This is the grave of George McGovern.
Born in 1922 in Avon, South Dakota to a Methodist minister, McGovern grew up in Mitchell, today known as the home of the ever exciting Corn Palace. He attended Dakota Wesleyan University for awhile, tried to sign up for the Army Air Force after Pearl Harbor and was accepted, but they didn’t have enough planes, so they sent him back to college for a bit. He eventually was called back up, learned to fly, and flew 35 missions from Italy. He nearly died several times but was really lucky, as I suppose any WWII pilot who survived 35 missions had to be.
He returned home at the end of the war and graduated from Dakota Wesleyan in 1946. He had grown up a Republican and even voted for Thomas Dewey in 1944, but did admire FDR and began to turn toward the Democratic Party. But before that, he became a follower of Henry Wallace. Disgusted by the Cold War, he hated Truman and like many a true believer, went for the leftist candidate upon realizing the horrors of what America actually does overseas. McGovern didn’t become a Democrat until 1952, when he went to work for Adlai Stevenson in South Dakota. In fact, he and his wife would name their son Steven, after the man. At this point, the state legislature in South Dakota was dominated by Republicans, 108-2. So McGovern had his work cut out for him. But he took a job as executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party, leaving his job as a college professor. By 1954, the work began to pay off, and Democrats increased their representation from 2 to 25. Moreover, McGovern himself decided to run for Congress against the incumbent Republican Harold Lovre. Despite being redbaited because McGovern had a real interest in east Asian affairs and therefore was a communist sympathizer, he managed to win the election.
In Congress, McGovern became an advocate for farmers and agricultural issues, as well as continued his interest in foreign policy, especially feeding the global poor with farm products grown by American farmers. He ran for Senate in 1960 but lost to Karl Mundt, in part because of latent anti-Catholicism in rural South Dakota. McGovern and JFK had grown close in Washington and so he was brought into the new administration as the director of the Food for Peace program, rapidly expanded under Kennedy and charged with using American food stocks to promote good relations with the rest of the world and building foreign economic development for our allies. He traveled around the world, taking Indian and South American trips (and catching hepatitis on the latter) and meeting Pope John XXIII in Rome. He also worked to create the UN World Food Programme in 1961.
McGovern resigned in 1962 to take another stab at the Senate. He won an extremely close race over the incumbent Francis Case. This was 1972 and he became the 3rd Democratic senator in South Dakota history, which went back to 1889. He initially worked on a lot of the same issues, particularly agricultural and global food policy. But as the nation went into the Vietnam War, he began to criticize the foreign policy of his own party more often. Right away, he bemoaned the fixation on Castro’s Cuba and fought to reduce defense budgets. He reluctantly voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 and when he expressed remorse immediately after, Wayne Morse dismissed him entirely. McGovern came to regret this very strongly and soon became a leader in speaking out against the war. He came in late to the 1968 Democratic race after Robert Kennedy’s assassination and finished third at that raucous convention.
This made McGovern a leader for Democratic opposition to the war when Nixon continued it unabated. It wasn’t all McGovern did. He advocated for farmworkers and continued his work on hunger. But it was his stance against the war, combined with the reforms to the Democratic Party that undermined boss and union control over the nomination, that made him a frontrunner in 1972. Of course, there were many people who wanted that job. Scoop Jackson, who long hated McGovern, was a possibility. The favorite was Ed Muskie, but when Nixon ratfucked him and he seemed to cry on TV, that ended his shot. Hubert Humphrey wanted another try too. It ended up being a race between Humphrey and McGovern, with the former continuing to defend the war and calling McGovern a radical. But Democratic primary voters wanted McGovern and McGovern they got.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the fact that McGovern was a terrible presidential candidate. His campaign was poorly run and he completely failed in his first major crisis, when he dumped Tom Eagleton from the VP slot after reports that he had undergone electroshock therapy surfaced. That a furious AFL-CIO, lead by revanchist cold warrior George Meany refused to endorse him also hurt badly, although despite public belief that unions didn’t support McGovern, organizations representing over half the AFL-CIO membership did support him, including most of the industrial and public sector unions. It was really the building trades and politically conservative unions, as well as the AFL-CIO leadership, that hated him. Nixon didn’t even bother campaigning. Sure, he bugged the Watergate hotel, but he soon realized he didn’t have to try to defeat McGovern. He just sent in his ratfuckers and had his surrogates spend a bunch of money. It was an embarrassing blowout for the Democrats and a complete failure for the left to reach out successfully to the American electorate.
McGovern was deeply bitter. But he managed to win reelection in 1974, despite losing South Dakota to Nixon in 72. He continued on his old issues of Asian foreign policy and food politics and remained somewhat effective, but was largely shunned by other Democrats on most foreign policy issues. He was blown out in 1980 for reelection, gaining only 39 percent of the vote.
He did run for the nomination again in 1984, but had very few staff and almost no money. He managed to finish third in Iowa, but was no match for Walter Mondale, or for that matter, his own former campaign manager, Gary Hart. In the aftermath, he went into real estate and grew more politically conservative after a hotel he bought went bankrupt, which he blamed on too many regulations. He continued to work on global food issues and opposed the Iraq War. But his last big stance in public life was coming out in 2009 in alliance with employers to oppose the Employee Free Choice Act. For a man who started his career by writing a dissertation on the Ludlow Massacre, this was a sad and ironic end to a public career. McGovern died in 2012 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He was 90 years old.
George McGovern is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.
If you would like this series to visit other anti-Vietnam War politicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Wayne Morse is buried in Eugene, which would also allow me to visit the best state. Previous posts in this series are archived here.