George McGovern, 1922-2012

Years of digging deeper into what was really happening in key moments of South Dakota history create an additional, very different impression of former U.S. Sen. George McGovern than the way he is often currently portrayed. His death a few hours before dawn today is big news on a Sunday just two weeks before the 2012 presidential election.

He is portrayed as someone who revived South Dakota’s Democratic Party, and that is certainly accurate. What isn’t explained is that the revival was based on a demographic abnormality that passed with time rather than the triumph of better ideas that stood the test of time.

Starting in the mid-1950s and carrying through to his 1972 presidential nomination, he captured the votes of many babies-turned-voting age adults who were born during and after World War II. The baby bubble was the underlying key to the Democratic revival in South Dakota during the late 1960s and 1970s. During that era, South Dakota had our most recent Democratic governors in Dick Kneip and Harvey Wollman, and had Jim Abourezk and Tom Daschle in Congress.

But it is worth remembering that McGovern failed to carry South Dakota in his ’72 presidential race, and within eight years a majority of South Dakota voters turned their backs on him altogether, as he lost his Senate re-election in 1980 to Republican Jim Abdnor, amid buttons that captured the sentiment of many: “George McGovern does not speak for me.” His defeat was part of a broader repudiation of Democrats in South Dakota.

In a short span, from 1978 through 1980, Kneip left office early, Abourezk declined to run again, and Republicans Bill Janklow, Larry Pressler and Abdnor were elected as governor and U.S. senators. The machine that McGovern built didn’t last, as the legions of young supporters became older, some leaving South Dakota, some leaving the Democrats. Voter registration numbers through the decades show the bubble that was the key to the McGovern rise and ultimately the Democrats’ fall.

Tom Daschle, through his sophisticated use of get-out-the-vote, was able to overcome the demographic trends undercutting the Democrats, until John Thune came along. Thune, a Republican, adapted many of the GOTV concepts and nearly toppled Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson in 2002, then came back two years later and took down Daschle, the Democratic leader of the U.S. Senate. Today, Democrats hold just one statewide office, at either federal or state levels, in South Dakota, and that solitary figure, Johnson, faces re-election in 2014. Democrats failed to field an opponent to Thune in 2010.

News reports about George McGovern’s death today include prominent mention that his 1972 presidential campaign made a priority to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. What’s not commonly known or recalled is that one reason McGovern won a U.S. Senate seat in the first place in 1962, after losing in 1960, was successfully marketing his experience as a World War II bomber pilot to the thousands of families associated with Ellsworth Air Force Base and the nuclear missile sites in the Rapid City and western South Dakota region. McGovern did much better than would have normally been expected in that region. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and deserved it. That was a true badge of honor among the men and women who worked at the base and on the missile sites or whose spouses and relatives did.

Another key to his first Senate victory was the Democrats’ portrayal of his opponent, acting U.S. Sen. Joe Bottum, as a drunk. It was the other of the Bottum brothers, Roddy, who was the alcoholic. Joe Bottum refused to publicly make the distinction.  McGovern won the 1962 contest with 127,348 votes while Bottum received 126,681. In 1994, on a December morning, one of the McGovern children would pass out in a parking lot, after another round of drinking. She froze to death, and two years later George McGovern published the book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism.” She was 13 when Bottum felt the slur about his brother’s alcoholism.

George McGovern did what he thought it took to win. The latest lesson comes in the new book about his haphazard selection of U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton as his 1972 running mate. Eagleton wasn’t his first choice, and wasn’t among those at the top of McGovern’s list. McGovern, preoccupied with engineering his nomination at the Democratic convention, settled on Eagleton as time was actually running out on the day the selection announcement was due. Nobody bothered to dig very deep into Eagleton’s background until it was too late.

Joshua Glasser gets the real story of what happened, and why, in “The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton and a Campaign in Crisis.” If you carefully read Glasser’s account, the ultimate reason that McGovern forced Eagleton off the ticket was that news about Eagleton’s electro-shock therapy for depression was suddenly, and drastically, drying up contributions to the McGovern campaign.

Others have much gentler, kinder stories about George McGovern’s personal touch. In the cold light of distance can be found a man whose vanity never waned. As recently as the past decade, he was replaying the 1972 contest in his mind, such as for an audience at a McGovern history conference, where he blamed his 1972 defeat on the candidacy of George Wallace.

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About Bob Mercer

I am a newspaper reporter in Pierre where I cover state government, issues and politics for the Aberdeen American News, the Black Hills Pioneer, the Mitchell Daily Republic, the Pierre Capital Journal, the Rapid City Journal, the Watertown Public Opinion and the Yankton Press & Dakotan. I began covering the Legislature in 1985 and have lived in Pierre since December 1986. I grew up in Wisconsin, worked my way through college, took my first full-time newspapers jobs in Wyoming, and have lived in South Dakota since the summer of 1984 when I moved to Aberdeen to join the American News. I worked for the Rapid City Journal as its state government reporter in Pierre from late 1992 through late 1998. I spent four years as press secretary and a senior aide to Gov. Bill Janklow during his fourth and final term from late 1998 through 2002. I returned to journalism in January 2003 as a self-employed reporter, providing state government coverage to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre and, depending on the year, Aberdeen newspapers. In 2008, the Aberdeen American News offered to hire me as full-time member of the AAN staff, with my reports continuing to be available to the Mitchell, Watertown, Spearfish, Pierre, Yankton and Rapid City papers. The new arrangement has been in effect since January 2009 as the seven papers continue their remarkable dedication to their readers and the general public, as the only South Dakota news outlets with a full-time reporter covering state government in Pierre throughout the year. In addition to focusing on the Legislature during the annual winter session and its various activities during the interim periods between sessions, I spend many days throughout the year -- traveling as often necessary -- to cover state government boards and commissions which oversee the state universities, technical institutes, outdoors, water, environment, business, public schools, banking, agriculture, utilities, health care and various other areas of public interest. I purposely don't register to vote because of my profession; the last time I recall voting in a presidential election was the first time, 1976, when I had just turned 18. I think I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. Make of that what you want, just don't make much of it.

6 thoughts on “George McGovern, 1922-2012

  1. LK

    So McGovern had a bit of luck, was a bit vain, and did what it took to win.

    How do these qualities make him a different sort of politician than Thune, Daschle, Janklow or any other South Dakota politician who has achieved prominence.

    He remains the only South Dakota politician to be able to win a major political party nomination for President. The fact that his opponent is the only President to resign in disgrace.

  2. LK

    One should not get so frustrated with ill-timed comments that express ill will that one forgets to punctuate sentences or properly complete the thought.

    Obviously, my second sentence above should be punctuated with a question mark.

    The last sentence should read: “Mr. Mercer conveniently ignores the fact that McGovern’s 1972 opponent is the only President to resign in disgrace because he covered up illegal activity during that Presidential campaign.”

  3. Pingback: George McGovern will continue to teach us far into the future with the moral discussions he always initiated — South DaCola

  4. ksantema

    I don’t know Mr. Mercer, it just seems in bad taste to post McGovern’s shortcomings the day he died. I’m fairly new to following South Dakota politics, but I can say this moment will probably be remembered whenever I see your name on an article in the AAN.

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