Suprising there's no major McGovern biogoraphyAuthor of upcoming two-volume McGovern biography, other experts say senator’s historically minded approach and accomplishments will loom large in American history.
By: Tom Lawrence, The Daily Republic
History professor Thomas Knock said it’s very surprising there is not a major biography of George McGovern.
Knock aims to do something about that.
He teaches and does research at Southern Methodist University, located in University Park, Texas, and has known McGovern for more than two decades. Knock is at work on a two-volume history of McGovern, who died Sunday at 90.
The books, tentatively titled “The Life and Times of George McGovern,” would be divided into volume one, which has a working title of “The Rise of a Prairie Statesman,” and volume two, which has a planned title of “Come Home America.”
“He led a really big and full life,” Knock said.
McGovern grew up in South Dakota during the Great Depression, was a war hero in World War II, earned a doctorate in history and taught the subject at Dakota Wesleyan University, ran the South Dakota Democratic Party, served 22 years in Congress, ran for president three times, and was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972.
After his political career ended, McGovern focused his energies on feeding hungry people across the globe. While he was the Democratic presidential candidate 40 years ago, he remained a prominent person on the national and world stage, Knock said.
“He’s one of those also-rans whose campaign meant a lot more than the typical campaign that failed,” he said. “I think he touched people in a way that other unsuccessful candidates have not, because of his humanity, because of the issues of that time, such as Vietnam.”
There is much to be told, Knock said, and a great deal that needs to be explained and clarified. He said McGovern’s contributions to agriculture, foreign policy, stopping the Vietnam War, reforming the Democratic Party, as well as his long, fascinating and at times troubled personal life deserve a two-volume biography.
Knock met McGovern more than 20 years ago when Knock was a Princeton graduate student being advised by Arthur C. Link, who had served as McGovern’s dissertation director in the 1950s.
Knock said he has devoted “untold hours” to McGovern’s life story. He interviewed McGovern more than 20 times, read his autobiography “Grassroots,” studied his papers and interviewed dozens of people who worked with and for or knew McGovern during his long life and career.
A life yet to be fully explored
Knock said McGovern’s life and career has never been fully examined or appreciated.
He preferred “the peacekeeping actions of the United Nations over freewheeling unilateralist interventionism,” Knock said, and favored a foreign policy that was internationalist and non-interventionist, as well as a resumption of the domestic reform movement, which had been brought to a standstill by the Vietnam War.
McGovern’s 1972 campaign theme, “Come Home, America,” opened him up to the charge that he was a “neo-isolationist,” said Knock, who believes nothing could be further from the truth.
In his early days in the U.S. House after winning a seat in 1956, McGovern “blasted” President Eisenhower for supporting foreign despots who took American aid but denied basic services and fair treatment of their people.
The problem in other nations was the “the swamplands of poverty and disease,” McGovern felt, according to Knock. He was opposed to supplying countries with more weapons as a way to gain their favor.
“The Soviets can match us gun for gun, bullet for bullet,” McGovern said, according to Knock.
“He was an authentic internationalist,” he said. “And he certainly wasn’t a pacifist.”
McGovern believed his entire career that the secret was to initiate economic development programs in Third World countries, Knock said. It was a cause he championed in the House and one he continued as director of the Food for Peace program under President John F. Kennedy from 1961 to 1962.
In addition to feeding people, McGovern pushed for building schools and creating work and opportunities for people in these under-developed nations.
Knock said Food for Peace was “a Third World WPA” underwritten with surplus commodities from the American Midwest. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a program instituted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, like McGovern a liberal icon.
“There were other people talking about it, but he really ran away with it,” Knock said.
Tens of millions of children were getting regular meals by 1962 and 1963, thanks to McGovern’s tireless advocacy.
“I argue Food for Peace was the greatest humanitarian achievement of the Kennedy-Johnson era,” he said. Once McGovern left it, it lost its momentum.
After he claimed a seat in the Senate, where he served three terms from 1963 to 1981, McGovern teamed with Republican Sen. Bob Dole, of Kansas, to create the most generous expansion of the Food Stamp program ever, quadrupling its scope, according to Knock.
Both men were from rural, Midwestern states, with Dole being a Kansan. Both were World War II veterans, and they had another thing in common, he said.
“They both have a heart,” Knock said.
McGovern also played a major role in the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which initially would have provided education assistance to math and science students. McGovern was able to add students who studied the humanities and arts.
“That was really significant,” Knock said.
Agriculture is an important issue in South Dakota, and McGovern developed an expertise in it, which in large part explains why he won five of seven elections in the state.
“It really set him on the path from where he would rarely stray in the future,” said Knock, who referred to McGovern as “an agriculture statesman.”
He said McGovern had a deep understanding of ag issues.
“He knew how to study,” Knock said. “He did his research. He became an expert on agriculture and represented his main constituency well.”
But he said McGovern’s long crusade against war will be his most enduring legacy.
“The Vietnam War is always going to be the American crucible, the great American crucible in foreign policy,” Knock said. “McGovern’s always going to be remembered as the searching critic of the Vietnam War.”
Asian politics fascinated McGovern, Knock said, and he was always interested in China.
McGovern was a rare middle-class politician who could reach out and be embraced by younger people. That was very important in the late 1960s and ’70s as the country was experiencing a major cultural shift.
“I think at certain times he had a charismatic appeal,” Knock said. “And he knew his stuff.”
He said McGovern had another thing going for him, as he donned modish clothes and attracted support from many women, including famous figures like Gloria Steinem and Shirley MacLaine.
“He cut a dashing figure,” Knock said, noting that Margaret Link, the wife of McGovern’s adviser, said women thought McGovern attractive.
While he was a talented public speaker, McGovern did extremely well in small groups, where his personal charm and storytelling skills were useful.
McGovern could persuade people in a one-on-one conversation, Knock said. His manner was “very, very effective. And he made such good sense, too.”
He said he very much doubts McGovern will be relegated to the footnotes of history.
“I hope not. I hope not,” he said. “If you read some of these tributes, it would suggest not.”
A historian’s goal is to “put the life in context,” he said, and that is what he aims to do with McGovern. He hopes the books can be used in classrooms but also be of interest to the general public.
Roots as a historian
Jonathan Rees is a Colorado State University-Pueblo history professor who has been an admirer of McGovern almost his entire life.
Rees said he is confident history will be kinder to the South Dakotan than voters were in 1972.
“Ultimately I think he was right on almost everything in the election,” Rees said.
McGovern’s long public life allowed him to remain in the spotlight, he said, while other failed presidential candidates, such as Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and Bob Dole quickly slipped from the scene after their losses.
Rees said he looks forward to Knock’s books.
“He’s interesting enough to justify two volumes,” Rees said of McGovern.
Rees wrote a blog post after the Democratic icon died and said he has been a “huge George McGovern fan for a very long time.”
“McGovern ran for president when I was 6 years old, and I distinctly remember rooting for him both because my parents supported him and because I have always liked going against the crowd.”
Rees said he first met McGovern at the 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, where he had a chance to shake hands and tell McGovern how much he admired him.
Their paths crossed again in 2004 when Colorado State University-Pueblo and the Bessemer Historical Society invited McGovern to campus for a fundraiser focusing on “The Great Coalfield War” in Colorado in the early 20th century.
McGovern completed his doctoral dissertation on the labor battles in 1953 and, in collaboration with writer Leonard Guttridge, had it published as a book in 1972.
The book helped bring attention to the infamous Ludlow Massacre of 1914, in which between 19 and 25 strikers and their families, including women and children, were killed by Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards.
Rees said the co-author did excellent work, but he wishes the original work was better known, since “the dissertation is much more fun to read. George McGovern didn’t really need a co-author. He was an excellent historian and author in his own right.”
When asked to speak on the topic in Colorado, McGovern quickly agreed and dropped his normal speaking fee of $15,000 by two-thirds, Rees said, while preparing a speech on the labor strife he had researched more than half a century earlier.
“Basically George McGovern wrote about one historical subject in his career,” Rees said. “He knew it so well.”
He said McGovern went “deep, deep into the sources,” studying the records of labor unions and the Colorado government to learn more about the battle between the workers and the forces that sought to control them.
When McGovern studied history at Northwestern University as he worked for his doctorate in the field, he was advised by Arthur C. Link, a legendary historian, author and teacher.
Rees said McGovern was a historian at heart. That’s why he feels McGovern will be well treated by historians. He realized his life would be studied, and he wrote about it and left records and books to explain what he did and why he did it.
Knock agreed with that assessment about McGovern.
“Always, always, always. He always put stuff in a historical context,” Knock said.
McGovern had 14 books published in his lifetime and was working on a memoir in his final year.
John E. Miller, a retired South Dakota State University history professor, is researching McGovern’s life and career at Princeton University, in Princeton, N.J., where McGovern’s papers are housed.
Miller also interviewed McGovern for the book he is writing about him. He said the liberal icon will be well regarded by scholars.
“George McGovern will be better remembered by history than most losing presidential candidates,” Miller said in an email to The Daily Republic.
Miller said McGovern’s achievement in building up the Democratic Party in South Dakota played the crucial role in creating at least a semblance of two-party competition in South Dakota during the 1950s and 1960s, where one-party rule had been the norm.
Later, his heading up a special commission that rewrote the rules for and reformed the Democratic Party helped usher in a new era of greater openness and inclusivity, not only in his own party but in the political system as a whole.
Miller said McGovern’s loud and persistent call for America to end its war in Vietnam will be considered wise and prophetic.
Miller said McGovern will also be recognized both for his sense of humanity and decency, as well as his longstanding advocacy of progressive politics.
“One final note: Although many of his critics accused him of soft-headedness and lack of realism, his was always a practical idealism,” Miller said.