Nixon Could Keep A Secret

tags: Nixon, McGovern

Diana Klebanow is a former adjunct professor of political science at Long island University, Brooklyn, N.Y., and coauthor of People’s Lawyers: Crusaders for Justicein American History and Urban Legacy: The Story of America’s Cities. This article is reprinted with permission from USA Today magazine, where it first appeared.    

Critics of Pres. Richard M. Nixon regarded him as a politician who not only wanted to defeat his enemy, but to destroy him. Yet, in his presidential re-election bid in 1972 when he ran against Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), Nixon showed restraint by keeping a secret that could have wrecked McGovern’s career. This information concerned the fact that McGovern had fathered an out-of-wedlock child in 1941 when he was an 18 year-old college student. Unknown to Nixon at the time was the additional accusation that McGovern had fathered another out-of-wedlock child when he was married. This latter incident allegedly occurred during World War II, when he was stationed in Europe.

McGovern, who was soundly defeated by Nixon, had been regarded as the “conscience” of the Democratic Party. At his death in 2012, The New York Times described him as a “liberal trounced but never silenced.” Part of the admiration for him stemmed from his staunch stance against the Vietnam War, which was a key issue in the 1972 campaign.

While the war was highly unpopular in certain parts of the nation, McGovern’s campaign was run poorly and he faced the embarrassment of having to replace the vice presidential candidate, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-MO) when it became known that Eagleton had failed to reveal that he had received electroshock treatments for his depression. Although McGovern had assured the public that he was “1,000 percent” behind Eagleton, he dropped him from the ticket on July 31. As a result, Eagleton had the distinction of being the vice presidential candidate for a total of eighteen days.

There is irony that Eagleton was criticized for his failure to inform McGovern about his shock treatments in view of the fact that McGovern kept his own secret hidden from the public. When faced with a similar situation in the presidential campaign in 1884, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland did not deny the accusation, stating he had supported the child. He was elected president – twice. (In fact, he is the only man to take up residence in the White House in nonconsecutive terms). In the case of McGovern, the matter never became public in the course of his lifetime.

McGovern was born in 1922 in South Dakota, the son of a Methodist minister. He served for two terms in the House of Representatives as a member from South Dakota beginning in 1957, and gained respect for his interest in fighting world hunger. He made an unsuccessful bid for a Senate seat in 1960, but would be elected in 1962 and re-elected in 1968.

Prior to his entry into politics, McGovern had interrupted his studies at Dakota Wesleyan University to enlist in the armed forces following the outbreak of World War II, and won a Distinguished Flying Cross as a bomber pilot. After the war, he finished his undergraduate work, and attended divinity school in Illinois. However, he changed his mind about becoming a minister. Instead, he earned a master’s degree in history at Northwestern University in 1949, and became a history professor at Dakota Wesleyan. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern in 1953, but had another change of mind and decided to pursue a career in politics.

J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of first learned about McGovern‘s out-of-wedlock child in 1960 during a background check conducted by the Bureau in December, 1960. It was initiated when Pres.-elect John F. Kennedy indicated he wanted to name McGovern to be the first director of the President’s Food for Peace program.

The FBI had concluded its investigation at the end of the month, and McGovern became director of the program on Jan. 21, 1961. In a memo about its findings, it stated that the overall results were “favorable” with one exception: “McGovern father of illegitimate child.” The “tip” came from a former student at Dakota Wesleyan, who told FBI agents about a rumor regarding the child, and the agents pursued the lead. The results of the investigation were given to Hoover. According to an account on July 26, 2015 in the Argus Leader (the newspaper in Sioux Falls, S.D., which had filed a Freedom of Information request for the FBI files following McGovern’s death in 2012, and received the information nearly three years later), McGovern told the Kennedy administration about the child. However, it remained hidden from the public. When McGovern resigned his position in 1962, it was because he decided to run for the Senate.

The matter resurfaced when McGovern was the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, and someone in the FBI (presumably Hoover) leaked the Bureau’s information to Nixon. Hoover and McGovern always had a strained relationship, and McGovern had publicly questioned whether Hoover was fit to serve as the FBI’s Director.

On July 31, the evening of Eagleton’s ouster from the ticket, Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman had a conversation regarding how to deal with the “Fort Wayne” story. It was a reference to the child’s alleged place of birth. This conversation was recorded. According to the account in Joshua M. Glasser’s The Eighteen-Day Running Mate: McGovern, Eagleton, and a Campaign in Crisis (2012), Nixon decided against using it, and cited “The [Grover] Cleveland episode.” He added it was difficult to know what the reaction to it would be. However, he planned to “keep it in the bank.”

Nixon never used it against McGovern. He might have felt it could backfire, and that he would be blamed for the leak. Another possibility was that it was unnecessary because McGovern had irrevocably damaged his campaign because of the way he handled the Eagleton matter. Nevertheless, it was not disregarded completely.

Two days after the above conversation, Nixon demonstrated that he also had a gracious side to his personality, at least when he no longer regarded a person as a threat. This aspect was revealed in a letter Nixon sent to Terry Eagleton, the Senator’s 13 year-old-son, who had visited the White House the previous year. Nixon wrote, “Years later, you will look back and say, ‘I am proud of the way my Dad handled himself in the greatest trial of his life.’” The boy showed the letter to his father, and sent Nixon a reply. “Do you know what my Dad said when he read your letter? He said, ‘It’s going to make it tougher to talk against Nixon.’” Neither Nixon nor Eagleton revealed the existence of the letters. They came to light when former Nixon speechwriter William Safire included them in his book, Before The Fall: An Inside View of the Pre- Watergate White House (1975).

In the closing weeks of the 1972 campaign, several members McGovern’s staff learned about the existence of the child. Ted Van Dyk, a veteran Democratic strategist and McGovern advisor, received a telephone call from the Democratic mayor of Terre Haute, Ind. As recounted in Van Dyk’s Heroes, Hacks, and Fools: Memoirs from the Political Inside (2007), the mayor said that a man flashing a Senate investigators badge had appeared at the city’s records bureau, demanding to see a birth certificate listing McGovern as the father of a child. The man obtained a copy of the certificate, and left the office. Although Van Dyk referred to Terre Haute as the place of the child’s birth, other accounts said the child had been born in Fort Wayne.

Van Dyk informed three other staffers of the call, and they conferred with McGovern. He admitted to fathering a child, stating that it happened when he was a teenage Army recruit (a version which differed from the account he later told his biographer). There was more disturbing news in the evening when the telephone operator at the McGovern headquarters received a call stating the St. Louis Globe Democrat would carry the story in the morning papers.

Van Dyk wrote that McGovern told his wife Eleanor -- whom he had married in 1943, and was the mother of their five children—about the illicit offspring. McGovern also telephoned Portland, Ore., speaking to child’s mother. She subsequently informed her daughter (now an adult), and told her that McGovern was her father.

McGovern and his staffers decided that they would not raise the issue, but, if confronted, would tell the truth. The story did not run, but the team worried every day that it would be published. Van Dyk never indicated if he was disappointed in McGovern when he learned the news. Instead, he referred to the story as a “Nixon’s dirty trick.”

Nixon trounced McGovern in the 1972 election, but was forced to resign nearly two years later over the Watergate scandal. Although he tried to regain the stature he once held as President, he always felt he would be vilified by his “enemies” in the press and in academia, regardless of what he had accomplished in his life. In spite of his anger, Nixon kept his silence about McGovern.

On Aug. 1, 1973, Haldeman testified before the Senate Committee investigating the Watergate scandal, and was asked about a memo he had written on Feb. 10, 1973, three days after the Senate had voted to establish the Committee. Haldeman had sent the memo to John W. Dean, Jr., Nixon’s counsel, who later turned it over to the Committee. In the memo, Haldeman made a brief reference to the “Fort Wayne story.” He wanted the White House to ask syndicated columnists Rowland Evans, Jr. and Robert Novak to put out the story, stating Nixon had known about it, but took the “high road” by not mentioning it in the campaign. Although there was no mention of the nature of the “Fort Wayne story” in the memo and Haldeman did not refer to McGovern in his testimony, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (among other insiders) knew about the allegations regarding McGovern’s child.

The next day, the Post ran their article, “Leak Involving McGovern Proposed.” While the reporters referred to Haldeman’s memo and noted it was designed to put Nixon in a favorable light, they focused on the “Fort Wayne story.” They stated the Post confirmed the existence of a birth certificate in that city listing McGovern as the child’s father, and they questioned him about it. He said he was aware of the certificate, but denied he was the child’s father. The reporters also interviewed the child’s mother. She said her late husband was the father of her daughter, adding that she had no idea how McGovern’s name got on the child’s birth certificate. The story got nowhere.

Despite his defeat in 1972, McGovern still believed that he could become President. In March 1975, he wrote a letter to FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley asking for a copy of any file the Bureau had on him. He spoke to two FBI inspectors in April, telling them he might be nominated for president in the following year, and specifically asked if the FBI had information about a child he had fathered as a young man. At a meeting the next month, they told him the FBI had verified this information during its background check in 1960. According to the FBI files, McGovern “made no comment nor asked any questions about the statement that the allegation concerning the illegitimate child had been verified during the special inquiry investigation.”

McGovern apparently felt this material would not be revealed, and would not present any difficulty in the future. He made futile bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, 1984, and briefly toyed with the idea of running again in 1992.

The allegation about his other out-of-wedlock child was reported by Tom Lawrence on July 28, 2015 in the Prairie Black Hills Pioneer, a newspaper published in Spearfish, S.D. Lawrence wrote that Donald (“Don”) C. Simmons, Jr., former director of the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service and Dean of the College of Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University, stated that another child was born out of a relationship McGovern had while serving in World War II. Simmons, who was a close friend of McGovern during the last years of the latter’s life, said that the second child died before reaching adulthood, and McGovern, who was “haunted” by the loss, visited the grave in Europe. Lawrence added that Simmons was writing a book about his friendship with McGovern.

During the last years of his life, McGovern told Thomas J. Knock, a history professor of Southern Methodist University, about the child. The story is included in Knock’s first volume of his McGovern biography, The Rise of a Prairie Statesman: The Life and Times of George McGovern (2016). In an interview in the Washington Post on July 30, 2015, Knock stated that McGovern told him about it voluntarily about 15 years before because “he felt confident in my credentials as a historian and biographer to deal with it responsibly.”

Knock disclosed that the child was conceived when McGovern lost his virginity during a camping trip to South Dakota’s Lake Mitchell, and that he was wracked with guilt about it. When the girl learned she was pregnant, she “was remarkably calm and strong about it,” and went to stay with her older sister and brother-in-law in Indiana. She gave birth there in 1941. The city where the child was born is not identified in the book. McGovern eventually met his daughter, and brought her gifts, but no specifics are mentioned.

Was it wrong for a prominent politician to hide the fact that he fathered a child out of wedlock? Knock did not think the matter had any historical significance, and said, “It could have happened to almost anyone.” However, if the situation had been reversed, and Nixon had fathered a child out of wedlock, the judgment might not have been so kind.

Reprinted with permission from USA Today Magazine, May 2016. Copyright © 2016 by the Society for the Advancement of Education, Inc. All Rights Reserved.