GEORGE MCGOVERN | 1922-2012: PRESIDENTIAL HOPES, BUT A LIFE DEVOTED TO LIBERALISM
Published: October 21, 2012
George McGovern, the United States senator who won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972 as an opponent of the war in Vietnam and a champion of liberal causes, and who was then trounced by President Richard M. Nixon in the general election, died early Sunday in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.
His death was announced in a statement by the family. He had been moved to hospice care in recent days after being treated for several health problems in the last year. He had a home in Mitchell, S.D., where he had spent his formative years.
In a statement, President Obama called Mr. McGovern “a champion for peace” who was a “statesman of great conscience and conviction.”
To the liberal Democratic faithful, Mr. McGovern remained a standard-bearer well into his old age, writing and lecturing even as his name was routinely invoked by conservatives as synonymous with what they considered the failures of liberal politics.
He never retreated from those ideals, however, insisting on a strong, “progressive” federal government to protect the vulnerable and expand economic opportunity while asserting that history would prove him correct in his opposing not only what he called “the tragically mistaken American war in Vietnam” but also the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A slender, soft-spoken minister’s son newly elected to Congress — his father was a Republican — Mr. McGovern went to Washington as a 34-year-old former college history teacher and decorated bomber pilot in World War II. He thought of himself as a son of the prairie as well, with a fittingly flat, somewhat nasal voice and a brand of politics traceable to the Midwestern progressivism of the late 19th century.
Elected to the Senate in 1962, Mr. McGovern left no special mark in his three terms, but he voted consistently in favor of civil rights and antipoverty bills, was instrumental in developing and expanding food stamp and nutrition programs, and helped lead opposition to the Vietnam War in the Senate.
520 to 17
That was the cause he took into the 1972 election, one of the most lopsided in American history. Mr. McGovern carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia and won just 17 electoral votes to Nixon’s 520.
The campaign was the backdrop to the burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington, and by the Nixon organization’s shady fund-raising practices and sabotage operations, later known as “dirty tricks,” which were not disclosed until after the election.
The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and outside the mainstream of American thought. Fair or not, he never lived down the image of a liberal loser, and many Democrats long accused him of leading the party astray.
Mr. McGovern resented that characterization mightily. “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2005 in his home in Mitchell. “My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.
“But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image,” he added, referring to his campaign organization. “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment.
“It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.”
Mr. McGovern was 50 years old and in his second Senate term when he won the 1972 Democratic nomination, outdistancing a dozen or so other aspirants, including Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, the early front-runner; former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, the nominee in 1968; and Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, a populist with a segregationist past who was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt in Maryland during the primaries.
Mr. McGovern benefited from new party rules that he had been largely responsible for writing, and from a corps of devoted young volunteers, including Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, who took time off from Yale Law School to work on the campaign in Texas.
The nominating convention in Miami was a disastrous start to the general election campaign. There were divisive platform battles over Vietnam, abortion, welfare and court-ordered busing to end racial discrimination. The eventual platform was probably the most liberal one ever adopted by a major party in the United States. It advocated immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, abolition of the draft, a guaranteed job for all Americans and a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line.
Several prominent Democrats declined Mr. McGovern’s offer to be his running mate before he finally chose Senator Thomas F. Eagleton of Missouri.
Mr. McGovern’s organization was so disorganized that by the time he went to the convention rostrum for his acceptance speech, it was nearly 3 a.m. He delivered perhaps the best speech of his life. “We reject the view of those who say, ‘America, love it or leave it,’ ” he declared. “We reply, ‘Let us change it so we can love it more.’ ”
The delegates loved it, but most television viewers had long since gone to bed.
The Eagleton Debacle
The convention was barely over when word got out that Mr. Eagleton had been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for what was called nervous exhaustion, and that he had undergone electroshock therapy.
Mr. McGovern declared that he was behind his running mate “a thousand percent.” But less than two weeks after the nomination, Mr. Eagleton was dropped from the ticket and replaced by R. Sargent Shriver, the Kennedy in-law and former director of the Peace Corps.
The campaign never recovered from the Eagleton debacle. Republicans taunted Mr. McGovern for backing everything a thousand percent. Commentators said his treatment of Mr. Eagleton had shown a lack of spine.
In the 2005 Times interview, Mr. McGovern said he had handled the matter badly. “I didn’t know a damn thing about mental illness,” he said, “and neither did anyone around me.”
With a well-oiled campaign operation and a big financial advantage, Nixon began far ahead and kept increasing his lead. When Mr. McGovern proposed deep cuts in military programs and a $1,000 grant to every American, Nixon jeered, calling the ideas liberalism run amok. Nixon, meanwhile, cited accomplishments like the Paris peace talks on Vietnam, an arms limitation treaty with the Soviet Union, a prosperous economy and a diplomatic opening to China.
On election night, Mr. McGovern did not bother to call Nixon. He simply sent a telegram offering congratulations. Then, he said, he sat on his bed at the Holiday Inn in Sioux Falls and wrote his concession speech on hotel stationery.
In his book on the campaign, “The Making of the President 1972,” Theodore H. White wrote that the changes Mr. McGovern had sought abroad and at home had “frightened too many Americans.”
“Richard M. Nixon,” Mr. White wrote, “convinced the Americans, by more than 3 to 2, that he could use power better than George McGovern.”
Mr. McGovern offered his own assessment of the campaign. “I don’t think the American people had a clear picture of either Nixon or me,” he said in the 2005 interview. “I think they thought that Nixon was a strong, decisive, tough-minded guy and that I was an idealist and antiwar guy who might not attach enough significance to the security of the country.
“The truth is, I was the guy with the war record, and my opposition to Vietnam was because I was interested in the nation’s well-being.”
His staff, he said, urged him to talk more about his war experience, but like many World War II veterans at the time, he was reluctant to do so.
How long, he was asked, did it take to get over the disappointment of losing? “You never fully get over it,” he replied. “But I’ve had a good life. I’ve enjoyed myself 90 percent of the time.”
Related in Opinion
Op-Classic: George McGovern on Op-Ed(October 22, 2012)
Op-Ed Contributor: The Lost World of George McGovern(October 22, 2012)
Op-Ed Contributor: The Moral Clarity of George McGovern(October 22, 2012)
George Stanley McGovern was born on July 19, 1922, in a parsonage in Avon, S.D., a town of about 600 people where his father, Joseph, was the pastor of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. A disciplinarian, his father, who was born in 1868, tried to keep his four children from going to the movies and playing sports. His mother, the former Frances McLean, was a homemaker about 20 years her husband’s junior.
The family moved to Mitchell, in southeastern South Dakota, when George was 6. He went to high school and college there, enrolling at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, Mr. McGovern joined the Army Air Corps, and before going overseas, in 1943, he married Eleanor Stageberg, who had grown up with an identical twin on a South Dakota farm. They had met at Dakota Wesleyan.
Mr. McGovern was trained to fly the B-24 Liberator, a four-engine heavy bomber, and he flew dozens of missions over Germany, Austria and Italy.
On his 30th mission, his plane was struck by enemy fire and his navigator was killed. Lieutenant McGovern crash-landed the plane on an island in the Adriatic. He earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for the exploit.
After his discharge, Mr. McGovern returned to Mitchell — his father had recently died — and resumed his studies at Dakota Wesleyan. He graduated in 1946 and went to Northwestern University for graduate studies in history.
With a master’s degree, he returned to Dakota Wesleyan, a small university, to teach history and political science. “I was the best historian in a one-historian department,” he said in an interview in 2003. During summers and in his free time, he continued his graduate work and received a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern in 1953.
Mr. McGovern left teaching to become executive secretary of the South Dakota Democratic Party, and almost single-handedly revived a moribund party in a heavily Republican state.
Month after month, he drove across South Dakota in a beat-up sedan, making friends and setting up county organizations. In 1956, gaining the support of farmers who had become New Deal Democrats during the Depression, he was elected to Congress himself, defeating an overconfident incumbent Republican. He became the first Democratic congressman from his state in more than 20 years.
After two terms he left the House to run for the Senate in 1960 and was soundly beaten by the sitting Republican, Karl E. Mundt. He then became a special assistant to the newly elected president, John F. Kennedy, and director of Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, an effort to provide food for the hungry in poor countries.
In 1962, Mr. McGovern ran for the Senate again, and this time he won, by 597 votes, defeating Joseph H. Bottum, a Republican filling the term of Senator Francis H. Case, who had died in office.
In the Senate, Mr. McGovern became a reliable vote for Democratic initiatives and a leader on food and hunger issues as a member of the Agriculture Committee. But he was more interested in national politics than in legislation. After Robert F. Kennedy, fresh from his victory in the California presidential primary, was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, the Kennedy camp encouraged Mr. McGovern to enter the race as an alternative to Humphrey and Senator Eugene J. McCarthy of Minnesota. Mr. McGovern did so but was unable to catch up to Humphrey.
Almost from the moment the 1968 campaign ended, Mr. McGovern began running for the 1972 nomination. He traveled the country, recording on index cards the names of potential supporters he met. He also became chairman of a Democratic Party commission on delegate selection, created after the fractious 1968 national convention to give the rank and file more say in picking a presidential nominee.
What became known as the McGovern commission rewrote party rules to insure that more women, young people and members of minorities were included in delegations. The influence of party leaders was curtailed. More states began choosing delegates on the basis of primary elections. And the party’s center of gravity shifted decidedly leftward.
Though the rules were not written specifically to help Mr. McGovern win the nomination, they had that effect.
After he was crushed by Nixon in the election, Mr. McGovern returned to the Senate and began campaigning for re-election in 1974. At the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner in 1973, he told the assembled Washington elite, “Ever since I was a young man, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way — and I did.”
Mr. McGovern was re-elected to the Senate in 1974, a landslide year for Democrats after Watergate. He defeated Leo K. Thorsness, a novice politician.
It proved to be Mr. McGovern’s last success in elective politics. As the conservative movement gained force, Mr. McGovern’s popularity dropped.
In 1980, he was defeated by James Abdnor, a plain-spoken Republican congressman who had clung to Ronald Reagan’s coattails and was helped by anti-McGovern advertisements broadcast by the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
Unlike some of his peers, Mr. McGovern did not become wealthy in office, and he said he had no interest in lobbying afterward. Instead, he earned a living teaching, lecturing and writing. He briefly owned a motor inn in Stratford, Conn., and a bookstore in Montana, where he owned a summer home. But neither investment proved profitable.
A Father’s Heartbreaking Loss
What he called “the big tragedy of my life” occurred in 1994. His daughter Teresa J. McGovern, who had suffered from alcoholism and mental illness, froze to death at 45, acutely intoxicated, in a parking lot snowbank in Madison, Wis.
His eyes welled up as he talked about it 11 years later. “That just about killed me,” he said. “I had always had a very demanding schedule. I didn’t do everything I could as a father.”
As therapy, Mr. McGovern researched and wrote a book, “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle With Alcoholism,” published in 1997. (An addiction-treatment center named after her was established in Madison.)
That year, President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. McGovern ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Agricultural Organization. He moved to Rome, and he worked on plans for delivering food to malnourished people around the world. In 2000, Mr. Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
After four years in Rome, the McGoverns moved back to Mitchell, where they lived in a ranch-style house owned by Dakota Wesleyan and helped raise money for a university library that was named after him and his wife. The university is also home to the McGovern Center for Leadership and Public Service, a research and educational institution founded in 2006. He also had a home in St. Augustine, Fla.
Eleanor McGovern died in 2007 at age 85. A son, Steven, who had also struggled with alcoholism, died in July at 60.
Mr. McGovern’s survivors include three daughters — Ann, Susan and Mary — 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Mr. McGovern remained robust in old age. To celebrate his 88th birthday, he sky-dived in Florida. Last fall, he was hospitalized twice, once after falling and hitting his head outside the Dakota Wesleyan library before a scheduled C-Span interview, and another time for fatigue after completing a lecture tour. But he rebounded and resumed making public and television appearances this year.
Mr. McGovern remained a voice in public affairs, notably in 2008, when, in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, he called for the impeachment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for their prosecution of the war in Iraq.
He published books regularly, on history, the environment and other subjects. In “Out of Iraq” (2006), written with William R. Polk, he argued for a phased withdrawal from Iraq, to end in 2007. In his final book, “What It Means to Be a Democrat,” released in November 2011, he despairs of an “insidious” political atmosphere in Washington while trying to rally Democrats against “extremism” in the Republican ranks.
“We are the party that believes we can’t let the strong kick aside the weak,” Mr. McGovern wrote. “Our party believes that poor children should be as well educated as those from wealthy families. We believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes and that everyone should have access to health care.”
With the country burdened economically, he added, there has “never been a more critical time in our nation’s history” to rely on those principles.
“We are at a crossroads,” he wrote, “over how the federal government in Washington and state legislatures and city councils across the land allocate their financial resources. Which fork we take will say a lot about Americans and our values.”
David E. Rosenbaum, a Washington correspondent for The New York Times, died in 2006. William McDonald contributed reporting.
SYLVIA KRISTEL, STARRED IN ‘EMMANUELLE’
The actress Sylvia Kristel, on the beach, during the Cannes Film Festival. She starred in the erotic film “Emmanuelle.”
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: October 18, 2012
- Sylvia Kristel, a Dutch actress who became an international sex star after she played the title role in the 1974 erotic film “Emmanuelle,” died on Wednesday in the Netherlands. She was 60.
The cause was cancer, her agency, Features Creative Management said in a statement on its Web site, without saying where she died. AVN, a trade publication for the sex film industry, reported that she died at home in The Hague.
Ms. Kristel was a willowy, dark-haired model and beauty contest winner in her early 20s with scant acting experience when she was cast by the French director Just Jaeckin as Emmanuelle, the wife of a French diplomat in Bangkok who seeks solace for her boredom in a variety of sexual encounters.
With its simulated sex scenes shot largely in soft focus, an exotic locale and a sentimental pop score, the film became an avatar of soft-core pornography. An immediate hit in France — it stayed at the same theater in Paris for several years — and later in Japan, where it was perceived as a triumph of feminism (mostly, Ms. Kristel pointed out, for one scene in which Emmanuelle climbs on top of her husband during sex), it was distributed in the United States by a major studio, Columbia Pictures, a relatively respectable alternative to the scandalous hits of two years earlier, “Deep Throat” and “Behind the Green Door.”
Ms. Kristel went on to appear in several Emmanuelle feature films and made-for-television movies.
According to AVN, ”Emmanuelle” is said to have earned more than $100 million. Ms. Kristel was ambivalent about her experience making the films; they allowed her to travel and opened doors for her as an actress, she said, and it was hard not to be proud of a film that so many people had seen. But the career that grew out of them was not what she had planned or hoped for.
She did act in mainstream films, working with renowned European directors including Alain Robbe-Grillet (“Playing With Fire,” 1975) and Claude Chabrol (“Alice or the Last Escapade,” 1977), starring in Mr. Jaeckin’s adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1981) and spending several years in Hollywood, where she appeared in the action-adventure film “The Fifth Musketeer” (1979); “The Nude Bomb” (1980, a reprise of the 1960s television series “Get Smart,” starring Don Adams); and the racy, very successful comedy “Private Lessons” (1981), in which she played an immigrant maid who seduces a teenager. But she was nearly always cast in sexually suggestive parts, and her performances drew considerably less attention than her face and figure.
In her 2006 autobiography, “Undressing Emmanuelle,” she wrote that she was “disappointed and a little hurt” that her more serious work went unappreciated. “I was dressed but people preferred me naked,” she wrote.
Ms. Kristel was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on Sept. 28, 1952, and grew up in a hotel owned by her parents, who separated when she was 16. She worked as a secretary before becoming a model, and when she was 20 she won the Miss TV Holland and the Miss TV Europe beauty contests.
In later years Ms. Kristel pursued a career as a painter. She directed a short animated film, “Topor et Moi,” that was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006.
She was married and divorced twice. In Hollywood, she had a volatile relationship with the British actor Ian McShane, whom she met while making “The Fifth Musketeer,” and she acknowledged that during that time she had problems with alcohol and cocaine. She also acknowledged romantic liaisons with Gérard Depardieu, Roger Vadim and Warren Beatty.
Her survivors include a son, Arthur Kristel, whose father was Hugo Claus, a Belgian artist and writer who died in 2008.
In interviews in recent years, Ms. Kristel spoke about her time as Emmanuelle with appreciative dispassion. “The series allowed me to paint for a year and live in peace,” she said in 2009. “And I think that justifies the means.”
GEORGE WHITMORE, JR., WHO FALSELY CONFESSED TO 3 MURDERS IN 1964
George Whitmore Jr., center, was picked up on a Brooklyn street for questioning in April 1964.
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: October 15, 2012
- George Whitmore Jr., an eighth-grade dropout whose confession in 1964 to three New York murders he did not commit had a decisive role in the Supreme Court’s Miranda ruling protecting criminal suspects and in the partial repeal of capital punishment in New York State, died on Oct. 8 in a nursing home in Wildwood, N.J. He was 68.
The cause was a heart attack, his daughter Regina Whitmore said.
Mr. Whitmore was 19 in April 1964, when he was picked up on a Brooklyn street for questioning about an attempted rape in the neighborhood the night before. A soft-spoken young man, he had grown up in a house in a junkyard that his father owned in Wildwood. After trying hard in school but dropping out at 17, he moved to Brooklyn and was waiting for a ride to work when the police car pulled over.
At first he was pleased that the police were asking for his help in solving a crime, he later told interviewers; he would have a good yarn to tell his friends, he thought. But when his interrogation ended several days later, Mr. Whitmore had confessed to the attempted rape, and more. He also confessed to the rape and murder a few weeks earlier of another woman in the neighborhood, Minnie Edmonds, as well as to the murder of two young women in Manhattan in August 1963. Their bodies had been found bound and stabbed numerous times in the apartment they shared on East 88th Street.
Called “the Career Girl Murders” in newspaper headlines, the killings of Janice Wylie, 21, a researcher at Newsweek magazine, and Emily Hoffert, 23, a schoolteacher, had been under investigation for eight months.
Mr. Whitmore recanted his confessions and maintained his innocence. He contended repeatedly afterward that the police had beaten him and that he had signed a statement confessing to the crimes without knowing what it was. In the case of the Wylie-Hoffert killings, he said, he could provide the names of a dozen people who would remember seeing him that day, because it was the day of the civil rights march on Washington, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He and everybody else in Wildwood had watched it on television and talked about it all day, he said.
In 1964, a Brooklyn jury convicted Mr. Whitmore on the charges of attempted rape. The verdict was overturned when jurors were found to have been reading newspaper accounts of the case in which Mr. Whitmore was called the “prime suspect” in the Career Girl Murders. Tried a second time, he was convicted again, but again the verdict was thrown out, on different grounds.
By 1965, Manhattan prosecutors had evidence that Mr. Whitmore had been wrongly accused in the Wylie-Hoffert murders. They had linked the deaths to Richard Robles, a recently released prisoner. (He was later convicted, and remains in prison.)
Even so, while Mr. Whitmore now faced a second trial in the rape and murder of Ms. Edmonds, his indictment in the Wylie-Hoffert case remained in place. News accounts said that by refusing to dismiss the indictment, prosecutors hoped to deny Mr. Whitmore’s defense lawyers an argument: that dismissal of the double-murder indictment proved it had been coerced, and that Mr. Whitmore’s confession to the Edmonds murder, elicited in the same interrogation, had therefore been coerced, too.
Selwyn Raab, who was a reporter for The New York World-Telegram and Sun at the time (and later for The New York Times), had found a dozen witnesses who remembered seeing Mr. Whitmore in Wildwood on the day of the double murder. They had bumped into him in the homes of friends and relatives while watching Dr. King’s speech, Mr. Raab wrote in a front-page article.
“Whitmore’s case showed how fragile the whole system was, and still is,” Mr. Raab said in an interview on Sunday. “Even now, police use the same techniques to manipulate suspects into giving false confessions. And 90 percent of convictions are still based on confessions.”
The police and prosecutors at the time denied any misconduct. Legal reformers asked Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, a Republican, to appoint a panel to investigate, but he declined.
Mr. Raab went on to write a book about the case, “Justice in the Back Room,” which was made into a television movie, “The Marcus-Nelson Murders,” in 1973. That movie starred Telly Savalas as a police detective and led to the television series “Kojak,” in which he starred.
With the Manhattan district attorney refusing to clear him entirely in the Wylie-Hoffert case, Mr. Whitmore went to trial in the murder of Minnie Edmonds solely on the evidence of his “confession.”
In the debate in the New York State Legislature over a proposal to abolish the death penalty, Mr. Whitmore’s case became a warning cry against the killing of innocents. “In Whitmore’s case,” said Assemblyman Bertram L. Podell of Brooklyn, “we have learned to our shock and horror that a 61-page statement of completely detailed confession was manufactured and force-fed to this accused.”
Governor Rockefeller signed a bill in 1965 abolishing capital punishment, except for the killing of police officers. (The death penalty was reinstated in 1995, and declared unconstitutional in 2004.) The Supreme Court cited Mr. Whitmore’s case as “the most conspicuous example” of police coercion when it issued its 1966 ruling in Miranda v. Arizona, establishing a set of protections for suspects, like the right to remain silent. Mr. Whitmore was tried several times in the Edmonds murder, with each trial ending in a hung jury.
Entangled in multiple cases, Mr. Whitmore was in and out of prison for months and years at a time, until April 10, 1973, when the Brooklyn district attorney, Eugene Gold, dismissed the last case against him — a retrial on the attempted rape charges — after new evidence exonerating Mr. Whitmore had surfaced. Upon his release, Mr. Whitmore said: “I’m not bitter. I appreciate greatly what the D.A. did.”
Mr. Whitmore moved back to Wildwood, operated a commercial fishing boat for a time, and was later disabled in a boating accident. He was unemployed for long stretches and suffered from depression and alcoholism, said T. J. English, who wrote a book about Mr. Whitmore.
Mr. Whitmore’s daughter Regina said he had never married.
His survivors include three other daughters, Aida, Sonya and Tonya; two sons, George and James; and more than 20 grandchildren.
“He told us about what happened to him,” Ms. Whitmore said. “But he said he never held it against anybody. He was always a very sweet man with us. He wanted us to grow up happy.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 15, 2012
An earlier version of a headline with this article misstated the number of murders to which George Whitmore Jr. had confessed. It was three, not two.
NORODOM SIHANOUK, CAMBODIAN LEADER THROUGH SHIFTING ALLIANCES
Published: October 14, 2012
- Norodom Sihanouk, the charismatic Cambodian leader whose remarkable skills of political adaptation personified for the world the tiny, troubled kingdom where he was a towering figure through six decades, died early Monday in Beijing. He was 89.
Stephen Shaver/Agence France-Presse
Norodom Sihanouk was crowned king in 1941 and held on to some form of power for 60 years.
The death was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nhiek Bunchhay, quoted by news services. The former king had been dogged by ill health for years and regularly traveled to China for treatment.
King Sihanouk was crowned in 1941, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, and held on to some form of power for the next 60-plus years. He served as monarch, prime minister, figurehead of the Communist revolution, leader in exile, and once again as monarch until he abdicated in 2004. He handed the crown to one of his sons, Norodom Sihamoni, after which he was known as the retired king, or the king-father.
He survived colonial wars, the Khmer Rouge and the intrigues of the cold war, but his last years were marked by expressions of melancholy, and he complained often about the poverty and abuses of what he called “my poor nation.”
Alternately charming and ruthless, he dazzled world leaders with his political wit and, in the process, raised the stature of his small Southeast Asian nation. He won independence for Cambodia from the French colonial rulers in 1953, using diplomacy and repression to outmaneuver his domestic rivals but without resorting to war, as his neighbors in Vietnam had done.
He put his nation on a modern footing in the 1960s, especially bolstering the education system, but his Buddhist socialist agenda did poorly and produced economic stagnation.
When the Vietnam War threatened to engulf the region, he tried to carve out a neutral role for Cambodia, siding neither with the Communists nor the United States. But when the Vietnamese Communists began using the port of Sihanoukville and Cambodia’s eastern border to ship military supplies on what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, he took steps to repair relations with the United States. He turned a blind eye when the Nixon administration undertook a secret bombing campaign in 1969 against the border area of Cambodia. But this only further unsettled his country and led to a coup that ousted him the next year.
Convinced that the United States had been behind the overthrow, King Sihanouk allied himself with the Khmer Rouge at the urging of his Chinese patrons, giving the Cambodian Communists his prestige and enormous popularity. Their victory in 1975 brought the ruthless Pol Pot to power, with King Sihanouk serving, for the first year, as the figurehead president until he was placed under house arrest and fell into a deep depression. Over the next four years, the Khmer Rouge regime led to the death of 1.7 million people and nearly destroyed the country.
Criticized throughout his life for these dramatic shifts in allegiances, King Sihanouk said he followed only one course in politics: “the defense of the independence, the territorial integrity and the dignity of my country and my people.”
In fact, he skillfully manipulated the great powers, usually with the support of China, to ensure his survival as well as his country’s independence. His worst nightmare, he said in an interview, was to be pushed out of his country’s political life into a quiet retirement, like Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, who died in obscurity in Paris in 1997.
Instead, King Sihanouk returned in 1993 as monarch and head of state after an accord brokered by the United Nations ended nearly 14 years of war in Cambodia.
Even in his darkest moments, the king never lost his flair for flamboyance or his taste for the finer things. As a young ruler and the scion of one of Asia’s oldest royal houses, he gained a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, a gourmand and an amateur filmmaker.
In his years in exile with his wife, Queen Monique, he kept his Cambodian movement alive by lavishly entertaining diplomats and foreign officials with Champagne breakfasts and elaborate French meals.
Denied any active role in government, he contented himself with the ceremonial position of king, still revered by many peasants.
Occasionally he interfered in politics. He undermined Prince Norodom Ranariddh, another son, by forcing him to accept a position as co-prime minister after winning the first postwar democratic election in 1993. Prince Ranariddh was ousted from that position in a coup by the other co-prime minister, Hun Sen, who became the country’s dominant power during King Sihanouk’s final years.
IHT Rendezvous: The Bloodied Legacy of Cambodia’s Chameleon King(October 15, 2012)
Norodom Sihanouk was born in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, on Oct. 31, 1922. A prince of the Norodom branch of the royal family, he was never considered a serious candidate to gain the throne. Instead, he was seen as a sensitive, if lonely, prince with a serious gift for music and, later, a passion for film.
He received a first-rate French education, initially at a primary school in Phnom Penh and then at the Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon, the best in colonial Indochina. He was only 18 when King Monivong died in 1941 and the French colonial powers tapped him as the unlikely successor.
France had surrendered to Nazi Germany and was under Vichy control, worried that it would also lose its Indochinese colonies to Japan. The prince seemed the most malleable candidate, the one who would obey the dictates of French colonial officials.
For the first three years, King Sihanouk, a true Francophile, met all their expectations. As World War II engulfed Asia, he was a loyal partner of the French colonial administrators, who collaborated with Japan and hoped to fend off a nascent Cambodian independence movement.
In those early years, King Sihanouk seemed uninterested in government. He filled his days pursuing women and, in the tradition of his forebears, had several consorts who eventually bore him at least 13 children.
But in March 1945, as they were losing the war, the Japanese sought to oust the French in Cambodia. King Sihanouk stepped forward on the side of Japan and declared Cambodia the new independent state of Kampuchea. With Japan’s defeat, King Sihanouk welcomed back the French, largely ignoring the growing number of Cambodians who thought their country should remain independent.
By his own account, the king did not pick up the banner of independence again until 1951, using it to fend off challenges from democratic and Communist movements demanding an end to French colonialism.
Taking advantage of the increasing French weakness from Communist victories in neighboring Vietnam, King Sihanouk persuaded the French to make Cambodia independent in November 1953 in advance of the 1954 Geneva peace conference that led to a divided Vietnam.
Then in a cunning move, King Sihanouk announced he would give up the throne to run in his country’s first independent elections. Through a combination of repression, rigging and reliance on the votes of peasants who still considered him a god-king, his party swept the elections, and he set about creating Cambodia anew.
His brand of politics evolved into a one-party rule with some dissidents and rival parties pulled into his umbrella political party, the People’s Socialist Community. The towers of Angkor decorated the country’s new flag, one of the many ways that King Sihanouk used the massive temple complex at Angkor as a visible reminder that Cambodia was once the premier state and culture of the region.
He maintained strong ties to France, hiring French experts to help run his government and French teachers for his schools. In Phnom Penh, he nurtured a cafe society of intellectuals while he left the countryside in what he considered a more or less bucolic state but that was, in fact, a backward region of grinding poverty.
In contrast to its neighbors — Vietnam to the east, with its war, and Thailand to the west, with its disfiguring modern development and militarism — Cambodia appeared to be a welcome oasis throughout the 1960s, with now Prince Sihanouk presiding as charming, benevolent despot, treating his citizens like devoted children.
At the same time, he was imprisoning and sometimes executing opponents or driving others — notably the Communist leader Solath Sar, who would become Pol Pot — into exile and fueling discontent that fed growing political opposition and eventually armed insurrection.
Stories about King Sihanouk’s extravagance became a staple of the diplomatic circuit, especially as he turned his hand to his first loves — music and film. He entertained guests at his exclusive parties on his saxophone and embarked on a film career, eventually producing 19 movies for which he was director, producer, scriptwriter, composer and often leading man.
All the while he was head of state of a country increasingly squeezed by the Vietnam War. He took his place as one of the leaders of the nonaligned movement of newly independent nations — Egypt and India among them — hoping to emerge from poverty and avoid taking sides in the cold war. Yet he also accepted the outstretched hand of China, which was convinced that the United States posed a military threat to its borders.
Crystallizing Cambodia’s hopes for avoiding entanglement was a speech in 1966 by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, in Phnom Penh calling for the end of the Vietnam War and the neutrality of Indochina. He paid King Sihanouk the ultimate compliment by saying Cambodia and France were alike, with “a history laden with glory and sorrow, an exemplary culture and art, and a fertile land with vulnerable frontiers.” But the war would spill across Cambodia’s border.
With King Sihanouk’s acquiescence, the Vietnamese Communists used Cambodia for its logistics. When the Vietnamese sanctuaries expanded, he only mildly objected to the United States’s secret bombing of them. That bombing campaign was later cited in the articles of impeachment drawn up but never used against President Richard M. Nixon.
Despite the growing unrest in Cambodia, King Sihanouk was unprepared for his overthrow in 1970 by Prince Sirik Matak, a cousin, and Gen. Lon Nol. Supported by the United States, the new government immediately allowed American troops to invade Cambodia from Vietnam.
The invasion ignited protests around the world, including those at Kent State University in Ohio, where national guardsmen killed four students. After his ouster, King Sihanouk fled to Beijing, where Chinese leaders persuaded him to join forces with Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, the group of Cambodian Communists that had been seeking to overthrow him since the ’60s.
Although King Sihanouk had aggressively pursued the Khmer Rouge, arresting and often torturing them, he was so stung by the betrayal of the coup plotters that he agreed to head their resistance. His name and appearance in propaganda films and booklets helped the Communists recruit peasants in Cambodia and gave respectability to their cause in diplomatic circles. In the end, King Sihanouk helped bring Pol Pot to power.
The Khmer Rouge won in 1975 and immediately began a reign of terror. Cambodians were ordered out of the towns and cities and sent to grueling work camps and farms in the countryside. Cambodia was cut off from the rest of the world. Society was destroyed, with all religion and professions outlawed.
Intellectuals, monks and anyone deemed a political enemy were murdered. Tens of thousands of people died of treatable diseases, overwork or starvation.
King Sihanouk was the titular president during the first year of the Khmer Rouge rule. He said he had resigned a year later and was put under house arrest with his consort, Princess Monique, in one of the palaces. There he listened to world news on a radio and, he said, at times wanted to commit suicide.
He was rescued when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But rather than turn against Pol Pot, King Sihanouk went to the United Nations and defended him, saying the country’s enemy was Vietnam.
For the next 12 years, King Sihanouk provided a fig leaf of respectability for the Khmer Rouge as they and several non-Communist groups tried to evict Vietnam from Cambodia in the name of national liberation. The United States, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations supported King Sihanouk, who maneuvered himself into a pivotal role in the final negotiations. Lined up against him, the Khmer Rouge and the rest of the resistance were Vietnam, the Soviet Union and Mr. Hun Sen, who was then the head of the Cambodian government established under the Vietnamese occupation.
With the end of the cold war, Cambodia was no longer hostage to great power politics. The United Nations negotiated a settlement to the war in 1991, and national elections were held two years later. King Sihanouk returned to Phnom Penh to a thunderous welcome, encouraging him to believe he could become a powerful chief of state once again. But other Cambodian politicians, including his own children, did not want him back in control.
A party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh won the elections. Mr. Hun Sen’s party came in second; the Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections. Furious that he had lost, Mr. Hun Sen and his surrogates threatened to reignite the war. King Sihanouk stepped in and persuaded the United Nations to create the position of co-prime minister for Mr. Hun Sen, effectively nullifying his son’s victory. However, King Sihanouk was returned to the throne and became king-father for the rest of his life.
Chastened, he maintained that he had been above the fray throughout, attempting to duplicate the role of national unifier played by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in neighboring Thailand.
But for the most part, King Sihanouk sided with Mr. Hun Sen, his political son. Toward the end of his life, the king reduced his once hectic travel schedule and rarely ventured outside Asia. Beijing, where the Chinese government maintained a villa for him, was his most frequent destination.
Michael Leifer, the Southeast Asia expert and professor at the London School of Economics who died in 2001, wrote that “the powerful myth of Sihanouk contributed to the people of Cambodia and the international community” repeatedly turning to him “as the font of national unity.”
He added: “The record of the man, however, would suggest a greater facility for reigning than for ruling. He has been more at home with the pomp and circumstance of government than with its good practice.”