McGovern snapped at a heckler in final days of race


The Daily Republic

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 most accounts, George McGovern was a soft-spoken, decent, genuinely nice man. But he was also a veteran who was not unfamiliar with colorful language.

 A heckler who badgered McGovern in the closing days of the 1972 presidential campaign found that out, and then the whole country did.

 McGovern was in Battle Creek, Mich., when a man verbally attacked him. The man poured vicious comments on McGovern as the South Dakota senator worked a rope line.

 McGovern went to the man, pulled him aside and whispered, “Listen, you son of a b****, why don’t you kiss my a**?”

 The heckler was stunned for a moment but then told reporters what the Democratic presidential candidate had said. This was a time when presidential candidates and other high-profile political figures pretended they didn’t know what a swear word was, although the “expletive-deleted” White House tapes of President Richard Nixon forever destroyed that myth in 1973 and 1974.

 But as the 1972 campaign came to a close, McGovern’s staffers were concerned. How would this play? What should they say?

 McGovern decided not to deny having said it. He said he went back to his hotel room and had one of the best nights of sleep he had in the entire race.

 Within a few days, his supporters were wearing “KMA” T-shirts to commemorate the comment. And McGovern’s communications director, the witty Frank Mankiewicz, offered a clever response when asked by reporters why the comment was made.

 “McGovern’s a Democrat,” Mankiewicz said. “What did you expect him to say, ‘Kiss my elephant?’ ”

 Years later, Mississippi Sen. James O. Eastland, an old-line conservative Democrat, asked McGovern if he had really said that. McGovern admitted it in a regretful way.

 Eastland beamed. “That was the best line in the campaign!” he said

McGovern blasted Nixon campaign for dirty tricks

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.

The Daily Republic

George McGovern was angry this week 40 years ago, lashing out at the Nixon campaign for conducting a series of dirty tricks against him.

McGovern said Nixon had 50 men to sabotage his campaign, some working closely with him, but just 13 staffers mandated to create peacetime jobs for Americans after the end of the Vietnam War.

He said Nixon’s henchmen were using every trick they could do hamstring his campaign.

“These ambitious men apparently will stop at nothing to preserve their own power,” he said. “They would undermine the republic to save their White House parking spaces.”

McGovern’s outrage over the slowly unraveling story of the Nixon dirty tricks team, and its wire-tapping and other unethical and illegal Watergate methods, were a constant topic as he campaigned across the country in the waning days of the 1972 race.

“They’re really a cutthroat crew the way they operate,” he said in Philadelphia on Oct. 18.

The polls showed the American people weren’t convinced Nixon was crossing the line and were reluctant to embrace the South Dakota Democrat. A Gallup poll showed Nixon leading 60-34 percent.

While her husband battled his way across the nation, Eleanor McGovern returned to her hometown of Woonsocket on Oct. 17.

At a welcome-home ceremony, 1,500 people greeted and cheered her at the Woonsocket National Guard Armory, an impressive total for a town of 1,000.

Mayor Ira Merriman presented the key to the city and a plaque to Eleanor McGovern,

“Seeing so many people from my family, my childhood, people who launched George on his political career is a very moving experience,” she said. “I am fortunate to say I have a home to come home to, that I have a home where my roots are.”

In campaign speech, McGovern emphasized moral leadership

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.

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.

“There is no virtue in simply ‘being president,’ ” McGovern said in the speech. “A candidate should seek the presidency to serve the nation, and call it to a higher standard. That is the meaning of true leadership.”

McGovern’s 2 sisters expressed support for brother during race

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.

The Daily Republic

George McGovern had a lot of things going against him this week 40 years ago.

He was well behind in all polls in his bid to unseat President Richard Nixon. He was being outspent by Nixon. His campaign was still troubled by his unique change in running mates. And he was running out of time with the election less than a month away.

But the South Dakota senator still had the unwavering support of his family.

On Oct. 8, 1972, a story on his sisters Olive Briles and Mildred Brady appeared in The New York Times. Their brother George was still their hero, they said.

“He still believes he’s going to win,” Briles said. “I don’t believe there’s much doubt in his mind.”

There were four siblings in the McGovern clan: George, Larry, Olive and Mildred. The sisters said George reminded them of their late father, the Rev. Joseph McGovern, a strong-willed man who played professional baseball, built churches and raised his children to be involved in their community and country. Their brother was even starting to look a lot like him.

“George and my dad are an awful lot alike,” Briles said. “Neither one pays attention to odds.”

There was one major difference, however. Their father was hot-tempered, they said, while George was a calm, peaceful person who never seemed to get mad, even over the disastrous choice of Sen. Tom Eagleton, D-Mo., as his first running mate.

Briles said she would have “blown my top” over the news that Eagleton had hidden his past treatments for mental illness, which included electroshock therapy. The disclosure rocked the campaign.

While they expressed their pride in their brother George, the sisters also said they were pulling for Larry, five years younger than his famous brother. Larry, the story stated, was a twice-divorced “rebel” who had struggled with alcoholism and mental issues. While George ran for president, Larry worked to land a job as a counselor at a treatment facility in northeast South Dakota.

Getting that post was as important to the family as George winning the White House, they said.

Briles taught English and American studies in Sisseton, while Brady was a nursing supervisor at an Iowa home for the elderly. She took a leave, however, to work on the campaign.

Her work on his campaign was a switch from her feelings from a day in the 1930s when the 12-year-old George and his younger sister had a squabble, she admitted to The Times. When asked by his mother what he planned to do with his life, George said he wasn’t sure, but he wanted to learn as much as he could and do as much as he could for as many people as possible.

“I know it,” Mildred said. “I just know it. He’s going to grow up to be president — but I’m not going to vote for him.”

But long before this week in 1972, she had changed her mind about that.

McGovern found time to boost SD Democrats during race


 The Daily Republic

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.

  George McGovern is credited with building the South Dakota Democratic Party from the ground up.
  In 1953, McGovern resigned as a Dakota Wesleyan University professor to become executive secretary of the state party. It was at its lowest point ever, outnumbered 108-2 in the Legislature, but he worked to build it into a competitive party that elected legislators, state officials, governors, congressman and senators over the next several decades.

Even during his 1972 presidential campaign, McGovern showed he still cared for the party he had built. On Sept. 25, 1972, he headlined a fundraiser for the South Dakota Democratic Party in Sioux Falls.

McGovern was greeted by 4,500 at the Sioux Falls airport and 1,200 people paid $25 for the dinner at the Downtown Holiday Inn.

  Nick Nemec, now a Democratic candidate for the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, was a 14-yearold boy at the time and attended both events. Nemec said it was an exciting time for the state, and he recalls placing fliers on car windshields and doing other chores with young people during the day.
  Gov. Richard Kneip and Rep. James Abourezk, who was to win a Senate term that fall, were two of the South Dakota Democratic officeholders who greeted McGovern at the event and listened to his speech, which was met with loud applause. He also announced he was coming home for Election Night.
  “This will be notice to the national press corps and other interested parties to start making their arrangements to come to Sioux Falls,” McGovern said.
  A group called South Dakota Students for McGovern was formed and called for college students to support him at the polls. The 1972 election was the first time the voting age was lowered to 18.
  A large ad from a group called Republicans for McGovern ran in The Daily Republic on Sept. 19. It was signed by 21 Republicans, including five people from Mitchell: Harold Johnson, Harold Grant, Walter Miller, Mrs. Warren Stechmann, Gordon Rollins and Mrs. L.B. Mayer.
  The ad and the warm welcome home was good news for McGovern. A Lou Harris poll, conducted Sept. 19-21, was less so.
  It showed President Nixon with a 59-31 lead over McGovern, with 10 percent undecided.