George McGovern, one of the leading liberals in U.S. politics, was born in a Republican household in a small South Dakota town. His family had some struggles during the Great Depression, but they were able to make ends meet. The young, idealistic man joined the Air Force during World War II and became a bomber pilot. He served with great bravery, flying missions over North Africa and Italy, bombing German military targets, and won citation for his duty. Upon returning home, he graduated from college and... more
George McGovern, one of the leading liberals in U.S. politics, was born in a Republican household in a small South Dakota town. His family had some struggles during the Great Depression, but they were able to make ends meet. The young, idealistic man joined the Air Force during World War II and became a bomber pilot. He served with great bravery, flying missions over North Africa and Italy, bombing German military targets, and won citation for his duty. Upon returning home, he graduated from college and became a college teacher, teaching history. Up to that point, he had been relatively non-political, as had his parents. That changed in 1952, when he heard a speech by the Democratic nominee, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, and was so inspired by it that he volunteered for the Stevenson campaign. Stevenson lost to retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower, but McGovern remained active in politics, becoming Chairman of the South Dakota Democratic Party. Democrats were very much the minority in the state, but McGovern pursued his duties with great zeal, and in 1956 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in an upset, helped by growing dissatisfaction with the Eisenhower administration in the rural Midwest. He was reelected in 1958 and in 1960, was an enthusiastic backer of Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. That same year, McGovern took a gamble by running against Republican U.S. Senator Karl Mundt, who had first been elected in 1948. Although he ran well ahead of what Democrats usually did in the state, he fell short, as Mundt won by a 52% to 48% margin. In 1961, Kennedy appointed McGovern Director of the Food For Peace program, and McGovern was greatly affected by his service in this capacity.In 1962, McGovern ran for the U.S. Senate again (each state has two U.S. Senators), this time in an open race. He was considered the underdog against Republican Governor Joe Bottum, but managed to win by 597 votes, one of the closest U.S. Senate races in state history. He immediately became one of the Senate's most liberal members, enthusiastically supporting the domestic policies of Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson. His major accomplishment was creation of the Food Stamp program, which was to provide Federal food assistance to impoverished people. But he became increasingly focused on overseas and military affairs. He became an opponent of the growing American involvement in Vietnam and opposed maintaining a large military. In 1968, he was a leading supporter of Robert F. Kennedy and was horrified by the latter's assassination. He was also appalled by the Chicago Police Force's rough treatment of anti-war protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that same year. He was reelected easily that year, winning 57% of the vote. After Richard Nixon took office, McGovern quickly became a proponent of immediate withdraw of all military forces form Vietnam. In 1969, he chaired the commission which instituted reforming the way the Democratic Party nominated its Presidential candidates, dramatically reducing the role of party leaders and political insiders.In 1972, McGovern launched a campaign for President. He was given little chance of winning his party's nomination, which seemed to be united around U.S. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine. However, Muskie's campaign foundered and McGovern ran a close second to Muskie in the Presidential primary in New Hampshire. Helped by his campaign manager, Gary Hart (later a Senator and Presidential candidate himself), McGovern won several other primaries and the nomination. His campaign theme was "America, come home." His main platform, aside from withdraw from Vietnam, was a 37% reduction in defense spending and a guaranteed minimal income for all Americans. At the convention in Miami, he initially won praise for nominating U.S. Senator 'Thomas Eagleton' of Missouri as his running mate. But his campaign was rocked when it was revealed that Eagleston had been treated for depression in a psychiatric ward many years before. McGovern initially claimed that he was "1000 percent" behind Eagleston, but later his campaign staff persuaded Eagleston to drop out of contention. This made McGovern look bad to his most idealistic supporters and haunted him throughout the campaign. Ultimately, former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver replaced Eagleston as his running mate, but the damage was done. Throughout the campaign, he was perceived by the public as a well-meaning but fuzzy minded radical leftist. Taking advantage of McGovern's support for amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers, decriminalizing abortion, and ending Federal drug laws (leaving them to the individual states), Vice President Spiro Agnew labeled McGovern the candidate of "amnesty, abortion, and acid," and the label stuck. The Nixon campaign successfully portrayed McGovern as a pacifist and socialist who would endanger national security, wreck the economy, and bankrupt the government. In the election, McGovern lost overwhelmingly. Nixon out-polled him by 61% to 37%, with a plurality of 18 million votes, a record that has yet to be broken. The only state McGovern won was Massachusetts. His only consolation was that a friend and political ally, Congressman James Abourezk, was elected to the South Dakota's other U.S. Senator.Following the loss, McGovern returned to his Senate duties. Following Nixon's resignation in disgrace in the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1974, he seemed to have been vindicated in his attacks on Nixon's ethics. However, later that year, he had a surprisingly difficult reelection bid, winning by less than expected against a former Vietnam War prisoner, who felt that McGovern had prolonged his captivity. There were many Demcorats elected that year, and McGovern worked closely with them to cut defense spending and reign in intelligence agencies. He also worked to expand government benefits. He was encouraged when Democrats won the White House with the narrow election of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter. But his friend and ally Abourezk was forced to retire in the face of impending defeat in 1978 and polls indicated that McGovern was losing support there, as well. In 1980, McGovern was challenged for reelection by Republican Congressman James Abdnor. While campaigning that year, McGovern ran into two women who angrily complained about his support for defense cuts, then bought some groceries with food stamps. He later remarked that he knew he wouldn't be reelected at that moment. He was right. On election day, Abdnor defeated McGovern by a landslide.Following his departure from elective office, he was a professor at the University of New Orleans. In 1984, he made a whimsical, late-entering candidacy for President, and narrowly won the primary in Massachusetts, but as expected, lost the nomination to former Vice President Walter Mondale. Also a candidate, and a more successful one, was his former campaign manager, Gary Hart, who won several primaries, although losing the nomination to Mondale. That year, however, then President Ronald Reagan, whose policies McGovern fervently opposed, was reelected by a landslide, nearly as large as Nixon's 1972 margin. For many years, he largely stayed out for the limelight. He went into the motel business, but the business ultimately foundered and he was forced to fold. McGovern later admitted in late 1990, "I wish I had had a better sense of what it took to [meet a payroll] when I was in Washington." In 1991, he surprised nearly everyone when he supported President George Bush's campaign to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, which culminated in The Persian Gulf War. McGovern defended this by claiming that Hussein was a great threat to the entire region. In 1994, he was hit with personal tragedy when one of his daughters, Teresa, died of exposure while intoxicated. She had been an alcoholic for many years who had been unable to overcome the addiction. McGovern became involved in helping the relatives of alcoholics. In 1998, President Bill Clinton as United States Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Agencies, a post he held until 2001.In more recent years, he has become an advocate for the withdraw of U.S. troops from Iraq.