George McGovern

George Stanley McGovern, (born July 19, 1922) is a former United States Representative, Senator, and Democratic presidential nominee. McGovern lost the 1972 presidential election in a landslide to incumbent Richard Nixon. As a decorated World War II combat veteran, McGovern was noted for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

A longtime leader in ensuring nutrition and food security and fighting hunger and poverty, McGovern was appointed United Nations Ambassador on World Hunger in 2001. In 2008, he and Senator Bob Dole were named the 2008 World Food Prize Laureates for their work to promote school-feeding programs globally.

Early life and career

McGovern was born in Avon, South Dakota and lived in nearby Mitchell, having moved there at the age of six. The son of a minister, he graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

McGovern married Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket on October 31, 1943. The two had met during a high school debate in which Eleanor and her sister Ila defeated McGovern and his partner.

As the war approached, McGovern recalled later, he felt insecure about his own courage. A gym teacher once called him a "physical coward" for failing to vault a gymnastics horse. To prove himself, McGovern, who was afraid of heights, took flying lessons and got a pilot's license through the government's Civilian Pilot Training Program. McGovern said: "Frankly, I was scared to death on that first solo flight. But when I walked away from it, I had an enormous feeling of satisfaction that I had taken the thing off the ground and landed it without tearing the wings off.

He volunteered for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II and 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, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his crew by landing his damaged bomber on a British airfield on Vis, a small island off the Yugoslav coast controlled by Tito's Partisans. McGovern's wartime story, including his island landing, is at the center of Stephen Ambrose's profile of the men who flew B-24s over Germany in World War II, The Wild Blue.

On return from the war, McGovern earned a divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston near Chicago, and then briefly tried his hand as a Methodist minister. Dissatisfied, he earned a Ph.D in history from Northwestern University in Evanston 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 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. By 1953, he had been named Executive Director of the South Dakota Democratic Party and, in 1956, he ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives, winning reelection in 1958 against a strong challenge from South Dakota's two-term Governor Joe Foss.

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 ran for election to South Dakota's other Senate seat and won, serving his first of three Senate terms.

Opposition to Vietnam War

Although he voted in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, McGovern later became a strong critic of defense spending, and was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, often criticizing the policies of fellow Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson. McGovern was outspoken in his criticism of the Senate. As reported by Time magazine in September 1970, during Senate floor debate McGovern criticized his colleagues for not supporting an amendment that he had cosponsored with Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) calling for a complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam:

"Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave... This chamber reeks of blood... it does not take any courage at all for a Congressman or a Senator or a President to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Viet Nam, because it is not our blood that is being shed." (McGovern) blamed his colleagues for having contributed to "that human wreckage all across our land — young men without legs or arms or genitals or faces — or hopes.

In a retort to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, John Stennis, McGovern declared, "I'm tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to fight. If he wants to use American ground troops in Cambodia, let him lead the charge himself.

Party reformer

During the 1968 Democratic Convention, a motion was passed to establish a commission to reform the Democratic Party nomination process. In 1969, McGovern was named chairman of the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection; 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.

The fundamental principle of the McGovern Commission— that primaries should determine the winner of the Democratic nomination— lasted throughout every subsequent nomination contest.

1968 Presidential campaign

At the 1968 Democratic Convention, in the wake of the Robert F. Kennedy assassination, McGovern sought the Democratic nomination after being drafted into the race, with the urging of feminist icon, journalist, and political activist Gloria Steinem (Steinem would be a large part of the campaign, serving in multiple roles). Although Hubert Humphrey appeared to be the favorite for the nomination, he was an unpopular choice with many anti-war Democrats, who identified him with Lyndon B. Johnson's controversial position on the Vietnam War. McGovern hoped to pick up Kennedy's anti-war support but anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy split most of Kennedy's delegates with McGovern. Humphrey was able to win the nomination, with McGovern coming in third with 146.5 delegates, far behind Hubert Humphrey's 1759.25.

1972 Presidential campaign

Democratic nomination

Front-runner Edmund Muskie did worse than expected in the New Hampshire primary and McGovern came in a close second. While Muskie's campaign funding and support dried up, McGovern picked up valuable momentum in the following months. Despite losing several primaries, including losing Florida to George Wallace, McGovern secured enough delegates to the 1972 Democratic National Convention to win the party's nomination. Gary Hart, who became a presidential contender 12 years later, was McGovern's campaign manager.

Prairie populist

In the 1972 election, McGovern ran on a platform that advocated withdrawal from the Vietnam War in exchange for the return of American prisoners of war and amnesty for draft evaders who had left the country, an anti-war platform that was presaged, in 1970, by McGovern's sponsorship of the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, seeking to end U.S. participation in the war by Congressional action. However, during a meeting with Democratic Governors conference, Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan asked McGovern what he would do if the North Vietnamese refused to release American POW's after a withdrawal. McGovern responded, "Under such circumstances, we'd have to take action," although he did not say what action.

McGovern's platform also included an across-the-board, 37% reduction in defense spending over three years; and a "demogrant" program giving $1,000 to every citizen in America that was later changed to creating a $6,500 guaranteed minimum income for Americans, and was later dropped from the platform. In addition, McGovern supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. An infamous incident took place late in the campaign. McGovern was giving a speech and a Nixon admirer kept heckling him. McGovern called the young man over and said "Listen you son of a bitch, why don't you kiss my ass!" Mississippi Senator James Eastland later asked the Senator if that was what he had said. When McGovern said yes, Eastland replied that it was the best thing he had ever said in the whole campaign.

"Amnesty, abortion and acid"

After McGovern had won the Massachusetts primary on April 25, 1972, journalist Robert Novak phoned Democratic politicians around the country, who agreed with his assessment that blue-collar workers voting for McGovern did not understand what he really stood for. On April 27, Novak reported in a column that an unnamed Democratic senator had talked to him about McGovern and said: "The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America - Catholic middle America, in particular - finds this out, he’s dead." The label stuck and McGovern became known as the candidate of "amnesty, abortion and acid."

Novak was accused of manufacturing the quote. To rebut the criticism, Novak took the senator to lunch after the campaign and asked whether he could identify him as the source. The senator said he would not allow his identity to be revealed. "Oh, he had to run for re-election... the McGovernites would kill him if they knew he had said that," Novak said.

On July 15, 2007, after the source's death, Novak said on Meet the Press that the unnamed senator was Thomas Eagleton. Political analyst Bob Shrum says that Eagleton would never have been selected as McGovern's running mate if it had been known at the time that Eagleton was the source of the quote: "Boy, do I wish he would have let you publish his name. Then he never would have been picked as vice president. Because the two things, the two things that happened to George McGovern—two of the things that happened to him— were the label you put on him, number one, and number two, the Eagleton disaster. We had a messy convention, but he could have, I think in the end, carried eight or 10 states, remained politically viable. And Eagleton was one of the great train wrecks of all time."

Eagleton controversy

Just over two weeks after his nomination, it was revealed that McGovern's running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had received electroshock therapy for clinical depression during the 1960s. Though many people still supported Eagleton's candidacy, an increasing number of influential politicians and columnists questioned his ability to handle the office of Vice President. The resulting negative attention prompted McGovern to accept Eagleton's offer to withdraw from the ticket, replacing him with United States Ambassador to France Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. This occurred after McGovern had stated publicly he was still "... behind Eagleton 1000 percent"; reneging on that statement a few days later made McGovern look indecisive. The Eagleton controversy also put the McGovern campaign off message and was speculated at the time to perhaps be a harbinger of what would become McGovern's subsequent landslide loss.

Landslide loss

The McGovern Commission changes to the convention rules marginalized the influence of establishment Democratic figures (some of whom had lost the nomination to McGovern). Many refused to support him, with some switching their support to the incumbent President Richard Nixon through a campaign effort called "Democrats for Nixon". In addition, McGovern was repeatedly attacked by associates of Nixon, who used an array of "dirty tricks" and illegal tactics during the campaign, including the infamous Watergate break-in, which eventually led to Nixon's resignation in 1974.

In the general election, the McGovern/Shriver ticket suffered a 61%-37% defeat to Nixon — at the time, the second biggest landslide in American history, with Electoral College totals of 520 to 17. McGovern's two electoral vote victories came in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.; McGovern failed to win his home state of South Dakota, a state that had delivered for the Democrats in only three of the previous 18 presidential elections in the twentieth century. In his telegram to Nixon conceding defeat, McGovern wrote, "I hope that in the next four years you will lead us to a time of peace abroad and justice at home. You have my full support in such efforts.

Return to the Senate

After this loss, McGovern returned to South Dakota, where he was re-elected to the Senate in 1974. During the Iran hostage crisis he joined with conservative Republicans in authorizing military action to free the hostages. 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."


The McGoverns had five children: Ann, Teresa Jane McGovern ("Terry"), Susan, Mary McGovern-McKinnon, and Steven. In 1994, his daughter Terry died of hypothermia while intoxicated. McGovern revealed his daughter had battled her alcohol addiction for years. He founded a non-profit organization in her name to help others suffering from alcoholism and authored a book, Terry: My Daughter's Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism.

McGovern's wife Eleanor died January 25, 2007, at their home in Mitchell, South Dakota.

1984 Presidential campaign

McGovern attempted a political comeback by running for the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination. Despite having name recognition the campaign was largely unsuccessful. McGovern won no primaries and picked up just four votes at the Democratic Convention. He eventually gave his support to Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. McGovern went on to host Saturday Night Live on April 14 (with musical guest Madness), shortly after dropping out due to poor showings in the Super Tuesday primaries.

McGovern considered another run for the White House in 1992.

Later activities

From 1981 to 1982, McGovern replaced historian Stephen Ambrose as a professor at the University of New Orleans. In 1990, he was awarded an honorary J.D. degree from the University of Houston law school.

From 1998 to 2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome, Italy (he was succeeded in this post by long-time Democratic Rep. Tony Hall). In 2001, he was appointed UN Global Ambassador on World Hunger by the World Food Programme. McGovern is an honorary life member of the board of Friends of the World Food Program.

McGovern continues to lecture and make public appearances. He previously owned a used book store in his summer home of Stevensville in Montana's Bitterroot Valley.

On September 4, 2005, he appeared at the Houston Astrodome in support of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. This time, another Houston university, Rice University, awarded him an honorary Ph.D.

On March 22, 2006, McGovern spoke at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs on the topic of world hunger.

On October 5October 7, 2006, the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service was dedicated at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. Among the dedication's dignitaries were former President Bill Clinton and Allen Neuharth. McGovern currently serves as a Senior Policy Advisor to the law firm of Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz, PC, a food and drug regulatory counseling and lobbying firm in Washington, DC.

On July 10, 2007, "An Evening with George McGovern" was held at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, to celebrate McGovern's upcoming 85th birthday. The event was anchored by veteran NBC correspondent Sander Vanocur. When asked by Vanocur about his feelings about the term "McGovernism" to describe a particular liberal philosophy, McGovern quipped, "“Well, I’m one politician that’s in the dictionary, even though it’s as a swear word.”

In October 2007 McGovern endorsed U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) for the 2008 Democratic Nomination. On May 7, 2008, McGovern switched his endorsement for the Democratic Nomination 2008 from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama, and publicly urged Clinton to withdraw from the race. On May 12, in an opinion article for The New York Times, McGovern stated that Hillary's persistence in the campaign was perfectly allowable. He urged the two candidates to discontinue criticizing each other and instead focus on John McCain. For party unity, he suggested that they make joint appearances in the remaining primary states to raise money for the state parties.

On January 6, 2008, McGovern wrote an op-ed published in the Washington Post calling for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. The subtitle of the article reads "Nixon was Bad. These Guys Are Worse.

In popular culture

In 2006, the film One Bright Shining Moment — The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern was released in the United States. Directed by Stephen Vittoria and narrated by Amy Goodman, the documentary chronicles the life and times of George McGovern, focusing on his 1972 bid for the presidency. The film features McGovern, Gloria Steinem, Gore Vidal, Warren Beatty, Howard Zinn and Dick Gregory.


Due to his resounding loss to Nixon in the 1972 general election, McGovern was perceived as a "liberal" whose campaign "became synonymous with lost causes." In 1992, nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote, "[O]nce again politicians -- mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, too -- are using his name as a synonym for presidential campaigns that are laughable and out of touch with the American people." Despite his reputation as a dovish liberal, McGovern has publicly stated he is not a pacifist.

McGovern helped institute major changes in Democratic party rules that continue to this day. He remains a symbol of the political left during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s when the country was torn by U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration. McGovern recognized the mixed results of his 1972 candidacy, saying, "I opened the doors of the Democratic Party and 20 million people walked out. McGovern has also become more forceful in recent years in drawing historical parallels between the Nixon and Bush administrations and the Vietnam and Iraq wars.

McGovern's legacy also includes a commitment to combating hunger both in the United States and around the globe. In addition to numerous domestic programs, along with former Senator Bob Dole (R-Kansas), he created an international school lunch program through The George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which helps fight child hunger and poverty by providing nutritious meals to children in schools in developing countries. This program has since led to greatly increased global interest in and support for school-feeding programs - which benefit girls and young women, in particular - and won McGovern and Dole the 2008 World Food Prize.

Electoral history


Further reading

  • Ambrose, Stephen, The Wild Blue : The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany 1944–45, Simon & Schuster, 2001. ISBN 0-7432-0339-9.
  • Clinton, Bill, My Life, Vintage, 2005. ISBN 1-4000-3003-X.
  • Hart, Gary, Right from the Start: A Chronicle of the McGovern Campaign, Quadrangle, 1973. ISBN 0-8129-0372-2.
  • Marano, Richard Michael, Vote Your Conscience: The Last Campaign of George McGovern, Praeger Publishers, 2003. ISBN 0-275-97189-9.
  • McGovern, George S., Donald C. Simmons, Jr. and Daniel Gaken. Leadership and Service: An Introduction, Kendall/Hunt Publishers, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7575-5109-3.
  • McGovern, George S. and Polk, William R., Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
  • McGovern, George S., The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, Simon & Schuster, 2004. ISBN 0-7432-6927-6.
  • McGovern, George S., Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern, Random House, 1977. ISBN 0-394-41941-3.
  • McGovern, George S., Terry: My Daughter's Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism, Plume Books, 1997. ISBN 0-452-27823-6.
  • McGovern, George S., The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002. ISBN 0-7425-2125-7.
  • McGovern, George S., A Time of War! A Time of Peace, Vintage Books, 1968. ISBN 0-394-70481-9.
  • Thompson, Hunter S., Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72, Warner Books, 1973. ISBN 0-446-31364-5.
  • Watson, Robert P. (ed.), George McGovern: A Political Life, A Political Legacy, South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2004.
  • White, Theodore H., The Making of the President 1972, Antheneum Publishers, 1973. ISBN 0-689-10553-3.
  • "What Might Have Been", article from The Washington Post by Thomas Leahy, February 20 2005.
  • "Come Home, America: Liberals need another George McGovern—and perhaps conservatives do too.", article from The American Conservative by Bill Kauffman, January 30 2006.
  • "The Way Out of War" A blueprint for leaving Iraq now November 8, 2006
  • McGovern, George S., "An Impartial Interrogation of George W. Bush" January 12, 2007


External links

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