The past few weeks have been studded with the deaths of people important to my life, or important in history. The string is a long, unnecessary reminder that there are a lot of people holding history in their memories whom more historians need to get out and interview, even (and perhaps especially) high school-age historians.
Eleanor McGovern died in Mitchell, South Dakota, last week. I wonder how many of the town’s high school history teachers ever thought to invite the woman to speak?
McGovern was the probably the first spouse of a presidential candidate to campaign alone, without the candidate along. The respectful, rather long obituary in the Los Angeles Times made that a focus point of its tribute (free subscription will eventually be required). That was the place I first got the news of her death, while I participated in a Liberty Fund seminar in Pasadena, California, last week.
I was recruited to politics by a McGovernite in early 1972, in Utah. Over the next few months we saw Eleanor McGovern look cool, calm, intelligent and charming in her husband’s losing campaign. She may not always have been so cool as we saw — the Times piece mentions she was nearly ill before the first-ever Sunday interview program solo appearance by a candidate’s wife.
That she was both pretty and smart probably scared the opposition more than anything she ever said. On several occasions I heard her husband insist that she was always the better debater when they debated in school, the smarter of the pair, and the more compassionate.
Two years later her book, Uphill, was ready for publication (Houghton-Mifflin 1974), and as an intern in the office of the Secretary of the Senate Francis Valeo, I was detailed to read the thing, to confirm and verify a blurb for the dust jacket. A few things were clear from the first chapter: She dearly loved South Dakota, she dearly loved the nation, and she dearly loved George McGovern. The book served me well in later years, when I was called to advise other women married to other candidates. The chief lesson I took from McGovern’s book was that a wife (or husband) needs to be comfortable campaigning, or not campaign. I’ve never regretted telling a spouse to campaign when the spouse really felt comfortable doing it; I’ve never regretted telling a spouse to say “no” when the spouse was uncomfortable doing it. I’ve heard a lot of campaign advisors say they regretted pushing someone into a limelight they didn’t want to be in.
Eleanor McGovern took a lot of criticism, much of it opportunistic carping from opponents. They criticized her for speaking up, they said it was a sign of the breakdown of the American family and marriage. Consequently, I saw irony in the Los Angeles paper’s recalling of an earlier interview:
In a 2005 interview with the Argus Leader newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., she explained her approach to family life and politics.
“I was determined to help with George’s career, not only by taking responsibility for the family, but by contributing ideas,” she said. “In fact, I never considered it ‘George’s’ career — it was ours.”
McGovern was criticized for standing up for her husband, standing with him, and defending her own family — aren’t those among the highest of family values, and if not, shouldn’t they be?
Interesting coverage of Eleanor McGovern’s life, death and funeral:
- Los Angeles Times obituary, January 26, 2007
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus-Leader, “Eleanor McGovern was part of a team,” column by David Kranz
- Associated Press story on McGovern’s funeral in the Rapid City, South Dakota, Journal
- An earlier column (January5) in the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader by David Kranz, in which he reveals that both Eleanor and George McGovern voted for Gerald Ford in 1976, over Jimmy Carter — a great story about friends and knowing for whom one votes.
- Photo of Eleanor and George McGovern linked from the Eleanor and George McGovern Library at South Dakota Wesleyan University, their alma mater; and from the South Dakota State Historical Society.