George McGovern

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George McGovern.
George McGovern.

Dr. George Stanley McGovern (born July 19, 1922 in Avon, South Dakota) was a United States Congressman, Senator, and Democratic presidential candidate, losing the 1972 presidential election to incumbent Richard Nixon.

McGovern was most noted for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He is currently serving as the United Nations global ambassador on hunger.


Early life and career

Raised in the small towns of Avon and then (from six years old on) Mitchell in South Dakota, McGovern volunteered for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. He served as a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot in the Fifteenth Air Force, flying 35 missions over enemy territory from bases in North Africa and later Italy, often against heavy anti-aircraft artillery. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross; his wartime exploits were later at the center of Stephen Ambrose's book The Wild Blue. [1]

McGovern met and married the former Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket, South Dakota on October 31, 1943.

On return from the war, he earned a PhD in history from Northwestern University and became a professor at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University.

Although he was raised by two Republican parents, he chose not to join any particular party until the 1948 presidential election, when he registered as an Independent and joined the newly-formed Progressive Party. During the campaign, he attended the party's first national convention as a delegate and volunteered for the eventually unsuccessful campaign of its presidential nominee, former Vice President Henry A. Wallace. Four years later, in 1952, he heard a radio broadcast of Governor Adlai Stevenson's speech accepting the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. He immediately went into town and registered as a Democrat, then volunteered for Stevenson's campaign the following day. Although Stevenson lost that election, McGovern remained active in Democratic politics. In 1956, he ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives.

Congressional career

After two terms in the House, he unsuccessfully ran for the Senate in 1960, losing to Republican incumbent Karl Mundt 52-48%. The election loss made him available for appointment as the first director of President John F. Kennedy's Food for Peace program. In 1962, he stood for election to South Dakota's other Senate seat and won, serving his first of three Senate terms.

Although he voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, McGovern later became a vocal critic of defense spending and an opponent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, often criticizing the policies of fellow Democrat President Lyndon Johnson.

At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, McGovern stood as the flagbearer for some of the supporters of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, losing the Presidential nomination to Hubert H. Humphrey, and coming in behind Minnesota Senator Eugene J. McCarthy as well.

However, during the convention a motion was passed to establish a commission to reform the Democratic Party nomination process. [White pp. 17-20] In 1969 McGovern was named chairman of this Reform Commission; due to the influence of former McCarthy and Kennedy supporters on the staff, the commission significantly reduced the role of party officials and insiders in the nomination process, increased the role of caucuses and primaries, and mandated quotas for proportional black, women, and youth delegate representation. [White pp. 24-33]

These changes eventually facilitated McGovern's successful own nomination at the 1972 Convention.

1972 Presidential election

In the 1972 election, McGovern ran on a platform of:

  • unilateral withdrawal from the Vietnam War in exchange for the return of American prisoners of war [White p. 122] and amnesty for draft evaders who had left the country [White p. 360]
  • an across-the-board, 37% reduction in defense spending over three years [White p. 123]
  • a "demogrant" program giving $1,000 to every citizen in America [White p. 125], later changed to creating a $6,500 guaranteed minimum income for Americans, later dropped [White p. 190]
  • ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
After the disastrous Eagleton fiasco, August 1972.
After the disastrous Eagleton fiasco, August 1972.

This "anti-war" platform had been presaged in 1970 when McGovern sponsored the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, seeking to end U.S. participation in the war by Congressional action. His campaign manager in 1972 was Gary Hart. Between difficulties with his running-mate, Thomas Eagleton (whom he eventually dropped and replaced with Sargent Shriver), and the Republicans' successful campaign to paint him as unacceptably radical, he suffered a 60% - 38% defeat to Richard Nixon — at the time the second biggest landslide in American history, losing in the Electoral College 520 to 17. McGovern's victories came in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia; McGovern failed to win his home state of South Dakota.

Return to the Senate

After this loss, McGovern returned to South Dakota, where he was re-elected to the Senate in 1974. In 1980, he was defeated for re-election by U.S. Rep. James Abdnor amidst that year's Republican sweep, which became known as the "Reagan Revolution." In 1984, he sought his party's presidential nomination once again. Although he finished in third place in the Iowa caucus amidst a crowded field, his campaign eventually floundered and he withdrew soon after the New Hampshire primary.

Recent activities and legacy

His importance in U.S. politics diminished over time, but his legacy endures as a symbol of the political left during the turbulent 1960s. From 1998 to 2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Agencies, based in Rome, Italy (he was succeeded in this post by long-time Democratic Rep. Tony Hall). In 2001, he was appointed U.N. Global Ambassador on World Hunger.

Personal tragedy struck McGovern in 1994, when his daughter Teresa died of exposure while intoxicated. McGovern revealed his daughter had battled her addiction for years. He founded a non-profit organization in her name to help others suffering from alcoholism.

He endorsed Democrat Wesley Clark's unsuccessful candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2004 presidential election on January 18, 2004 (24 days before Clark's withdrawal from the race). McGovern still lectures and owns a used book store in his summer home of Stevensville in Montana's Bitterroot Valley.

On June 2, 2005, McGovern stated "the US media needs a modern-day "Deep Throat" within the administration of President George W. Bush to reveal how America was 'misled' on Iraq."

On September 4, 2005, he appeared at the Houston Astrodome in support of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

References and further reading

  • Ambrose, Stephen, The Wild Blue : The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944-45, Simon & Schuster, 2001.
  • Clinton, Bil, My Life, Vintage, 2005. ISBN 140003003X.
  • Hart, Gary, Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign, Quadrangle, 1973.
  • Marano, Richard Michael, Vote Your Conscience: The Last Campaign of George McGovern, Praeger Publishers, 2003.
  • McGovern, George S., The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, Simon & Schuster, 2004.
  • McGovern, George S., Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern, Random House, 1977.
  • McGovern, George S., Terry: My Daughter's Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism, Plume Books, 1997.
  • McGovern, George S., The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002.
  • McGovern, George S., A Time of War! A Time of Peace, Vintage Books, 1968.
  • Thompson, Hunter S., Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72, Warner Books, 1973.
  • White, Theodore H., The Making of the President 1972, Antheneum Publishers, 1973.

External links

Preceded by:
Harold O. Lovre
United States Representative for the 1st Congressional District of South Dakota
Succeeded by:
Ben Reifel
Preceded by:
Joseph H. Bottum
United States Senator (Class 2) from South Dakota
Succeeded by:
James Abdnor
Preceded by:
Hubert H. Humphrey
Democratic Party Presidential candidate
1972 (lost)
Succeeded by:
Jimmy Carter
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