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Eleanor McGovern, 85; wife of 1972 presidential hopeful broke ground with solo campaigning

January 26, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

At a time in U.S. history when the wives of presidential candidates usually campaigned with their men, Eleanor McGovern stumped for her husband alone.

It was 1972, and then-Sen. George McGovern was the Democratic nominee for president. His wife, the second daughter of a politically active family in South Dakota, had no plans to be an "innocuous" first lady. She proved it on the campaign trail, speaking out on such issues as abortion and the Vietnam War.

By the time the campaigning was over and the vote was in, she had broken new ground and redefined the role of a candidate's wife, though her husband lost to President Nixon by a landslide.

Eleanor McGovern died of heart failure Thursday at her home in Mitchell, S.D. She was 85.

"When we look back on this, it doesn't, in retrospect, seem very much, but Eleanor was the first spouse to campaign for her husband alone," said Robert G. Duffett, president of Dakota Wesleyan University, the McGoverns' alma mater. "They had such confidence in her ability to articulate an issue they just sent her out campaigning. That was huge in '72. It was unprecedented."

The character and courage that defined McGovern's adult life began in a childhood marked by loss and poverty. She was born Eleanor Stegeberg on Nov. 25, 1921, and grew up on a farm outside Woonsocket, S.D., during the Dust Bowl years. When she was 11, her mother passed away, "a victim of the Depression because she had to work so hard," McGovern wrote in her 1974 memoir, "Uphill: A Personal Story."

The death of her mother left Eleanor and her twin sister Ila to take care of housekeeping and help raise their younger sister. Their grief-stricken father struggled to make a living; the scars remained with Eleanor.

"I still carry a trace of bitterness about poverty," she wrote in "Uphill." "It was not ennobling for my father and grandfather to scratch out a living on land rendered barren. The poor have few choices in life. About all they can do is persevere."

In high school, the twins excelled academically and made a name for themselves on the debate team. Eleanor first met her future husband after her debate team beat his. Later the two met again on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan. A lack of funds forced her to leave after one year and take a job as a legal secretary.

The couple married in 1943 and would have five children. McGovern is survived by her husband; four children, Ann McGovern of Stevensville, Mont., Susan McGovern of Milwaukee, Steven McGovern of Madison, Wis., and Mary McGovern-McKinnon of Dinton, England; and a sister, Phyllis Riffe, of Jamestown, N.D.

After studying to be a minister and then working in academia, George McGovern tried his hand at politics, pushed by the presidential candidacy of former Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Eleanor McGovern, it seemed, was a greater influence on her husband's politics than he was on hers, Duffett said. She came from a family of Democrats; he was initially a Republican.

McGovern's decision to be a vocal part of her husband's campaign did not go unnoticed. Reporters commented on it, at one point leading Nixon's wife, First Lady Pat Nixon, to say she had no plans to change her own more subtle style of supporting her husband's candidacy.

Eleanor McGovern's solo appearance on the TV news program "Meet the Press" was apparently the first by a candidate's wife in the show's then-25-year history, she wrote in "Uphill," and she was so nervous she was nearly sick.

Though crowds were often moved by her speeches, her high profile drew comparisons to former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and some questioned whether she might do her husband more harm than good. When asked if her campaigning was worth that risk, she had a quick response.

"I would be campaigning as strongly for him if he were not my husband," she said. "Maybe there is a risk involved, but since I have the freedom to speak, and my husband doesn't know what I'm saying when I go around the country -- he does not tell me what to say -- he takes that risk."

Losing was not easy on her. After 18 years in the Senate, George McGovern lost his seat in 1980, another tough blow for his wife, whom he often called his fiercest critic and best supporter.

"Me, I just figure the criticism of your character or whatever [is] part of the price.... But somehow, to this day Eleanor just cannot adjust to it. I've tried to figure out why she reacts so sensitively to criticism of me," George McGovern told the Washington Post in 1983, during another bid for the presidency. "I think it's because she sees it as some kind of public stripping away of my soul."

In 1994, the couple suffered a tremendous loss when their daughter Teresa, 45, died after years of battling alcoholism. Eleanor McGovern spoke out publicly about the disease, and the family established the McGovern Family Foundation, which funds research on alcoholism.

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