Which story is bigger: George McGovern had two children outside of marriage, or J. Edgar Hoover used the powers of the FBI to dig up this information and look for other dirt to use against McGovern for political reasons?
McGovern fathered two children with someone other than his wife Eleanor. According to Tom Lawrence, McGovern fathered the first of these children before he was married. He fathered the second in Europe, after he married Eleanor, while he was bombing Nazis. The second out-of-wedlock child died before adulthood; the status of the first is unknown.
Throughout his political career, McGovern was worried that political enemies would dig up this information and use it to defeat him at the polls. Obviously, that never happened.
But how do we know now? Jonathan Ellis finds the information in the files of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The files revealing McGovern’s paternal secrets arose from the background check conducted when President-Elect Kennedy named McGovern his Food and Peace Program director. However, Hoover, who abused his unchecked power with his surveillance and intimidation of innocent Americans, targeted McGovern for political reasons:
There was no apparent animosity between McGovern and Hoover in the records until 1960. That year, McGovern challenged Republican Sen. Karl Mundt. A few weeks before the election, Fred C. Christopherson, then the editor of the Argus Leader, sent Hoover a letter asking Hoover who, in the director’s opinion, were the most effective champions against communism in Congress. Hoover responded with a letter that named Mundt along with some Democratic congressmen as the best stalwarts against communism, a letter that Christopherson printed a month before the election.
McGovern was furious at the thinly veiled endorsement by Hoover, and Mundt went on to win a close election. McGovern vented his anger to John A. Kennedy, the publisher of the Argus Leader. Kennedy, in turn, called the FBI in January 1961 to warn Hoover that McGovern, who was joining the staff of President John F. Kennedy as director of the Food and Peace Program, might cause trouble for Hoover because he was angry that the FBI director had inserted himself into the election. Robert F. Kennedy, who had campaigned for McGovern, was now the attorney general of the United States, a position with oversight on Hoover’s FBI.
The FBI thanked the Argus Leader‘s publisher for the information. But a notation in the file indicated that the FBI already had received similar information because McGovern had been complaining to others. “There appears to be no action necessary because we know McGovern is no good,” the notation ended, a brutal reference, perhaps, to the thought that McGovern’s political career was likely over after the loss to Mundt.
It was the appointment of McGovern to the Kennedy administration that opened his life to an extensive background check by the FBI. Hoover, Theoharis said, had convinced presidents that they should allow the FBI to conduct exhaustive background checks on members of an administration to ensure the presidents wouldn’t be surprised by something embarrassing. In 1952, for example, Hoover provided documentation to the Eisenhower administration that Arthur Vandenberg Jr., the son of a Michigan senator and an ardent Eisenhower supporter, was a homosexual, forcing Vandenberg to abandon his job in the Eisenhower White House.
In practice, Theoharis said, the background checks were an opportunity for the FBI to dig up derogatory information on people, which could then be used as leverage by Hoover.
That happened to McGovern [Jonathan Ellis, “FBI Mined Secrets from George McGovern’s Past,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2015.07.26].
George McGovern committed personal sins. McGovern’s sins may have deserved more scrutiny and criticism than the mental illness and electroshock therapy in Thomas Eagleton’s personal history that impelled McGovern to throw Eagleton off the 1972 ticket. Eagleton’s mental illness may have affected his ability to serve in high office, but he didn’t choose to have mental illness; he took positive steps to get better. McGovern’s fathering two children outside of marriage in one’s early twenties didn’t appear to degrade his ability to analyze political issues and make big decisions in his fifties, but distant as those actions may have been from his political career, he chose to have incautious sex that brought two more people into existence. (The press has not yet revealed what role, if any, McGovern took in supporting those two children.) Questioning Eagleton’s judgment amidst illness is similar to questioning Public Utilities Commissioner Kristie Fiegen’s judgment amidst her illness. Questioning McGovern’s judgment on the basis of actions taken thirty years before his Presidential campaign is a different moral debate.
Hoover committed political sins. He abused authority granted by the Constitution, the law, and the President to pry into personal lives and hoard power. He used his surveillance to protect his power from “enemies” like McGovern who questioned his unchecked authority.
McGovern’s sins remind us to keep our pants zipped. Hoover’s sins remind us to be very careful about putting security above liberty. Hoover’s sins remind us that the danger of a police state is not just that it may support an oppressive political regime, but that it may empower one angry, paranoid official to wage war against innocent citizens for their political words and ideas.
Update 19:08 CDT: Woodward and Bernstein put the McGovern–Indiana story in the papers in August 1973, during the Watergate investigation.
Woodward and Bernstein confirmed the existence of a birth certificate from the early 1940s listing George S. McGovern of Mitchell, S.D., as the father of a child born in “Forth” Wayne, Indiana. Both McGovern and the unnamed mother of the child denied that our Senator was the father.