EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a weekly series examining the events of 40 years ago that led to Mitchell native George McGovern’s Democratic presidential nomination and run for the White House.
By TOM LAWRENCE
The Daily Republic
George McGovern almost became a pastor after witnessing death and destruction up close.
A World War II veteran who had flown bomber missions over Germany, McGovern studied at the Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and was a student supply minister at the Diamond Lake Church in Mundelein, Ill., in 1946-47.
His father, the Rev. Joseph C. McGovern, was the pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Mitchell, so the ministry seemed a natural calling for the bookish, thoughtful young man.
But George McGovern decided that he wanted to pursue other interests. He enrolled in Northwestern University to study history, earning a doctorate and returning to Mitchell to teach at Dakota Wesleyan University.
From there, he jumped into politics, first as secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party and then as a congressman, senator and, in 1972, as the party’s presidential candidate.
During that race, his interest in religion and morality resurfaced, perhaps most notably on Oct. 11, when he delivered a speech titled “Sources of Our Strength” at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill.
He called for a “fundamental stirring of our moral and spiritual” values in America and said the president should help lead the effort to do just that.
“The president can be the great moral leader of the nation. He can ask us to face issues, not merely from a political standpoint, but in our conscience and in our souls,” McGovern said in the speech.
“By his words and deeds, the president must witness to the values that should endure among our people. The president must set an uncompromised standard of truth and integrity, for if these principals are corrupted at the highest levels of government, corruption will spread to other levels of society.”
The topic was seen as a glimpse of McGovern as a religious man, who had been called “the most decent man in the Senate — probably the only one,” by his friend Robert F. Kennedy.
It was also a chance for McGovern to draw a distinction between himself and President Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate. The Watergate scandal, which would eventually bring Nixon down in 1974, was starting to gain attention in the national consciousness. McGovern’s Wheaton College speech was a way to point out his differences from Nixon.