Building a family and a partyA college professor enters politics.
By: Seth Tupper, The Daily Republic
George McGovern came home to DWU to continue his education with the help of the GI Bill, and he completed work on his bachelor’s degree in 1946. He enrolled that same year in the Garret Seminary on the campus of Northwestern University in Illinois, but he soon switched to Northwestern’s graduate history program.
McGovern explained his switch from the seminary this way: “… Baptizing babies, officiating at weddings, administering the communion rituals and presiding at funerals — these tasks left me feeling excessively pious and ill at ease.
“Also, after three years of zesty language in the service, I was not prepared to experience a sudden rush of reverence when I approached a group of men telling raucous stories or using four-letter words.”
Throughout the McGoverns’ early married years, their family grew. They had a total of five children, and McGovern later wrote that he regretted being so wrapped up in his studies during the children’s formative years.
“If I had devoted a fraction of the effort to preparing myself to play the role of husband and father that I did preparing for a career,” he wrote, “the time would have been infinitely better invested.”
One of the McGoverns’ children, Teresa, died in 1994 after a long battle with alcoholism. Afterward, McGovern channeled his grief into the book “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism,” in which he wrote candidly about the family’s unsuccessful struggles to help Terry achieve lasting sobriety.
McGovern later acknowledged in his 2011 book “What It Means to Be a Democrat” that Terry’s death plunged him “headlong into a deep depression” for which he was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. In that same book, he wrote that while losing a presidential election is difficult, “it is a skinned elbow next to the irreparable pain of losing a child.” In 2012, McGovern’s son, Steve, died of health problems related to his own long struggle with alcoholism.
McGovern returned to DWU in 1950 to finish his doctoral dissertation, teach history and coach debate. In 1952, he wrote a series of articles for The Daily Republic in support of Democrat Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign.
It was during the Stevenson campaign that McGovern’s negative opinion of future political rival Richard Nixon crystallized. Nixon, the 1952 running mate of Republican Dwight Eisenhower, irked McGovern by remarking that Stevenson had a degree in “cowardly Communist containment.”
“I have loathed Richard Nixon since he first came on the national scene wielding his red brush in 1946, but I especially resented his cheap insults to Adlai Stevenson — my first genuine political hero,” McGovern wrote.
Around the time that McGovern’s articles about Stevenson were published, state Democratic Party officials began courting him to become the party’s first executive secretary. After some reflection and worry over leaving his teaching job at DWU — and some additional reflection on the abysmal condition of the state Democratic Party at the time — McGovern accepted.
In 1952, the year before McGovern took the job, two Democrats were elected to the state Legislature against 108 Republicans. Undaunted, McGovern set to work traveling around the state to rebuild the party.
When he met someone new, he wrote notes about the person on a 3x5 note card. He filed the cards in a shoebox, with tabs for counties and cities. When he made a repeat visit somewhere, he reviewed the cards for that place so he could call people by name and inquire about things they discussed previously. He continued the practice throughout his political career, eventually accumulating thousands of cards and switching from a shoebox to metal file cases.
In 1954, with McGovern’s help, the Democrats improved their numbers in the Legislature from two to 24.