‘Ronald Ray Gun,’ Death Threats, and Deep Throat: The FBI’s George McGovern Files

As seen in VICE News

Last week, a Gallup poll found that the favorability rating for Bernie Sanders, the liberal Vermont senator who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for US president, has doubled since March. In the same period of time, Hillary Clinton’s fell by 5 percentage points.

Clinton is still the clear Democratic frontrunner (her favorability rating stands at 43 percent, Sanders’ at 24 percent). But Sanders is also the only candidate — Democrat or Republican — to have a favorable rating among all registered voters in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Everybody loves Bernie,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently told Politico. “Just like George McGovern.”

McGovern was a two-term congressman and senator from South Dakota who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972. (Watergate would prompt Nixon to resign two years later.) McGovern opposed the Vietnam War when few national politicians dared to do so, but he was also a decorated military veteran. He was a minister’s son who once considered joining the clergy himself. He fought hunger and championed nutrition. He was called the conscience of the Democratic party.

But just as, in truth, everybody does not love Bernie, everybody did not love McGovern. His FBI file, obtained by VICE News through a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that McGovern, who died in 2012 at age 90, had plenty of enemies.

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The FBI’s McGovern file contains about 65 cases involving extortion and assassination threats, along with a record of all correspondence between McGovern and the bureau. He was also the subject of an FBI background investigation when President John F. Kennedy eyed him for a position in the administration in 1960.

During the investigation, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota had nothing but praise for McGovern, calling him a “fine Christian gentleman, a clean and morally wholesome individual of good character and reputation.” But Lionel Stacey, a former student of McGovern’s — he taught history and political science at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University, during the early 1950s — had little good to say. According to a teletype dated December 12, 1960 and sent from the special agent in charge (SAC) of the FBI’s Detroit field office to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “Stacey in signed statement reports definitely feels McGovern taught socialistic and communistic ideas in classes and failed to present both sides.”

Stacey went on to accuse McGovern of having fathered a child out of wedlock before he was married. A classmate of Stacey’s, Keith Walker, also told the FBI he “had heard rumors of some bad moral conduct on the part of McGovern before he became a student at Dakota Wesleyan, but that these were only rumors and he did not have enough information to comment re these rumors.”

At the end of December, an FBI memo describes the overall results of the McGovern background investigation as “favorable,” with one exception:

“McGovern father of illegitimate child, born [redacted].”

In March 1975, McGovern sent a note on US Senate letterhead to FBI Director Clarence Kelley, requesting his own FBI records. A memo written by the FBI’s legal counsel the following month reveals that McGovern told agents that he was “concerned as to whether or not he could honestly inform someone who might ask him to become part of a Presidential ticket in 1976 that there is no damaging personal derogatory information concerning him in existence in FBI files. He said he is concerned about the reports of information concerning the illegitimate child.”

The FBI refused to release the actual files to McGovern, but a memo says the bureau did “orally advise [him] concerning the information we have in our files regarding the illegitimate child fathered by him.”

Agents told McGovern that this was the only “derogatory information concerning his personal life” in their files, aside from “anonymous and other poison-pen type communications which we have received.”

“For the record,” a follow-up report says, “Senator 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.”

Hoover, who made no secret of his disdain for McGovern, “inquired as to what could be done with this information.” A recommendation came back that “no further action be taken.”

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In March 1971, McGovern went public with a letter allegedly sent to him by a group of 10 anonymous FBI agents accusing Hoover of, among other things, manipulating crime statistics, unfairly targeting minorities, and using the bureau as a personal public relations machine. In response, FBI official Mark Felt — in 2005 he was revealed to be the Washington Post’s “Deep Throat” source during its legendary Watergate investigation — sent a memo to FBI associate director Clyde Tolson refuting the claims.

“Clearly, allegations are unfounded,” Felt wrote. “No changes in our regulations and guidelines are indicated at this time.” Copies of the letter given to McGovern were handed over to FBI supervisors with “instructions matter be discreetly discussed with key personnel to obtain possible leads as to identity anonymous author.” Felt assured Tolson he would be “promptly advised of developments.” The senders were never identified.

Later the same month, a memo went out informing agents that “the Director wants… correspondence upholding his work sent to the Attorney General” in an attempt to neutralize “charges made by Senator McGovern.”

McGovern publicly called for Hoover to be replaced, and Hoover’s agents appeared to in turn keep a close eye on McGovern. A 1961 memo sent by the FBI to Kennedy’s appointments secretary P. Kenneth O’Donnell says a “source who has furnished reliable information in the past” revealed that McGovern, who was serving as the director of Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, was scheduled to have lunch with syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, often called a communist sympathizer by his enemies, and Soviet Ambassador Mikhail A. Menshikov at Pearson’s home.

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“Several of my constituents have been calling to report that Senator George McGovern was convicted of cowardice during the war and was court martialed,” reads an August 1972 letter sent to acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray III by Democratic State Senator Ray Rigby of Idaho. “I have no information other than their statements, and I would like to be advised if there is any truth to these allegations.”

Gray wrote back saying the FBI’s records were confidential, but that he hoped “you will not infer that we do or do not have information in our files concerning this matter.” (Rigby, who has long since retired, told VICE News he couldn’t recall anything about it.)

The documents also reveal that in 1975, the FBI initiated an investigation into three bank transfers of $1,000 each that had been deposited in McGovern’s personal checking account from the Bank of Tokyo.

“Wishing you victorious in campaign for peace of USA and world,” the unknown donor wrote on the credit ticket. In April 1977, the FBI closed the investigation “inasmuch as no opinion has been forthcoming in this case.”

“Dear Mr. [Name redacted],” reads a 1970 letter from Assistant Attorney General J. Walter Yeagley to an unknown recipient. “This will acknowledge your recent letter to the Attorney General wherein you propose charging Senator George McGovern with the crime of treason (Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2381)…. It is clear that Senator McGovern has not violated the treason statute and because of this, we do not plan to undertake any action.”

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One June 1972 letter McGovern turned over to the FBI blamed Kennedy’s assassination on the CIA — something the sender said he determined after having “read fifteen books” on the event — and warned that McGovern would be next.

“I firmly believe the CIA will also kill you if you persist in your bid for the Presidency,” it said. “It is vitally imperative that you be made aware of your own personal danger.”

Other letters were far more threatening. A 1978 FBI teletype describes a letter that came into McGovern’s office, postmarked Reno, Nevada, that said [all sic], “I promise you your rotten carcus will be put into canvas,, weghted down with lead and wrapped into yellow plastic and dumped into the Yellow Sea to prime its color, because if your rotten Communist Carcus was buried in America the stench from your rotten carcus would make even the Honorable dead unknown Soldiers rise from his grave and retreat to another land to rest in peace. Signed, Edgar Lee, God’s Black Knight of Death.”

If McGovern was rattled by any of this, one former acquaintance says he never let on.

“George never mentioned any death threats to me from any source,” former South Dakota State Senator James Abourezk, who worked closely with McGovern on Native American affairs, told VICE News.

But there were plenty of leads for agents to chase down, like the February 3, 1981 tip from a college student in Tucson, who told the FBI that a street preacher on the University of Arizona campus had said, “Former President Carter, Mo Udall, Ted Kennedy, especially Kennedy, Frank Church, George McGovern, and assorted other liberals should be assassinated in the name of God.”

The preacher, whom VICE News was able to identify as “confrontational evangelist” Jed Smock, says he remembers the incident well. The FBI did indeed get in touch with him to discuss his sermon, he says. However, Smock calls the student’s version of events “inaccurate.”

“This was just after the election of Ronald Reagan,” Smock told VICE News. “What I said was that God had a ‘Ronald Ray Gun,’ a secret weapon for the destruction of liberals — Frank Church, zzzeet! George McGovern, zzzeet! Jimmy Carter, zzzeet! Then I said, ‘Ted Kennedy may be next casualty of the Ronald Ray Gun.’ It was all a satire and play on words. I was speaking of political casualties, not physical death. My parody was understood as such by my audience, except evidently for this particular student or perhaps he understood and was just trying to shut me down.”

Agents were satisfied that Smock, whose campus crusade continues today, was not likely to harm McGovern.

“[The FBI] seemed to accept my explanation,” he said, “and after the interview I continued my preaching.”