George McGovern, 1972 Democratic Nominee Who Lost in Landslide

photograph of Senator George McGovern in 1972
Senator George McGovern during the 1972 campaign.

Getty Images 

George McGovern was a South Dakota Democrat who represented liberal values in the United States Senate for decades and became widely known for his opposition to the Vietnam War. He was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, and lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide.

Fast Facts: George McGovern

  • Full Name: George Stanley McGovern
  • Known For: 1972 Democratic nominee for president, longtime liberal icon represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1980
  • Born: July 19, 1922 in Avon, South Dakota
  • Died: October 21, 2012 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  • Education: Dakota Wesleyan University and Northwestern University, where he received a Ph.D. in American history
  • Parents: Rev. Joseph C. McGovern and Frances McLean
  • Spouse: Eleanor Stegeberg (m. 1943)
  • Children: Teresa, Steven, Mary, Ann, and Susan

Early Life

George Stanley McGovern was born in Avon, South Dakota, on July 19, 1922. His father was a Methodist minister, and the family adhered to the typical small-town values of the time: hard work, self-discipline, and avoidance of alcohol, dancing, smoking, and other popular diversions.

As a boy McGovern was a good student and received a scholarship to attend Dakota Wesleyan University. With America's entry into World War II, McGovern enlisted and became a pilot.

Military Service and Education

McGovern saw combat service in Europe, flying a B-24 heavy bomber. He was decorated for valor, though he did not revel in his military experiences, considering it simply his duty as an American. Following the war, he resumed his college studies, focusing on history as well as his deep interest in religious matters.

He went on to study American history at Northwestern University, eventually receiving a Ph.D. His dissertation studied the coal strikes in Colorado and the "Ludlow Massacre" of 1914.

During his years at Northwestern, McGovern became politically active and began to see the Democratic Party as a vehicle to achieve social change. In 1953, McGovern became the executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party. He began an energetic process of rebuilding the organization, traveling extensively throughout the state.

Early Political Career

In 1956, McGovern ran for office himself. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was re-elected two years later. On Capitol Hill he supported a generally liberal agenda and established some important friendships, including with Senator John F. Kennedy and his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy.

McGovern ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1960 and lost. His political career seemed to have reached an early end, but he was tapped by the new Kennedy administration for a job as director of the Food for Peace Program. The program, which was very much in keeping with McGovern's personal beliefs, sought to combat famine and food shortages around the world.

Photograph of President Kennedy and George McGovern
President John F. Kennedy and George McGovern in the Oval Office. Getty Images 

After running the Food For Peace Program for two years, McGovern ran for the Senate again in 1962. He won a narrow victory, and took his seat in January 1963.

Opposing Involvement in Vietnam

As the United States increased its involvement in Southeast Asia, McGovern expressed skepticism. He felt the conflict in Vietnam was essentially a civil war in which the United States should not be directly involved, and he believed the South Vietnamese government, which American forces were supporting, was hopelessly corrupt.

McGovern openly expressed his views on Vietnam in late 1963. In January 1965, McGovern drew attention by delivering a speech on the Senate floor in which he said he did not believe the Americans could reach a military victory in Vietnam. He called for a political settlement with North Vietnam.

McGovern's position was controversial, especially as it put him in opposition to a president of his own party, Lyndon Johnson. His opposition to the war, however, was not unique, as several other Democratic senators were expressing misgivings about American policy.

As opposition to the war increased, McGovern's stance made him popular to a number of Americans, especially younger people. When opponents of the war sought a candidate to run against Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 Democratic Party primary elections, McGovern was an obvious choice.

McGovern, planning to run for re-election for the Senate in 1968, chose not to enter the early running in 1968. However, after the assassination for Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968, McGovern attempted to enter the contest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey became the nominee and went on to lose to Richard Nixon in the election of 1968.

In the fall of 1968 McGovern easily won re-election to the Senate. Thinking of running for president, he began to utilize his old organizing skills, traveling the country, speaking at forums and urging an end to the war in Vietnam.

The 1972 Campaign

By late 1971, the Democratic challengers to Richard Nixon in the upcoming election seemed to be Hubert Humphrey, Maine senator Edmund Muskie, and McGovern. Early on, political reporters did not give McGovern much of a chance, but he showed surprising strength in the early primaries.

In the first contest of 1972, the New Hampshire primary, McGovern finished a strong second to Muskie. He then went on to win the primaries in Wisconsin and Massachusetts, states where his strong support among college students boosted his campaign.

photograph of George McGovern campaigning in 1972.
George McGovern campaigning in the spring of 1972. Getty Images 

McGovern secured enough delegates to assure himself the Democratic nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, held in Miami Beach, Florida, in July 1972. However, when insurgent forces which had helped McGovern took control of the agenda, the convention quickly turned into a disorganized affair which put a deeply divided Democratic Party on full display.

In a legendary example of how not to run a political convention, McGovern's acceptance speech was delayed by procedural squabbling. The nominee finally appeared on live television at 3:00 a.m, long after most of the viewing audience had gone to bed.

A major crisis hit McGovern's campaign soon after the convention. His running mate, Thomas Eagleton, a little-known senator from Missouri, was revealed to have suffered from mental illness in his past. Eagleton had received electro-shock therapy, and a national debate about his fitness for high office dominated the news.

McGovern, at first, stood by Eagleton, saying he supported him "one thousand percent." But McGovern soon decided to replace Eagleton on the ticket, and was skewered for appearing indecisive. After a troubled search for a new running mate, as several prominent Democrats turned down the position, McGovern named Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy's brother in law who had served as leader of the Peace Corps.

Richard Nixon, running for re-election, had distinct advantages. The Watergate scandal had been kicked off by a break-in at Democratic headquarters in June 1972, but the extent of the affair was not yet known to the public. Nixon had been elected in the turbulent year of 1968, and the country, while still divided, seemed to have calmed during Nixon's first term.

In the November election McGovern was trounced. Nixon won a historic landslide, scoring 60 percent of the popular vote. The score in the electoral college was brutal: 520 for Nixon to McGovern's 17, represented only by the electoral votes of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

Later Career

Following the 1972 debacle, McGovern returned to his seat in the Senate. He continued to be an eloquent and unapologetic advocate for liberal positions. For decades, leaders in the Democratic Party argued over the 1972 campaign and election. It became standard among Democrats to distance oneself from the McGovern campaign (though a generation of Democrats, including Gary Hart, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, had worked on the campaign).

McGovern served in the senate until 1980, when he lost a bid for reelection. He remained active in retirement, writing and speaking out on issues he believed important. In 1994 McGovern and his wife endured a tragedy when their adult daughter, Terry, who suffered from alcoholism, froze to death in her car.

To cope with his grief, McGovern wrote a book, Terry: My Daughter's Life and Death Struggle With Alcoholism. He then became an advocate, speaking out on alcohol and drug addiction.

President Bill Clinton appointed McGovern as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. Thirty years after his work in the Kennedy administration, he was back advocating on food and hunger issues.

McGovern and his wife moved back to South Dakota. His wife died in 2007. McGovern remained active in retirement, and went skydiving on his 88th birthday. He died on October 21, 2012, at the age of 90.

Sources:

  • "George Stanley McGovern." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 10, Gale, 2004, pp. 412-414. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
  • Kenworthy, E.W. "U.S.-Hanoi Accord Urged By Senator." New York Times, 16 January 1965. p. A 3.
  • Rosenbaum, David E. "George McGovern Dies at 90, a Liberal Trounced But Never Silence." New York Times, 21 October 2012. p. A 1.