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George McGovern
McGovern in 1972
United States Senator
from South Dakota
In office
January 3, 1963 – January 3, 1981
Preceded by Joseph H. Bottum
Succeeded by James Abdnor
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture
In office
March 10, 1998 – September 28, 2001
Preceded by Thomas A. Forbord
Succeeded by Tony P. Hall
Chair of the United States Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs
In office
July 1968 – December 1977
Preceded by Committee established
Succeeded by Committee abolished
Director of Food for Peace
In office
January 21, 1961 – July 18, 1962
President John F. Kennedy
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Richard W. Reuter
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Dakota's 1st district
In office
January 3, 1957 – January 3, 1961
Preceded by Harold Lovre
Succeeded by Ben Reifel
Personal details
George Stanley McGovern

(1922-07-19)July 19, 1922
Avon, South Dakota, U.S.
Died October 21, 2012(2012-10-21) (aged 90)
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, U.S.
Resting place Rock Creek Cemetery
Political party Democratic
Other political
Progressive (1948)
Eleanor Stegeberg
(m. 1943; died 2007)
Children 6
Education Dakota Wesleyan University (BA)
Garrett Theological Seminary

Northwestern University (MA, PhD)
Military service
Branch/service US Army Air Corps Hap Arnold Wings.svgU.S. Army Air Forces
Years of service 1943–1945
Rank US-OF1A.svg  First lieutenant
  • 741st Bomb Squadron
  • 455th Bombardment Group
  • Fifteenth Air Force

George Stanley McGovern (July 19, 1922 – October 21, 2012) was an American historian and South Dakota politician who was a U.S. representative and three-term U.S. senator, and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election.

Early years and education

McGovern was born in the 600‑person farming community of Avon, South Dakota. His father, the Rev. Joseph C. McGovern, born in 1868, was pastor of the local Wesleyan Methodist Church there. George's mother was the former Frances McLean, born c. 1890 and initially raised in Ontario, Canada; her family had later moved to Calgary, Alberta, and then she came to South Dakota looking for work as a secretary. George was the second oldest of four children. Joseph McGovern's salary never reached $100 per month, and he often received compensation in the form of potatoes, cabbages, or other food items. Joseph and Frances McGovern were both firm Republicans, but were not politically active or doctrinaire.

Mitchell corn palace
The Corn Palace, a longtime sight of McGovern's hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota
Dust Bowl - Dallas, South Dakota 1936
Effects of a 1936 Dust Bowl storm in nearby Gregory County, South Dakota

When George was about three years old, the family moved to Calgary for a while to be near Frances's ailing mother, and he formed memories of events such as the Calgary Stampede. When George was six, the family returned to the United States and moved to Mitchell, South Dakota, a community of 12,000. McGovern attended public schools there and was an average student. He was painfully shy as a child and was afraid to speak in class during first grade. His only reproachable behavior was going to see movies, which were among the worldly amusements forbidden to good Wesleyan Methodists. Otherwise he had a normal childhood marked by visits to the renowned Mitchell Corn Palace and what he later termed "a sense of belonging to a particular place and knowing your part in it." He would, however, long remember the Dust Bowl storms and grasshopper plagues that swept the prairie states during the Great Depression. The McGovern family lived on the edge of the poverty line for much of the 1920s and 1930s. Growing up so close to privation gave young George a lifelong sympathy for underpaid workers and struggling farmers. He was influenced by the currents of populism and agrarian unrest and by the "practical divinity" teachings of cleric John Wesley that sought to fight poverty, injustice, and ignorance.

McGovern attended Mitchell High School, where he was a solid but unspectacular member of the track team. A turning point came when his tenth-grade English teacher recommended him to the debate team, where he became quite active. His high-school debate coach, a history teacher who capitalized on McGovern's interest in that subject, proved to be a great influence in his life, and McGovern spent many hours honing his meticulous, if colorless, forensic style. McGovern and his debating partner won events in his area and gained renown in a state where debating was passionately followed by the general public. Debate changed McGovern's life, giving him a chance to explore ideas to their logical end, broadening his perspective, and instilling a sense of personal and social confidence. He graduated in 1940 in the top ten percent of his class.

McGovern enrolled at small Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell and became a star student there. He supplemented a forensic scholarship by working a variety of odd jobs. With World War II under way overseas and feeling insecure about his own courage, McGovern took flying lessons in an Aeronca aircraft and received a pilot's license through the government's Civilian Pilot Training Program. McGovern recalled: "Frankly, I was scared to death on that first solo flight. But when I walked away from it, I had an enormous feeling of satisfaction that I had taken the thing off the ground and landed it without tearing the wings off."

McGovern was listening to a radio broadcast of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for a sophomore-year music appreciation class when he heard the news of the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. In January 1942 he drove with nine other students to Omaha, Nebraska, and volunteered to join the United States Army Air Forces. The military accepted him, but they did not yet have enough airfields, aircraft, or instructors to start training all the volunteers, so McGovern stayed at Dakota Wesleyan. During his sophomore year, McGovern won the statewide intercollegiate South Dakota Peace Oratory Contest with a speech called "My Brother's Keeper", which was later selected by the National Council of Churches as one of the nation's twelve best orations of 1942. Smart, handsome, and well liked, McGovern was elected president of his sophomore class and voted "Glamour Boy" during his junior year. In February 1943, during his junior year, he and a partner won a regional debate tournament at North Dakota State University that featured competitors from thirty-two schools across a dozen states; upon his return to campus, he discovered that the Army had finally called him up.


McGovern volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Forces upon the country's entry into World War II. As a B-24 Liberator pilot, he flew 35 missions over German-occupied Europe from a base in Italy. Among the medals he received was a Distinguished Flying Cross for making a hazardous emergency landing of his damaged plane and saving his crew. After the war he earned degrees from Dakota Wesleyan University and Northwestern University, culminating in a PhD, and served as a history professor. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1956 and re-elected in 1958. After a failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960, he was a successful candidate in 1962.

As a senator, McGovern was an example of modern American liberalism. He became most known for his outspoken opposition to the growing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He staged a brief nomination run in the 1968 presidential election as a stand-in for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy. The subsequent McGovern–Fraser Commission fundamentally altered the presidential nominating process, by increasing the number of caucuses and primaries and reducing the influence of party insiders. The McGovern–Hatfield Amendment sought to end the Vietnam War by legislative means but was defeated in 1970 and 1971. McGovern's long-shot, grassroots-based 1972 presidential campaign found triumph in gaining the Democratic nomination but left the party split ideologically, and the failed vice-presidential pick of Thomas Eagleton undermined McGovern's credibility. In the general election McGovern lost to incumbent Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. electoral history. Though re-elected to the Senate in 1968 and 1974, McGovern was defeated in his bid for a fourth term in 1980.

Beginning with his experiences in war-torn Italy and continuing throughout his career, McGovern was involved in issues related to agriculture, food, nutrition, and hunger. As the first director of the Food for Peace program in 1961, McGovern oversaw the distribution of U.S. surpluses to the needy abroad and was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations-run World Food Programme. As sole chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs from 1968 to 1977, McGovern publicized the problem of hunger within the United States and issued the "McGovern Report", which led to a new set of nutritional guidelines for Americans. McGovern later served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture from 1998 to 2001 and was appointed the first UN global ambassador on world hunger by the World Food Programme in 2001. The McGovern–Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program has provided school meals for millions of children in dozens of countries since 2000 and resulted in McGovern's being named World Food Prize co‑laureate in 2008.

Final years and death

George McGovern (3278586359)
McGovern signing books at the National Press Club, 2009

By 2009 McGovern had moved to St. Augustine Beach, Florida. On October 15, 2012, McGovern's family announced he had entered Dougherty Hospice House in Sioux Falls; his daughter Ann said, "He's coming to the end of his life."

On the morning of October 21, 2012, McGovern died at the age of 90 at the Sioux Falls hospice, surrounded by family and lifelong friends. The family released this statement: "We are blessed to know that our father lived a long, successful and productive life advocating for the hungry, being a progressive voice for millions and fighting for peace. He continued giving speeches, writing and advising all the way up to and past his 90th birthday, which he celebrated this summer." In addition to his three remaining children, he was survived by ten grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

President Obama paid tribute to McGovern as "a champion for peace" and a "statesman of great conscience and conviction." At a memorial service in Sioux Falls, Vice President Joe Biden eulogized McGovern, addressing his World War II service and his opposition to the Vietnam War by saying to his family, "Your father was a genuine hero.... Had your father not been in the Senate, so much more blood, so much more treasure would have been wasted." His funeral was held in the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science in Sioux Falls, with his ashes to be buried alongside his wife and daughter Terry at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.

Awards and decorations

McGovern's decorations include:

Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze oak leaf cluster
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Bronze star
Army Air Forces Pilot Badge
Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal
with 3 bronze oak leaf clusters
Presidential Medal of Freedom
American Campaign Medal European–African–Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
with 4 bronze campaign stars
World War II Victory Medal


McGovern Speaking 1
McGovern speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, 2009

Owing to his resounding loss to Nixon in the 1972 election and the causes behind it, "McGovernism" became a label that a generation of Democratic politicians tried to avoid. In 1992 nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene wrote, "Once again politicians – mostly Republicans, but some Democrats, too – are using his name as a synonym for presidential campaigns that are laughable and out of touch with the American people." Conservatives used McGovern's name as a ready synonym for what they saw as liberal failures.

In later decades the former senator remained a symbol, or standard-bearer, of the political left, particularly in relation to the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s when the country was torn by U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and the corruption and abuse of power of the Nixon administration. Throughout his career, McGovern's positions reflected his own experiences as well as a personal synthesis of the traditions of American liberalism and progressivism.

As chairman of the McGovern–Fraser Commission in 1969–70, McGovern instituted major changes in Democratic party rules that continue to this day and, to a large degree, were ultimately adopted by the Republican Party as well, with large institutional changes taking place in both.

B-1 nose art commemorating B-24 Dakota Queen
Nose art on a B-1 Lancer seen in 2007 commemorating McGovern's service as a B-24 pilot

McGovern's post-political career generally enhanced his reputation; Tom Brokaw, who referred to McGovern as part of the "Greatest Generation", wrote in 1998 that "he remains one of the country's most decent and thoughtful public servants." McGovern's legacy also includes his commitment to combating hunger both in the United States and around the globe. He said, "After I'm gone, I want people to say about me: He did the best he could to end hunger in this country and the world." In the view of Knock, McGovern in all his activities arguably accomplished more for people in need than most presidents or secretaries of state in U.S. history. Responding to the Serenity Prayer's desire to "grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change", McGovern said simply that he rejected that notion: "I keep trying to change them."

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: George McGovern para niños

  • List of awards and honors received by George McGovern
  • Electoral history of George McGovern
  • George McGovern in popular culture
  • List of peace activists
  • Jim McGovern (American politician)

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