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.