George Stanley McGovern was born July 19, 1922, in the Wesleyan Methodist parsonage at Avon. He moved with his family to Mitchell in 1928, and he graduated from Mitchell High School in 1940.
McGovern’s father, a minister, played minor league baseball before embarking on his pastoral career. McGovern wrote that his father gave up baseball because there were “too many gamblers, prostitutes and drinkers associated with traveling baseball teams.”
The Great Depression hit during McGovern’s preteen years and left a mark on his psyche. He recalled being with his father as they entered the farmyard of one man who was sitting on the steps of his porch with tears streaking down his dusty face. The man explained to McGovern’s father that he had just received a check for a year’s production of pigs, but the check didn’t cover the cost of transporting the pigs to market.
Another transformative experience in McGovern’s life was his participation in high school debate. It made him more outgoing and taught him to present organized thoughts extemporaneously — a skill he would call on heavily later in life.
After high school, McGovern enrolled at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell. He began dating fellow student Eleanor Stegeberg, of Woonsocket, whom he had competed against in a high school debate.
McGovern also enrolled in the federal government’s civilian pilot training program. A few weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he enlisted with the Army Air Force in Omaha.
“We were confronted with totalitarian powers bent upon the destruction of freedom, and that was all I needed to know,” McGovern wrote. “I wanted to be a part of that struggle.”
It was nearly a year later, in February 1943, when McGovern was called to begin military training. With wartime service looming, he and Eleanor were married by McGovern’s father on Oct. 31, 1943. The union lasted more than 60 years until Eleanor’s death in 2007.
McGovern was trained to fly B-24 “Liberator” bombers. He and his crew were stationed at Cerignola, Italy, and he flew 35 missions in planes that were nicknamed the “Dakota Queen” in honor of Eleanor. His first exposure to real hunger came during the war, and it left such an impression that McGovern spent much of the remainder of his life trying to eradicate the problem.
“Italy today is probably one of the best-fed countries in the world,” McGovern told The Daily Republic in 2003, “but during World War II the men were all gone, they were off fighting, and the farms had fallen into disuse. It was a sad place.”
McGovern returned to the United States in June 1945 and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
McGovern came home to DWU to continue his education with the help of the GI Bill, and he completed work on his bachelor’s degree in 1946. He enrolled that same year in the Garret Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Illinois, but he soon switched to Northwestern’s graduate history program.
Throughout the McGoverns’ early married years, their family grew. They had a total of five children, and McGovern later wrote that he regretted being so wrapped up in his studies during the children’s formative years.
“If I had devoted a fraction of the effort to preparing myself to play the role of husband and father that I did preparing for a career,” he wrote, “the time would have been infinitely better invested.”
One of the McGoverns’ children, Teresa, died in 1994 after a long battle with alcoholism. Afterward, McGovern channeled his grief into the book “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism,” in which he wrote candidly about the family’s struggles to help Terry achieve sobriety.
McGovern later acknowledged in his 2011 book, “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” that Terry’s death plunged him “headlong into a deep depression” for which he was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In that same book, he wrote that while losing a presidential election is difficult, “it is a skinned elbow next to the irreparable pain of losing a child.”
McGovern returned to DWU in 1950 to finish his doctoral dissertation, teach history and coach debate. In 1952, he wrote a series of articles for The Daily Republic in support of Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign.
Around the time McGovern’s articles about Stevenson were published, state Democratic Party officials began courting him to become the party’s first executive secretary. After some reflection and worry over leaving his teaching job at DWU — and some additional reflection on the abysmal condition of the state Democratic Party at the time — McGovern accepted.
In 1952, the year before McGovern took the job, two Democrats were elected to the state Legislature against 108 Republicans. Undaunted, McGovern set to work traveling around the state to rebuild the party.
When he met someone new, he wrote notes about the person on a 3×5 note card. He filed the cards in a shoe box, with tabs for counties and cities. When he made a repeat visit somewhere, he reviewed the cards for that place so he could call people by name and inquire about things they discussed previously. He continued the practice throughout his political career, eventually accumulating thousands of cards and switching from a shoebox to metal file cases.
In 1954, with McGovern’s help, the Democrats improved their numbers in the Legislature from two to 24.
In 1956, McGovern ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served two terms and then ran for the Senate, but he lost a close race to incumbent Republican Karl Mundt.
John F. Kennedy made a joint campaign appearance with McGovern at the Corn Palace in Mitchell during the 1960 campaign. After Kennedy left the city, according to McGovern, Kennedy remarked to his brother, Robert, “I think we just cost that nice guy a Senate seat.” Kennedy was referring to the conservative Republican bent of South Dakota, which ran counter to the message preached by Kennedy during his presidential bid.
Following the loss to Mundt, McGovern was appointed by President Kennedy to run the new Food for Peace program. It was a fitting post for McGovern, who had seen firsthand the scourge of hunger in war-torn Europe and was urging the use of U.S.agricultural surpluses to help feed the world.
In 1962, McGovern made another run for the Senate and won his first of three consecutive terms.
In 1964, McGovern voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson the authority to escalate U.S.military involvement in Vietnam. McGovern later said he was misled as to the purpose of the resolution, and he became a vehement critic of the war.
“… I was so convinced that Vietnam was a looming catastrophe that for me it became what one staff member described as ‘a magnificent obsession,’ ” McGovern wrote. “… My anguish over this issue was the driving force of my public career and the constant topic of my private conversation for an entire decade.”
McGovern traveled multiple times to Vietnam, and in 1970 he sponsored the unsuccessful McGovern-Hatfield amendment, which sought to end U.S.military involvement in Vietnam by congressional action.
In support of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, McGovern delivered a speech on Sept. 1, 1970, that became one of his most famous.
“Every senator in the chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave,” he said during the speech. “This chamber reeks of blood.”
Besides his outspokenness on Vietnam, McGovern’s national profile also was raised by his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. The committee arose out of growing concern about hunger and malnutrition in the country, following events that included Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s field trip to see emaciated children in Mississippi and the broadcast of the 1967 CBS News special “Hunger in America.”
The committee’s work over the course of nearly a decade led to several amendments to the existing National School Lunch Act and Child Nutrition Act, and its nutritional guidelines were the predecessor to the more detailed Dietary Guidelines for Americans later issued twice a decade by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
Author Gary Taubes wrote that “it was Senator George McGovern’s bipartisan, nonlegislative Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs — and, to be precise, a handful of McGovern’s staff members — that almost single-handedly changed nutritional policy in this country and initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma.”
Headed into the presidential campaign of 1968, McGovern’s profile was elevated. After the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, McGovern entered the race for the Democratic nomination at the urging of some Kennedy supporters. McGovern had known both Robert and John Kennedy and had accompanied both of them to appearances at the Corn Palace in Mitchell during their respective presidential campaigns in 1960 and 1968.
McGovern failed to win the nomination in ’68, but he was named chairman of a commission to reform the party’s nominating process. The commission ended the old boss system of choosing presidential nominees and helped create the modern presidential primary system, and it also served as a launching pad for McGovern’s own 1972 presidential campaign.
At the announcement of his presidential candidacy in 1971, McGovern spelled out his philosophy:
“A public figure can perform no greater service than to lay bare the malfunctions of our society, try honestly to confront our problems in all their complexity, and stimulate the search for solutions.”
McGovern beat a crowded field of Democrats and mounted an unsuccessful challenge against President Richard Nixon. The race is remembered today for McGovern’s anti-war platform; the revelation that his first running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had undergone electroshock therapy for depression; McGovern’s subsequent replacement of Eagleton with Sargent Shriver; Nixon’s landslide 520-17 electoral victory; and the break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Hotel that led to Nixon’s resignation two years later.
Hunter S. Thompson, the “gonzo” journalist who famously chronicled McGovern’s 1972 campaign in the book “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72,” blamed McGovern’s loss on a combination of factors. The rightward tilting mood of the country following the left-driven social upheaval of the 1960s may have helped Nixon, Thompson wrote, but so did mistakes such as McGovern’s failure to investigate Eagleton before choosing him as a running mate.
“McGovern made some stupid mistakes,” Thompson wrote in the 1973 book, “but in context they seem almost frivolous compared to the things Richard Nixon does every day of his life, on purpose, as a matter of policy and a perfect expression of everything he stands for.”
Despite the one-sided result of the ’72 election, McGovern’s candidacy remains a staple of American political history. Bill Kauffman wrote a 2006 article about the legacy of the campaign for The American Conservative.
“In the clutter and chaos of the campaign, one discerns themes that place McGovern on a whole other plane from that drab anteroom of Democratic losers, the Mondales and Dukakises and Humphreys and Kerrys,” Kauffman wrote. “George McGovern had convictions; like Barry Goldwater in 1964, he stood for a set of ideals rooted in the American past. He spoke of open government, peace, the defense of the individual and the community against corporate power, a Congress that reasserts the power to declare war.”
The legacy of the ’72 campaign continues to influence political thought. In 2010, The Washington Post’s Dan Balz was writing about the presidential prospects of Sarah Palin when he said this about McGovern and Barry Goldwater: “Right now, she is a figure like McGovern or Goldwater, two candidates who led the most intense movements in our country’s political history, but who couldn’t win the middle.”
McGovern remained a U.S.senator until his loss to Republican Jim Abdnor in 1980, the year of widespread Republican victories known as the “Reagan Revolution.” McGovern made a short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984.
After leaving elected office, McGovern served in many capacities with the United Nations. In 1976, he was appointed to serve as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly; in 1978, he was appointed to serve as a U.N. delegate for a special session on disarmament; from 1998 to 2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agencies based in Rome; and in 2001, he was appointed U.N. global ambassador on world hunger.
The problem of hunger has continued to be a focus for McGovern throughout his later years. In 2001, his bipartisan work to eradicate hunger served as the inspiration for the creation of the McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, named for McGovern and his former Senate colleague Bob Dole, a Republican. The program, operated by the U.S. Agriculture Department, provides for donations of U.S.agricultural products, as well as financial and technical assistance for school feeding and maternal and child nutrition projects in low-income, food-deficit countries that are committed to universal education.
McGovern also has received numerous honors in later life, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1984, he hosted “Saturday Night Live.” In 2005, he was the subject of a documentary titled “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.”
In 2006, Dakota Wesleyan University finished construction of the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service. Upwards of 3,000 people attended the library’s dedication ceremony, at which former President Bill Clinton delivered a speech.
“In the storied history of American politics, I believe no other presidential candidate ever had such an enduring impact in defeat,” Clinton said that day. “Senator, the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts.”
McGovern died Oct. 21, 2012, from a combination of medical conditions associated with his age. He was 90.