Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


South Dakota senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in the small town of Avon in southeastern South Dakota. He later moved with his family to Mitchell, where his father served as minister for the town's Methodist Church. McGovern's interest in politics first became apparent in high school, where he was an active member of the debate team, through which he met his future wife, Eleanor Sternberg. He entered Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell on an academic scholarship in 1940. Three years later he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps, becoming a highly decorated B-24 bomber pilot in Europe. He completed his bachelor of arts degree at Dakota Wesleyan in 1946.

Following his graduation, McGovern, who had a deep interest in the Social Gospel, enrolled at Garrett Theological Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. But after hearing a lecture by the western historian Ray Allen Billington, he opted for graduate work in history. He received his doctorate from Northwestern in 1953. McGovern then began a short career as a professor at Dakota Wesleyan University before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy named him director of the Food for Peace program. He left the Kennedy administration the following year to run for Senate and was elected for the first of three terms. Though best known in his Senate career for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, South Dakotans appreciated him most for his efforts on behalf of Plains farmers and his expertise on food and agricultural policy.

McGovern briefly entered the race for the 1968 presidential nomination following the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The widespread outcry over the perceived unfairness of the presidential nomination process led to the creation of a reform commission in 1969, which McGovern chaired. In 1972 he ran again for the presidency, this time winning the Democratic nomination with the help of an army of young volunteers. Pundits were stunned that the junior senator from a small Plains state, widely known as "the prairie populist," could defeat the better-financed favorites of the party leadership.

Although McGovern was a deeply religious family man rooted in the populist traditions of the Great Plains, Republicans and some elements of the Washington media tried to link him with the excesses of the radical counter-culture of the day. Abandoned by much of the Democratic Party establishment, badly outspent, and subjected to a series of "dirty tricks" that were later revealed in the Watergate investigation, McGovern lost the election to incumbent President Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history. Less than a year later, however, as Nixon's scandals unfolded, public opinion polls showed that were the election held over, McGovern would have won.

McGovern was reelected to the Senate in 1974 but was defeated in 1980 in a stunning upset, along with several other prominent Democrats, in the Republican landslide. He became a part-time lecturer at Northwestern and other universities and continued to speak out on political affairs. He launched an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984. He became president of the Middle East Policy Council in 1991, calling for a more balanced U.S. policy toward the region. The alcohol-related death of his daughter Terry in 1994 led McGovern to write a widely acclaimed personalized biography of her struggle with alcoholism, and he soon became a prominent spokesperson for the recognition and treatment of the disease. In 1997 President Bill Clinton named him the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization based in Rome.

Stephen Zunes University of San Francisco

McGovern, George. Grassroots. New York: Random House, 1977.

Weil, Gordon L. The Long Shot: George McGovern Runs for President. New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1973.

Previous: Mansfield, Mike | Contents | Next: Meighen, Arthur

XML: egp.pg.046.xml