It was a true clash of titans, two South Dakota legends facing each other, their political futures up in the air.
That’s a fitting term for the 1958 South Dakota First District congressional race between Joe Foss and George McGovern. Both were heroic aviators who served their nation with distinction during World War II.
More than a decade later, they were two young but experienced politicians, battling to represent their home state in Congress. McGovern had entered politics in 1953, taking on the daunting challenge of attempting to revive the moribund South Dakota Democratic Party.
It was a tall order. The Democrats held no national or statewide office and were outnumbered 108-2 in the Legislature.
McGovern set to work, crossing the state and collecting names and phone numbers. By 1956, he decided to run for office and defeated four-term First District Rep. Harold Lovre.
As I have mentioned before, Lovre was a relative of mine. I apparently met him a time or two as a child but have no memory of asking him about that campaign. Sorry I missed out on that interview.
McGovern pulled the upset by running as a sharp critic of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson, who was blamed for policies that were hitting farmers where it hurt the most — right in the wallet.
Somehow, McGovern was able to attack Benson and avoid out-right criticism of President Dwight Eisenhower, who easily carried South Dakota in a bid for a second term.
By 1958, McGovern was running for a second term and was eyeing a 1960 match with Sen. Karl Mundt, a conservative Republican whom McGovern disagreed with and strongly disliked at the time.
Foss was leaving the governor’s office after two terms. He was a handsome, well-liked war hero who had won the Medal of Honor and been featured on the cover of Life magazine.
Foss was a conservative, McGovern a liberal. It should have been a fierce contest, two men battling to represent their views in Congress. But it wasn’t.
“It was the easiest race of my career,” McGovern told me a decade ago.
We spent some time at his museum at Dakota Wesleyan University in 2008. He lived in a modest home across from the McGovern Library and agreed to go through all his campaigns with me.
McGovern said the truth was, Foss, term-limited as governor, didn’t run to run for Congress, and had promised not to seek any office in 1958. A group of GOP insiders begged him to enter the congressional race and knock off this upstart from Mitchell.
But unlike McGovern, politics wasn’t a passion for Joe Foss. He had served two terms as governor and was ready for new pursuits but he finally was persuaded to run against the freshman congressman.
Foss couldn’t rely on his war record, since McGovern’s was nearly as impressive. In addition, both men were modest about their service, as is the case with many, if not most, real heroes.
Instead, issues and the candidate’s drive to win would decide this contest. McGovern won 53.4 to 46.6 percent.
It was a Democratic year, with the country in a recession and Americans concerned about the Soviet Union’s lead in the space race, with three Sputnik spacecrafts having been successfully launched. The GOP was battered at the polls.
In 1960, McGovern lost to Mundt, but he won a Senate seat in 1962 and served three terms while also running for president in 1968, 1972, when he was the Democratic nominee and 1984.
Foss never sought office again. He was the first commissioner of the fledgling American Football League, hosted outdoors TV shows and later served as president of the National Rifle Association.
Campaigns are defined by candidates, issues and the events of the day. But when one candidate really, really wants to win, and the other is reluctantly running, voters can sense it.
That’s what happened in 1958, as McGovern and Foss both reached a turning point in their careers. One almost led to the White House, while the other took a far different path.
They enjoyed long, productive lives. Foss died in 2003; he was 87. McGovern died at 90 in 2012.
They are remembered not as political rivals, but as treasured icons in South Dakota history.
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