam, but the simpler version of the story was the one accepted by the public.
And it was Aiken who, during the Watergate era in 1973, chided the Senate about its treatment of President Nixon, a longtime friend, saying: 'Impeach him or get off his back.'
Aiken, who built New England's largest raspberry business before entering politics, served four years as Vermont governor before election to the Senate in 1940. He retired in 1974, returning to his farm on the Connecticut River.
'I felt like I spent 34 years in jail in Washington,' he said several years later.
He stood out in Washington by combining an air of rural simplicity - reinforced by his snowy white hair and Vermont twang -- with a shrewd political instinct.
'For a long time I have had two callings, agricultural and political. In either category you can get a lot of dirt on your hands, but the dirt acquired through working with soil is more easily washed off,' he said in 1970.
His flinty independence and avoidance of party politics occasionally irritated his fellow Republicans, but won him the respect even of his adversaries.
'Not a hawk nor a dove, but a wise old owl,' a colleague once said of his influence on foreign affairs.
Born in Dummerston, Vt., on Aug. 20, 1892, he grew up on the family farm in Putney where he was educated in a one-room schoolhouse.
After running unsucessfully for the state legislature in 1922 -- his only election defeat -- Aiken was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives in 1931.
Two years later, he became House speaker, then was elevated to lieutenant governor. Already identified as a champion of the little guy, he was elected governor in 1937.
He became a friend and adviser to a succession of presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Aiken was treated at the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital earlier this fall for a urinary infection, then was taken to the Heaton House nursing home in Montpelier.
Although funeral arrangements were incomplete, his wife Lola said the family planned a Thanksgiving Day funeral in Putney.