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George McGovern

(b. 1922)


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(b. Avon, South Dakota, 19 July 1922)

US; US Senator 1963–81, Democratic presidential candidate 1972 McGovern took a BA at Dakota Wesleyan University and served in the Second World War as a pilot, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He took a Ph.D. at Northwestern University and taught history and political science at Dakota Wesleyan University, 1949–53. He became active in the politics of the Democratic Party in his home state of South Dakota, which was normally Republican. In 1956 he was elected to the US House of Representatives and re-elected in 1958 but defeated in a bid for a Senate seat in 1960. He was appointed Special Assistant to the President in 1961 as Director of the Food for Peace Program. In 1962 he was elected as senator from South Dakota and served for eighteen years in the Senate, winning re-election in 1968 and 1974.

He was a firm supporter of liberal causes. Through the 1960s he supported the domestic programme of the Great Society of President Johnson on such issues as civil rights, anti-poverty measures, and the environment. He took a liberal position also on social issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and the women's movement. On foreign policy he took a strong interest in the Third World and favoured increased American aid to developing countries. On the war in Vietnam he came to be firmly opposed to American involvement.

He was not a nationally well-known figure until 1968 when, following the assassination of Robert Kennedy, he declared himself as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. He did not achieve success in winning the support of many delegates to the Democratic National Convention and was easily defeated for the nomination by Hubert Humphrey. He gained widespread recognition and admiration, however, by the manner of his campaign in 1968. In 1972 he sought again the Democratic nomination for President. He appeared initially to have little chance of overtaking the front runner, Senator Edmund Muskie. When Muskie's campaign faltered, however, the path was open for McGovern to gain the Democratic nomination. He faced enormous difficulties, however, in the presidential election in 1972 against his Republican opponent, President Nixon. Nixon's successes in foreign policy, especially his trip to China in 1972, the initiation of détente with the Soviet Union, and the winding down of the war in Vietnam made the President a formidable opponent. At the same time, McGovern was increasingly associated with the more extreme elements in American society such as within the peace movement and the women's movement. He was overwhelmingly defeated in the 1972 presidential election, winning only one state, Massachusetts, the most liberal state in the Union, and losing every other state, including his home state of South Dakota.

The Watergate investigations of 1973–4 revealed that McGovern had been the victim of smear tactics and campaign dirty tricks in 1972, though his defeat was due largely to more substantive issues. He gained a measure of revenge for his humiliating defeat with Nixon's enforced resignation in 1974. He was not, however, able to regain a position of major influence within the Democratic Party, while the trend of developments in America of the 1970s during the presidencies of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were in a conservative direction, which left him a more marginal and outmoded figure. In 1980 he was defeated in his bid for re-election to the Senate in 1980. In the late 1980s he spent a couple of years running his own hotel, but the business failed. In 1998 he was appointed US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies, based in Rome, and in 2001 he was appointed UN Global Ambassador on world hunger. Having initially supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 for the Democratic presidential nomination, in May 2008 he publicly endorsed Barack Obama, calling on Clinton to concede for the sake of party unity.

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Subjects: Politics.


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