Some of what you need to know about George McGovern;
He was the son of a miner turned Wesleyan Methodist Minister who himself was briefly a minister until he heard another calling; public servant.
Former Pastor, College professor, Congressman, Special Assistant to the President, US Senator from South Dakota, Democratic Presidential nominee, Author, Ambassador, Father and Husband to the sublime Eleanor died this morning at age 90. His was a life well lived and we as a nation are better for it because he answered the calling of politics and public service.
While in college he registered to fight in WWII, a few days after the Pearl Harbor attack he was compelled to serve his nation. He interrupted his college education and served in the Air Corp; he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant. He flew hundreds of missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and leadership. After the war ended he flew food relief mission across Europe and just prior to his separation from service he was awarded the Air Medal and three Oak Leaf Clusters for his valor and service. During the 1972 campaign he was vilified and had his patriotism questioned by conservatives and Republicans for his opposition to US involvement in Vietnam.
He returned home to South Dakota and his beloved Eleanor to complete his college education, thanks to the socialist GI Bill. He would eventually earn a PhD from Northwestern. He was raised to be a Republican but he was inspired by FDR’s leadership during the war so he became a Democrat after a few years as a college professor he went on to work for the Democratic Party in a state that had only 2 Democratic members of the 110 seat State Legislature. In 1956 he became the first South Dakota Democrat to be elected to Congress in 22 years. In 1960 he launched a campaign to oust the loathsome Karl Mundt from the Senate he lost. As a result of losing that race President John Kennedy appointed him to the new position of Special Assistant to the President (Czar) as the first Director of the Food for Peace program.
The Food for Peace program fed tens of millions of people worldwide in dozens of countries and expanded the nascent school lunch program in this country. Pope John XXIII personally praised Mr. McGovern during an audience at the Vatican. In 1962 President Kennedy allowed George McGovern out of his commitment to pursue another race for the US Senate. Again, he took on an incumbent Republican but this time the result was different, he became the first Democratic Senator from the state in 26 years and only the third since 1889. He became ill during the last weeks of the campaign and Eleanor is widely credited with saving his campaign by her tireless efforts on his behalf.
While in the Senate he fought for farmers, Native Americans as well as issues dealing with hunger and poverty. He often push for the government to reset it’s priorities from military spending to domestic spending in areas that could improve people’s lives.
In his first year as a Senator, George McGovern became the first member of that body to speak out against the increasing US involvement in Vietnam; note the year was 1963. Oddly he voted to support the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. He later said he regretted making a political decision on that vote rather than a moral decision.
In 1968 he stayed neutral in the post Johnson Democratic primary race campaigning with RFK, Vice President Humphrey and Sen. Gene McCarthy. He was encouraged to enter the race but he did not believe he could garner enough support to actually win the nomination and he did not want to jeopardize his re-election race. A little more than a month after RFK was assassinated he did enter the Presidential race in order to give the bereft and leaderless Kennedy delegates a candidate to support. In the final balloting he came in third place behind McCarthy and the eventual nominee Vice President Humphrey. In the end he endorsed Humphrey and campaigned for him as well as running his own re-election.
After the 1968 election Sen. McGovern led a commission to open up the Democratic presidential nomination process, as a result primary caucus voters elected the delegates to the convention rather than the party establishment choosing the delegates. This rule change allowed non-establishment candidates to win the nomination and in fact allowed McGovern himself to win the nomination in 1972. In fact Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama also benefited from the rule changes set forth by the McGovern committee. The rules have been tweaked over the years allowing for more party leaders (super delegates) to be appointed but ultimately it is the primary/caucus process that picks the Democratic Party nominee.
It was his opposition to the war and distaste for Richard Nixon that led to his full on run for the Presidency. Because he did not have any establishment support he entered the race in January of 1971, unusually early for that time, unlike now when candidates begin running the day after the incumbent is inaugurated. Because of his grassroots campaigning he was able to outlast the better financed and more establishment approved opponents.
The new rules allowed for a more disorganized and free flowing convention, this new generation of delegates, elected by the people demanded that their voices be heard on every possible issue. As a result George McGovern was forced to give his brilliant “Come Home America” acceptance speech around three o’clock in the morning east coast time. It has been said that the television audience was 15 million people as opposed to a viewership of 70 million that he could have expected at and earlier hour.
Because the nomination was not decided until a very late hour the campaign had to rush a decision on the Vice Presidential nominee after many of the party leading lights rejected the offer the campaign settled the more moderate and southern acceptable Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. A good man, a decent man, someone without controversy would appeal to Middle America, unfortunately he neglected to tell the campaign he had under gone electroshock therapy to battle depression but I have to wonder if it would have matter since Eleanor McGovern battled depression her entire life and he was hospitalized during his military service more than once for battle fatigue but that’s just speculation on my part.
After word of Sen. Eagleton’s treatment became public McGovern said he supported his running mate “1,000 percent” but within a few days Eagleton was forced from the ticket. McGovern was vilified for his disloyalty, ineffective leadership and sloppy management style, he never recovered. Again, McGovern reached out to the leading Democrats of that time to run with him but they all ran away from him. In the end he chose Kennedy in-law, founding Director of the Peace Corps and Lyndon Johnson’s Ambassador to France Sargent Shriver (read back and see my remembrance of this great American). If the McGovern campaign hoped Shriver would add a little Camelot excitement to the campaign I’m sure they were deeply disappointed. The campaign was a noble and brave effort but in the end it was rejected by the voters in 49 states; the Democrats only won Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, the people of his home state even decided they didn’t want to promote their own Senator to the Presidency.
Senator McGovern and Eleanor were so despondent after this loss the contemplated leaving the country and on inauguration day 1973 McGovern gave a speech in London harshly critical of Richard Nixon and his stewardship of the nation. Upon his return home McGovern was roundly criticized and was rejected by most of the political establishment in and out of the Democratic Party. McGovern went home to South Dakota to mend fences and was re-elected to the Senate in 1974. He certainly benefited from Nixon’s downfall as a result of his unprosecuted crimes against this great republic. Sen. McGovern was unable to fight the tide of the Reagan revolution and was defeated in 1980. He handled this defeat better than he did the 1972 loss and he bounced back quickly. He returned to academia and for a brief time replaced Stephen Ambrose as a Professor at the University of New Orleans. After that he joined a think tank and became a much sought after speaker.
In 1984 he decided to run for the Presidency again; this time he understood he had no chance of winning but he made the race in attempt to return the party to its more liberal roots. During the campaign he became the moral voice of the party and as a result he restored his reputation and settled comfortably into the role of elder statesman and leading voice for the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He campaigned tirelessly for Walter Mondale and commiserated with a Mondale defeat that was equally as devastating as his was 12 years earlier. It has be reported that after the election Walter Mondale asked him how long it would take for him to get over the hurt of such a overwhelming defeat his response was that he would let Mondale know when it happened.
In later years he would use his money to open and operate a hotel in Connecticut and wrote frequently in the Wall Street Journal about his experience as a first time, late in life small business owner. In 1994 his daughter Terry died as result her years of substance abuse, he published a book about the experience of losing a daughter after years of her battling mental illness, drugs and alcohol. He used the proceeds from that book to open a treatment center in her memory.
In 1998 President Clinton appointed Sen. McGovern the US Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, after his election President Bush asked him to stay in the position and when he finally resigned the position in 2001 he was appointed a UN Global Ambassador for Hunger Relief; A UN Goodwill Ambassador. In 2000 President Clinton awarded Ambassador McGovern the Medal of Freedom pointing out McGovern’s decade’s long fight to end hunger worldwide.
In 2007 Eleanor died and McGovern soon moved home to South Dakota to be closer to his family. Eleanor would have been a role model First Lady. Unlike most political spouses of her generation she often campaigned for her husband on her own. During the 1972 convention she would invite wavering delegates and party leaders to their private hotel suite for personal one on one conversation, encouraging people to remain loyal and chastising those who strayed. It was a very effective tool in dealing with an unruly and fiercely independent convention. She was a tireless campaigner for women’s issues including the biggest issue of the day the ERA.
Earlier this year recorded George McGovern recorded the narration of Aaron Copeland’s “Lincoln Portrait” for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra and just a few weeks ago he introduced the production at its premier.
George McGovern died quietly overnight his body finally telling him he had lived a great life, fought the good fight and it was time to rest.
The 1972 McGovern presidential campaign was my first campaign; I was 13 years old. I would volunteer a few hours after school and on weekends. I would run errands, sharpen pencils, lick envelopes and on occasion tag along with the older kids when they went door to door. It was during this campaign I met and became lifelong friends with State Rep. Bob Freeman and met iconic State Senator Jeanette F. Reibman; a woman I would campaign tirelessly for in the future. I was probably led to the McGovern campaign because of my parent’s fervent and faith based opposition to the Vietnam War.
George McGovern convinced me to be a Democrat and a Liberal and an American who is proud of his country even when its elected officials do not always make us proud. George McGovern taught me that this great republic, this beacon of democracy could be better and as he never stopped fighting for this nation’s freedom as he fought for its moral center I too will never give up hoping for this nation’s future.
A few weeks ago someone asked me what I would do if President Obama lost the election; I responded by saying when you begin your active political life at age 13 with George McGovern you learn how to take a knock down punch but you get back up and continue to fight for the heart and soul of this country and you never give up hope.
I actually got to meet Sen. McGovern twice. Once, during his 1984 campaign, the Northampton County Young Democrats (yes I still qualified back then) invited him to be our guest of honor at our annual fundraiser. He had no handlers, no staff to keep him at a distance from us it was just this American Icon and the future leaders of the Democratic Party. I don’t remember much about his formal remarks but his overall theme was about fighting to ensure the Democratic Party did not move too far to the right in reaction to the success of Reagan. But, I do remember how relaxed and confident was. I remember he took the time to speak to everyone in the room he asked about our jobs, our college studies our families; he asked why we were Democrats and was not too proud to ask those of us who were supporting Walter Mondale or his 1972 campaign manager Gary Hart to at least keep him in our back pockets in case of the two front runners faltered. I know that I moved him up on my list 1 behind Mondale and ahead of Hart and John Glenn.
I met Mr. McGovern again briefly in 1992. We were in DC for the Aids Quilt display and were returning to our hotel no doubt and little tipsy, I’m sure I had on enough gay rights pins to open a pin store and I noticed him walking down the street, I called out “Hello Senator” he stopped looked at me to see if he knew me I just said “I just wanted to thank you for all you have done for this country, thank you Senator” he looked and smiled and I just walked on. I turned around with a tear in my eye and saw him shake his head and chuckle.
My early interest in politics became a passion for good government and progressive/liberal causes because of that 1972 campaign and they became a permanent and essential part of who I am as a man because of George McGovern.
I believe that history will be very kind to George McGovern of Avon, South Dakota. We are a better nation because of him and I am a better man because George McGovern ran for President in 1972.
Thank you Senator McGovern.
Thanks to various news sources for clarifying my memory of some of the facts of George McGovern’s life