McGovern remained, in profound ways, a small-town boyMcGovern, a small-town boy from South Dakota, was never the wild-eyed radical that some insisted on portraying him as. Nor was he the inept leader the Eagleton affair seemed to make him out to be.
By: John E. Miller , Guest columnist
The passage of time has a way of sifting and winnowing our memories and the pictures we call up about the people and events of the past. The death at age 90 of South Dakota senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern likely calls to mind images such as anti-Vietnam War protests, the eighteen-day vice-presidential candidacy of running mate Thomas Eagleton, and the Three “A’s” (amnesty, acid, and abortion), which, incidentally, the Missouri senator himself introduced into the American political lexicon.
Perceptions can be misleading, however, and memories often deceive. McGovern, a small-town boy from South Dakota, was never the wild-eyed radical that some insisted on portraying him as. Nor was he the inept leader the Eagleton affair seemed to make him out to be or the sinister figure conjured up by the political epithet “McGovernism,” which has become in some quarters, at least, a term as opprobrious, in a mirror-image sort of way, as “McCarthyism.”
George McGovern was never a simple man, and, like many politicians, he exhibited certain qualities that seemed contradictory or paradoxical upon first glance — a man from the heartland who hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, World War II bomber pilot who made peace his major theme, soft-spoken intellectual and yet a passionate risk-taker and fierce political fighter.
What best explains the man and helps illuminate some of the anomalies that jump out at us as we regard his legacy is his small-town origins in the Middle West, which he never shucked off and which did more than anything else to shape his adult character. Son of a fundamentalist Wesleyan Methodist minister (who, along with his wife, was a conservative Republican), McGovern as a young man traded in his early GOP leanings for New Deal liberalism and discarded Biblical literalism for more modernist theological interpretations. In August, when I interviewed him about the grounding of his political philosophy for a book I am writing, he was quick to tell me that it essentially derived from his enthusiasm for the “social gospel,” — the brand of Christianity preached by preachers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, whose sermons he listened to over the radio as a boy in Mitchell, and which was elaborated upon in books by theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, whom he read as a college student.
When he broke out as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in early 1972, Time magazine gave him a spot on the cover with the label, “Here Comes the Prairie Populist.” The characterization was not entirely wrong, because McGovern appreciated and drew upon the legacy of Populism, which had been especially strong in South Dakota in the 1890s. Much more directly relevant to his making as a thinker and as a politician, however, was the heritage of early 20th-century progressivism, which was thoroughly bathed in the concepts of the social gospel and which was led by political prophets such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Norris, and Robert La Follette, all of whom were heroic figures for McGovern and who served as exemplars for him as he matured.
Growing up in Mitchell also introduced the young scholar to debate, which he was quick to acknowledge was the major factor in converting him from a shy, withdrawn youngster into a self-confident, forceful, and highly ambitious young adult. McGovern’s passion for words, ideas, reasoned argument, books, history, and the life of the intellect was a characteristic not often seen among working politicians, but he remained true to those inclinations to the end.
When I visited him, he had a big, thick book he was reading sitting on the coffee table and told me that if I came across any other good books that he might like to read to let him know. This from a man who in the 1960s stifled rumors that he was going to move his family to the larger city of Sioux Falls by saying that he had grown up and been nurtured in the small town of Mitchell and he had no intention of leaving the town.
He had lived in Mitchell since age 6, he said, and he harbored a special affection for the people of the community — the teachers who had taught him, the folks who had employed him as a youth, the church members who had prayed for him, and all the others who were neighbors to him. Although he proceeded far from home in his life and political career, he remained, in profound ways, a small-town boy to the end.
John E. Miller was a professor of American history at South Dakota State University in Brookings for 29 years. He is author of seven books and co-editor of “The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture.”