Who Sinned More, McGovern or Hoover?

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?

George McGovern

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.

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover

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.

Related Reading: That Sioux Falls paper has posted the FBI’s McGovern files in two chunks, here and here.

Update 19:08 CDT: Woodward and Bernstein put the McGovern–Indiana story in the papers in August 1973, during the Watergate investigation.

Clip from Chicago Tribune, 1973.08.02, p.8.
Clip from Chicago Tribune, 1973.08.02, p.8.

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.

28 Responses to Who Sinned More, McGovern or Hoover?

  1. I was surprised to hear this, and I’m sure Edgar loved dangling this over McGovern. No comparison between the two, Cory. Hoover was a horrible, sociopath that had way, and I mean waayyy too much power, and it’s just unfathomable that our government put up with him for 50 years.

    I just hope that McGovern at least supported his child financially and visited her. Who knows, though.

  2. You have to remember, Cory. 1972 was such a different time in regards to mental illess. Were there even any federal laws protecting people from mental illness discrimination?. Mental illness, just like homosexuality was hardly even talked about in the 80s let alone the 70s!
    The GOP tried to make depression and alcoholism an issue with Gov Dayton during his gubernatorial campaign. It worked against the GOP. Dayton has proven to be a very effective and popular governor who has championed public education and gay marriage (to name a few).

  3. Hoover was a brilliant sociopath who fit like a glove into the right wing conspiracies he saw each minute of being awake. He had to be who he had to be because he was a homosexual himself that lived with a man for decades. The right wing had to tolerate it because there was nothing they could do about it. It did not matter that Hoover made deals with the mafia (with whom he said did not exist) nor to his fellow conspirators. The goal was always to keep himself in power and to keep himself insulated with his secret sex life. Smearing McGovern was way to simple in a such a backwoods state.

  4. After I read the story, all I said to myself was ‘Hoover was a prick.’

  5. Why the media is making a big deal out of this, I won’t understand. Is this really a big deal. Its unfortunate that this is what is making the news in the state, even after he has passed.

  6. What’s more amazing is Nixon has this information and chose not to use it. Had the race been closer, I wonder if he would have.
    Yes, Hoover was a jackwagon.

  7. mike from iowa

    but,but,but Hoover’s god and wife/hubby/partner/etc forgives him and that should be the end of the public humiliation Hoover brought on himself. (works every time for wingnuts)

  8. DR, I find Nixon an interesting character. I approve of his creation of the EPA, as should most people who prefer breathing oxygen over sulfur dioxide.

    You hit on the likely reason Nixon didn’t bother to use this information: he didn’t need to. Nixon’s actions in Watergate suggest he had no moral compunction about using whatever tools he had available to protect his power if he thought it was necessary.

  9. Tim Johnson had plenty of financial dirt on Joel Dykstra but didn’t use it because he didn’t need to. Likewise, Nixon didn’t use this information against McGovern because he didn’t need to. Nixon was Nixon, and he certainly deserves no praise for taking the high road in the 1972 campaign – as we all know he used other dubious Tricky Dick tricks that led to his downfall.

    This shows us that McGovern was wild in his youth. He crossed some moral boundaries that many others did not cross, though many certainly did. Disclosure of this probably would have cost him his political career in the 1960’s, and may have made a difference in his close 1974 re-election race against Leo Thorsness.

    I’m not the hero worshiping type. I still respect McGovern as I sit at my computer looking at a bronze sculpture belonging to him that I bought at his sale. To me he is still a courageous prairie statesman, but a more nuanced one. How much is there that we don’t know about the personal lives of other leaders that we respect?

  10. David Newquist

    The most significant aspect of this story is the role played by the editor and publisher of the Argus Leader in requesting and handling political information. Christopherson did not ask journalistic questions, he requested an opinion from a government official and then printed it verbatim. The Argus Leader was the Dakota War College of the day. It was this legacy of the way the press operated that caused a journalism review in the early 1980s to tab the South Dakota press cops as among the worst in the nation. When the Argus Leader did not make such overt opposition against Tom Daschle, the South Dakota traditionalists began their whining about a liberal press that showed favoritism toward Daschle. And the Argus Leader capitulated.

    While there are young journalists struggling to establish careers in South Dakota, rest assured that the South Dakota press will always print what it is told to by its masters. Following the second Wounded Knee incident, a consortium of journalists was created to examine the state of racial relations in South Dakota. It reported back in the early1980s that there was no evidence of racism in the dealings between government and the native people. That report was the context in which the journalism review denounced the competence and integrity of the state press corps. There is; much dismay directed at J. Edgar Hoover, but not much acknowledgment of the press that chose to serve as his lackey.

  11. David, fascinating comparison of the Sioux Falls paper’s treatment of McGovern and Daschle and the GOP’s differing responses.

    Hey, can anyone guess which news Pat Powers thinks is bigger?


    Ah, so predictable. All about McGovern, sip about Hoover’s abuse of power. I suppose in terms of the word “news,” learning that Hoover abused his police-state powers is not new information, and that his harassment of McGovern only adds confirmation to the accepted historical narrative, while the revelations about McGovern’s procreative sex in his 20s is new information… but on the latter, the question remains: what use can we make of that information? What do we learn that helps us govern?

  12. Barry Smith

    David writes ” There is; much dismay directed at J. Edgar Hoover, but not much acknowledgment of the press that chose to serve as his lackey.” That maybe because J. Edgar had dirt on them too. Like his counterpart in the Soviet Union Lavrentiy Beria, Hoover was a master at the craft of blackmail.

  13. Weren’t there condoms back then? Okay, I’ll say it to the GOPsters reading this. It is disappointing to hear this about McGovern. I just read about one illegitimate child, has it been substantiated that there were indeed two, and the second one during his marriage? That is even more disappointing.

  14. bearcreekbat

    Nixon would be kicked out of today’s republican party based on the EPA as well as the creation of the Legal Services Corporation in 1974, a program to help the poor in civil legal disputes.

    Reagan hated LSC because of its work on behalf of California’s migrant farm workers and proposed zero funding for LSC every year he was in office. LSC survived Reagan and made terrific strides in forcing government officials, agencies and large corporations to obey the law when dealing with the poor. See e.g.,


    Ironically, after Clinton’s election and his appointment of Hillary to the LSC board, Republicans took over Congress and enacted legislation to end the ability of LSC programs to use the courts to protect the poor when government officials and agencies violated federal and state laws enacted to benefit the poor.

    To me this is similar to the Hoover problem – some folks obtain power and believe they are above the law. I believe it is the equivalent of “a sin” that post-Nixon Republicans were able to eliminate the ability of LSC programs to use the courts to hold those public official accountable who abuse power and harm the poor by refusing to obey the law.

  15. David Newquist


    According to the story, editor Chjrisiopherson initiated the request. There doesn’t appear to be any circumstance where coercion was applied. And if you review the performance of South Dakota press at the time (or, any time), it is apparent that no outside motivation was needed.

  16. mike from iowa

    Maybe that is why wingnuts want to/have scaled back Miranda rights. If the gubmint won’t fund legal representatives for the poor,then there is no need to grant the right to an attorney.

  17. David Newquist



  18. W R Old Guy

    There were rumors about Hoover for years and the “dirt he had” on all politicians. We were in the middle of the cold war and there were suspicions that anyone that questioned the government was a communist. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunts of the 50s were still fresh in some peoples minds.

    I was stationed in West Germany in 1972 and there was a constant bombardment from our military leaders that all foreign nationals were to be treated as possible communist agents until proven otherwise.

    Do not forget the hippies, free love of the 1960s and the Vietnam protests of that time. I am a little puzzled as to why the RCJ ran such a lengthy article. George McGovern was human after all subject to the same failings and weaknesses that people encounter throughout their lives. We like our political candidates to be as pure as the driving snow but few, if any are.

  19. South DaCola

    Roschach, interesting tidbit about Dykstra, he’s been busy lately suckering the city in his development deals. This guy always seems to pop up somewhere.

    As for having personal dirt on certain politicians, oh the stories I could tell you about some local Sioux Falls politicians, but I won’t. I guess I really don’t care what these jokesters do in their personal lives. I judge them by their policy decisions, not their bedroom decisions.

  20. Roger Cornelius

    I’ve always been interested in Hoover’s personal secret files that he maintained against his perceived enemies. Upon his death they disappeared, a number of sources have revealed that they did exist.

  21. Douglas Wiken

    Somewhere I have a book I picked up free somewhere by Christopherson. I will try to find it to see what if anything it says about McGovern. I remember Christopherson e was nearly in love with Karl Mundt.

    As Newquist indicated, the old Argus was a slanted piece of crap. Today’s Argus is another kind of crap …mostly devoted to silly celebrity trash and irrelevant sports and filled with ads on slick paper.

  22. Joan Brown

    I don’t quite understand what the purpose of bringing this up at this late date. It isn’t as if Senator McGovern is running for election. It seems like the Argus is going more and more downhill all the time. In fact I have notified them to cancel my subscription effective the first of August.

  23. Joan Brown

    Also from everything I have heard Hoover was suspicious of everybody that had any importance in the country. I have read numerous times that he had a file on Elvis, Frank Sinatra, etc. I thinkhe was just a nasty, nosey, suspicious old man.

  24. Let me put Jenny and Joan’s comments together: The McGovern side of this story is interesting in an alternative-history parlor-game way. As Jenny notes on my comment about Eagleton, we have to shed today’s conventional thinking and put ourselves in the mindset of the times. How would our parents, pre-us, have felt about McGovern’s two early children, one of them conceived in overseas wartime adultery? (I put those two adjectives on the front, not because I think being far from home and facing Nazi guns justifies adultery, but because if we’re telling stories, then yeah, we need to tell complete stories.) Would this news revealed 40 or 50 years ago have changed McGovern’s political fortunes and South Dakota history?

    But the real-world judgment made by Nixon might be the best kabosh on that parlor game. He didn’t think it was worth dropping this bomb on McGovern, because he knew McGovern wasn’t going to win the Presidency. Even afterward, McGovern didn’t matter enough to try hurting him with this story (although Haldeman advised Nixon to use the story to distract people from Watergate—see the update and Chicago Tribune clip from 1973 that I’ve added to the original post above!).

    In terms of usable knowledge, maybe all this story does is invite us to review our political checklists: does a modern candidate for any office disqualify himself if he fathers a child outside of wedlock? Does sending the mom and child a check each month soften the sin and let him back on the ticket? Does doing it in adultery make nominating the candidate absolutely impossible? And what about female candidates—same moral criteria? Will we allow a woman who out a child up for adoption or who had an abortion to hold public office?

  25. Cody Johnson

    Here is another story of the dirty politics of McCarthy and Hoover that most people have never heard. Read about Lester Hunt, a Senator from Wyoming.

  26. “pervert elimination squad”—grim but fascinating story about how government snooping into private lives pushed a U.S. Senator to suicide. Thanks, Cody!

  27. Douglas Wiken

    McGovern’s questions did not necessarily indicate he had children or not. He may have been wondering if the lie that was spread had reached the FBI.

    Years ago, I was working for the SD Democrats and debating with Vance Goldhammer who was working with the GOP. We put on our dog and pony show for a Mitchell High School government or history class. About the time we finished the lady government teacher said she knew McGovern was a communist because she had lived on the same street in Mitchell or some such. The kids in the classroom burst out laughing at her.

  28. mike from iowa

    Remember the grief Clinton got because people were paid to lie about him and his “activities/” How many black children did Clinton father? How many women did he actually rape? How many underage girls was he caught with? How many Vince Fosters did he kill?

    Now how many affairs did Newt Gingrich have. Bob Livingston-picked to be Gingrich’s heir as SOH resigned when it was brought up he had numerous affairs. Henry Hyde,one that repeatedly called Clinton a scumbag had a woods colt while married. Didn’t Strom Thurmond)or maybe Jesse Helms) father a black daughter?

    The point being wingnuts take the holier than thou stance against Dems and then we find they are lying hypocrites. Neither party is guiltless,just that wingnuts are holier sinners.