Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern: Historian

Jonathan Rees

In the day since former Senator George McGovern died, I have read wonderful tributes to his campaign for the presidency in 1972.  Thankfully, President Obama mentioned McGovern’s heroism during World War II in his statement marking opposition to the Vietnam War and his ill-fated but noble the Senator’s death.  However, the only mentions that I’ve read of McGovern’s career as a professional historian seem somewhat surprised that he was ever a college professor. 

Of course, this confusion is understandable, and if I didn’t teach in Colorado I would probably share it right now even though I have been a huge George McGovern fan for a very long time.  McGovern ran for President when I was six years old, and I distinctly remember rooting for him both because my parents supported him and because I have always liked going against the crowd.  When I was in Middle School, I did a book report on his campaign biography.  I must have learned about his professional life before he entered politics then, but with no inkling of what my own profession would eventually be I’m sure I forgot.

In 1988, I was a volunteer at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.  At that time, I had a particular skill for recognizing politicians, but I really didn’t want to bother any of them.  I made an exception for George McGovern.  I walked up to him outside the hall, and said, “I’m really glad to meet you,” as I shook his hand.  He replied, “I’m really glad to meet you too,” and then he got swarmed by a throng of admirers.  I thought I’d never get a chance to meet him again.  I was completely wrong.

George McGovern earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University studying under the well-known Woodrow Wilson scholar Arthur S. Link in 1953 while simultaneously teaching at Dakota Wesleyan University.  His topic was what has come to be called the Great Colorado Coalfield War of 1913-14 (largely thanks to him).  As McGovern was just starting to run for President, Houghton Mifflin offered to publish his dissertation.  McGovern hired a writer named Leonard Guttridge to help smooth out the academese, and to do a little extra research.  The resulting book, The Great Coalfield War, was the first major publication to examine the infamous Ludlow Massacre of 1914, one of the bloodiest events in American Labor History.  The book remains in print today.

It is interesting to compare the book and the dissertation that preceded it.  The book offers more perspective, going back to about 1903.  However, Guttridge also prepared the publication for the scrutiny of a political campaign.  All of the barely concealed anger and the pro-union language of the original dissertation disappeared.  Still, the book was a pathbreaker, setting the tone for later works like Scott Martelle’s Blood Passion and Thomas Andrews’ Bancroft Prize-winning Killing for Coal.  However, the dissertation is much more fun to read.  George McGovern didn’t really need a co-author.  He was an excellent historian and author in his own right.

I know this because I teach in southern Colorado, near where the strike occurred.  For the last ten years or so I’ve helped organize commemorations of the Ludlow Massacre here at Colorado State University—Pueblo.  In 2004, my department, along with the Bessemer Historical Society—the people who are working to save the archives of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, the largest firm that employed those strikers—invited McGovern to campus for a fundraiser.  He not only accepted, he cut his usual speaking fee by two thirds.

Me and a colleague from the Political Science department picked McGovern up at the airport.  Then we drove him to Peterson Air Force Base so that he could pick up his granddaughter.  Then he took us all to lunch at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs (famous, among other reasons, for being the place where George W. Bush decided to give up drinking).  That remains the only time that I have ever eaten at the Broadmoor.  Then we dropped off his granddaughter back at the base and drove to Pueblo.

We all chatted almost the entire time.  Of course, the same way that Elton John will have to sing “Crocodile Rock” well past his dotage, McGovern talked about the 1972 election.  His lines were interesting. (They included, “I would rather be me right now than Richard Nixon.” and “Nixon was incredibly intelligent, but completely amoral.”)  I could tell these lines were also very well rehearsed.

When the conversation turned to history, however, McGovern’s eyes lit up.  He began to talk about Arthur Link, and how he had suggested the Colorado topic because, “There’s this huge strike that happened and nobody’s covered it before.”  He talked about doing research in Colorado during the early 1950s, and how he went to the movies in Denver once and the entire audience (but him) booed a newsreel when they saw Mother Jones.  We talked about Consensus History and the New Social History.  I think he liked talking about Colorado History with me and at our fundraiser because nobody asked him to do so very often.

It would be a shame if the historical profession makes the same mistake in the wake of his passing.  After all, George McGovern was a historian before he was ever a politician.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University—Pueblo.  Occasionally, he writes about something besides MOOCs in this space and over at his blog, More or Less Bunk.


Unknown said...

Wow. I'm embarrassed to say I had no idea that McGovern was a historian! How on earth did I never hear this?

Now I've got to rush out and read that book.

John Murray said...

This is a very sweet memory. I was actually a Nixon volunteer in 1972, but I liked all manner of politics and politicians. So I was very happy that George McGovern was the speaker at my college graduation (Oberlin, 1981). He gave a clear and intelligent defense of the nuclear disarmament campaign. It was an honor simply to shake his hand when I walked across the stage.