May 26, 2013
Tribute: Sen. George McGovern on the Presidency From Lincoln to Obama
Posted on Nov 6, 2009
PART 1: ‘A moral center. An unwillingness to pander.’
Robert Scheer: Let me introduce our speaker. I can’t think of anyone around that I would be more honored to be able to introduce. I know that’s sort of a trite thing, but I did dedicate my own last book to both Gen. Eisenhower and George McGovern. And I just want to tell one little story. I was on a Nation magazine cruise; I think we were going up to Newfoundland or something—where were we going?—Alaska, oh sorry, was it Alaska? Anyway, it was very cold. And I remember we were talking on the back of this boat—that’s Nikki Keddie by the way, the nation’s leading expert on Iran, if you want to chat with somebody about what’s going on in the world, and a great heckler—and we were on the back of this boat, and I had interviewed Richard Nixon, I actually ended up being one of the few people who saw anything positive about Richard Nixon. I thought compared to Ronald Reagan he was positively enlightened, and compared to George W. Bush he was a flaming liberal. So I kind of wrote this, and Nixon liked what I wrote for the L.A. Times—this was I guess in ’84—so he invited me to come see him and I got to talk to him, so I have a more charitable view of Richard Nixon than most people in this room would have. But when I met with George McGovern on this boat, I asked him this one question that really confounded me. I said: You know, you were a major war hero. The Distinguished Flying Cross. Thirty-five suicide missions over Germany. Crash-landed your plane to save the crew. Received the Distinguished Flying Cross—that’s, you know, one of the really top medals you can get—an incredibly heroic figure from World War II. Richard Nixon was a parade guard in the Navy who did not see combat. Yet in that campaign, as is often the case, Richard Nixon played the patriotism card—who’s really willing to defend the country, who’s really willing to stand up for America, and so forth. And I asked Sen. McGovern, I said: “How come you didn’t bring up your war record in response to this and talk about your own personal heroism, which was considerable?” And George McGovern gave me an answer—it was the best answer I ever got from any politician to any question I ever asked—he said, “It would have been unseemly.” And I thought to have a classy guy like that be president, what a gift. Now, some of us think maybe it’s happening, maybe it’s not happening right now, we’ll have a lively discussion about it. But when I look back on Sen. McGovern’s life, the key thing that stands out is integrity. A moral center. An unwillingness to pander, to cater, to do things just for political advantage, and I just think it’s an amazing life story. I won’t go through all the details, but we’ll have a discussion, but people should know that George McGovern is a Methodist minister, that he has a doctorate in history, that he’s a major writer of books, that he’s a major intellectual, as well as having had a distinguished political career. And he’s written the book—the reason we’re here is because of our [Truthdig’s] Arts and Culture and our commitment to books—and he’s written, in a series on the presidency, the book on Abraham Lincoln. And I thought broadly we would ask you: “Where did we go wrong after Lincoln, or how do we get back there.” Let me introduce Sen. McGovern.
George McGovern: First, let me thank Zuade [Kaufman] for opening up her beautiful home. I can’t wait to jump in that pool someday when I come with more time. And I want to express my appreciation to Robert Scheer. When I announced for president a year ahead of the normal time, that’s the only time up until then in American history that anyone had announced two years before the election. But I come from a little state, South Dakota, with three electoral votes; I was a freshman senator, I had no money, and I was running against pretty tough people. I knew they were coming up—eventually 15 opponents, all trying for the nomination. But I said in that announcement speech in Sioux Falls, S.D., that I’d make one pledge above all others, and that is to seek and to speak the truth. I ran into Lyndon Johnson, the former president of the United States, at a reception, and he said he had heard my announcement speech and he liked it. I asked him if he had any criticisms. He said “nothing other than to say you’re going to find it a lot harder to know the truth than it is to speak it.” It’s actually very tough to do both. Some of these problems that faced us then or that faced Abraham Lincoln—probably he inherited the toughest problem of all, a four-year civil war in which Americans chose up sides and killed each other for four years. Six hundred thousand young Americans in that war—that’s equal to the combined American losses in World War I and World War II. Lincoln was a man of peace, but he was also a man of character and courage, and he saw no way out other than to resist the secession. … So he had a very tough decision to make that carried an enormous cost to the nation. But I want to say about Robert Scheer—of all the reporters I know, he’s been the best in digging out the truth and in expressing it, day after day. He had both the intelligence to dig out the truth and the courage to publish it. So he won in my book both on the intellect part and the courage part, Bob. [Applause] I was more than pleased when I picked up his recent book, called “The Pornography of Power.” It’s an analysis of what power does to people who have power, and what are the sources of power that shape our own country’s national agenda. For example, why, with the biggest military budget in the history of the world, by any country, equal to the combined military budgets of all the other 185 countries of the world—why are we so afraid? Why do we continue that kind of allocation year after year? Obviously we all want an adequate defense; this is a dangerous world, and I don’t think any reasonable person would object to an appropriate allocation to the military. But does it really have to be as big as all the rest of the world put together? And these are some of the questions raised by Bob. So I was pleased that he dedicated that book to President Eisenhower and to me.
PART 2: Breaking Through the Barrier of Fear
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