McGovern: The Man, the Press, the Machine, the Odds
A first priority in breathing life into the party was to organize precinct committeemen and to get candidates for all the offices on the state ballot in 1954. McGovern went to every cake sale, Sunday school picnic and civic function he could possible get to. (Years later, one of his aides remarked that George McGovern had probably shaken the hand of every South Dakotan at least once.) By 1956 he had built enough of an organization and personal following to challenge and defeat an incumbent, Harold Lovre, who had represented the First Congressional District for four terms. McGovern thus became the first Democrat elected to national office in South Dakota since early New Deal days (1934). In 1958 the Democrats elected twenty-one of their candidates to the thirty-five-member State Senate and thirty-two to the South Dakota House. At the same time McGovern was re-elected in a tough fight against the popular, outgoing Governor, Joe Foss. Almost single-handedly, McGovern had built an organization that eventually enabled the Democrats to win the Governor's mansion, both Congressional seats and a Senate seat.
It is difficult to determine just when McGovern made a conscious decision to seek the Presidency. As his deputy campaign manager and former administrative assistant, George Cunningham, tells it: "The Presidential bug was an accumulative bug. McGovern was frustrated as a seminary student. He was frustrated as a college professor—talking to thirty students, reaching maybe fifteen. He was frustrated as a Congressman, one out of 435. He was frustrated as administrator of Food for Peace. He is frustrated as a Senator. It is a bug born of frustration and an inability to achieve what he feels needs to be done in this country."
McGovern had given considerable thought to running for the Presidency in mid-1967. After much soul-searching and a realistic appraisal of his own re-election problems in South Dakota, he suggested to self-styled "President-dumper" Allard Lowenstein that maybe he'd better find someone else to take on Lyndon Johnson—someone like Eugene McCarthy. That decision was to nettle McGovern later, of course, as 1968 unfolded its bizarre and tragic surprises.
The rationale and tone behind a possible McGovern candidacy were laid out in a Look article which greatly impressed McGovern. In the May 28, 1968 issue of the magazine, senior editor, George B. Leonard, wrote: "It may even be possible for some present-day candidate to subvert one of the parties toward openness and encounter. He could start simply by being himself. Even now, anyone who cuts through the sham and scheming, who is entirely honest about his actions, motives and feelings, might well electrify the voters and become a real threat to the pros."
Leonard's analysis reinforced McGovern's perceptions. McGovern had ripened, and it only became a question of time. The tragic assassination of Robert Kennedy, on the night of his victory in the California primary, started the wheels in motion. McGovern did not think that Mccarthy was a winner. He Was a confirmed "Kennedy man," and he was under intense pressure from others in the leaderless and bitter Kennedy following. He campaigned actively for sixteen days and received 146.5 delegate votes in Chicago. Aware that he didn't have a prayer, McGovern got some exposure and set himself up as an alternative leader for the anti-war factions.