Thomas J Knock describes George McGovern’s political career as ‘a life-long lover’s quarrel with his country’. It’s a beautiful summation. The South Dakota senator and disastrous presidential candidate was a liberal from the conservative heartlands – a politician who consistently disagreed with the people he sought to represent. That he was totally out of step with them on almost every national issue is beyond doubt: he didn’t even carry his own state when he ran for the White House in 1972. McGovern was dubbed the candidate of ‘amnesty, abortion, and acid’ – and those were the words of his own running mate. Yet South Dakota kept on electing him to the Senate, once by a landslide. Why?
It’s a question that hasn’t been properly addressed before. Countless books have been written about that 1972 campaign, the best being Bruce Miroff’s The Liberals’ Moment, but few historians have trudged through McGovern’s background in prairie politics to examine where he came from. Knock’s two-part biography (of which this book,