George Stanley McGovern, Ph.D
George McGovern was born in Avon, South Dakota and lived in nearby Mitchell. The son of a minister, he graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University.
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.
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. McGovern was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for saving his crew by crash landing his damaged bomber on a small Mediterranean island.
On return from the war, McGovern earned a divinity degree from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and briefly tried his hand as a Methodist minister. Dissatisfied, 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 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 campaign of its presidential nominee, former Vice President Henry A. Wallace.
In 1952, he heard a radio broadcast of Adlai Stevenson's speech accepting the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He immediately 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.
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 strong critic of defense spending, and was an early and vocal opponent of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, often criticizing the policies of President Lyndon Johnson.
McGovern was outspoken in his criticism of the Senate's "war hawks". During Senate floor debate in September 1970, he assailed his colleagues for not supporting an amendment that he had co-sponsored with Senator Mark Hatfield (R-Oregon) calling for a complete withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention, McGovern stood as the anti-war flagbearer for some of the supporters of Sen. Robert Kennedy, who had been assassinated two months earlier while running for the nomination. Despite strong anti-war sentiment, McGovern lost the Presidential nomination to establishment candidate Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
During the convention, a motion was passed to establish a commission to reform the Democratic Party nomination process. In 1969, McGovern was named chairman of this Reform Commission. 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.
McGovern again ran for President in 1972. Frontrunner Edmund Muskie did worse than expected in the New Hampshire primary and McGovern came in a close second. McGovern picked up valuable momentum in the following months. Despite losing several primaries, including losing the Florida primary to George Wallace, McGovern secured enough delegates to the 1972 Democratic National Convention to win the party's nomination. McGovern's campaign manager, Gary Hart, became a presidential contender himself 12 years later.
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. 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 dropped from the platform. In addition, McGovern supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Just over two weeks after his nomination, it was revealed that McGovern's running-mate, Thomas Eagleton, had received electroshock therapy for depression during the 1960s. Though many people still supported Eagleton's candidacy, an increasing number of influential politicians and columnists questioned his ability to be Vice-President. The resulting negative attention prompted McGovern to accept Eagleton's offer to withdraw from the ticket, replacing him with JFK in-law Sargent Shriver. This occurred after McGovern had stated publicly he was still "...behind Eagleton 1000%"; reneging on that statement a few days later made McGovern look indecisive.
The McGovern Commission changes to the convention rules marginalized the influence of establishment Democratic figures. Many refused to support him, with some switching their support to incumbent President Richard Nixon through a campaign effort called "Democrats for Nixon".
In the general election, the McGovern/Shriver ticket suffered a 60%–38% 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 DC; McGovern failed to win his home state of South Dakota.
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.
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.
The McGoverns had five children: Ann, Terry, Susan, Mary McGovern-McKinnon, and Steven. In 1994, his daughter Teresa 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.
From 1998 to 2001, he served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies. In 2001, he was appointed UN Global Ambassador on World Hunger by the World Food Programme.
He endorsed Democrat Wesley Clark's unsuccessful candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for the 2004 presidential election on January 18, 2004.
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.
McGovern's wife, Eleanor, died January 25, 2007, at their home in Mitchell, South Dakota.
George McGovern effected major changes in Democratic party rules that continue to this day, such as the requirements of diversity of the delegates to the party's nominating convention. 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.
Despite his reputation as a dovish liberal, McGovern is not a pacifist, and has publicly stated so.
McGovern's legacy includes a commitment to combating hunger both in the US and across the globe. In addition to numerous domestic programs, together with Republican Sen. Bob Dole 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.