April 21, 2015
Tribute: Sen. George McGovern on the Presidency From Lincoln to Obama
Posted on Nov 6, 2009
Scheer: Speaking of that, you got to be close to Sen. [Barry] Goldwater later in life.
McGovern: I did; I liked his bluntness, and I used to see him down in the Senate gym all the time. He and I would get down there for an hour three or four times a week, and we’d sit in that steam room and talk. One thing he told me, Robert, he said: “You know, George, I know you’re always trying to cut the military budget. If you and [Sen. William] Proxmire would come over to my office for about a half a day sometime, I’ll show you how to cut that budget by a fourth and they’ll never miss it.” Unfortunately, he left office very soon after that. But Goldwater was not a stupid man. I think that he got steadily more liberal as he got older; most people get more conservative as they get older. Goldwater, for example after he got married a second time, when the first Mrs. Goldwater died—she influenced him on a number of things—and when Bill Clinton said we should permit gays to serve in the military, I wish he had had Goldwater with him when he made that statement. Because Goldwater told me down in the Senate gym, he says, “Hell, I don’t care whether a guy is straight or gay, as long as he can shoot straight.” And that would have been a good thing, I think, to put out for the general public. And then he said, “You know, George, we’ve had gays in the military ever since the Revolutionary Army.” I didn’t know that, but I’m always glad to believe something like that.
PART 6: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret; Cause of 1972 Election Landslide
Scheer: Let me ask you, getting a little closer to home, the Democrats: You mentioned before [that] you were a great admirer of John Kennedy, but John Kennedy did get us into Vietnam. At what point do you break with the Democratic Party?
Square, Site wide
McGovern: Well, keep in mind I made my break in my first year in the Senate. John Kennedy was president when I made that first speech warning against involvement in Vietnam. One thing I wish I had known is that Lyndon Johnson hated that war. If you read “The Johnson Tapes”—it’s a book edited by this historian, Michael Beschloss [editor’s note: “Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964”], and it’ll knock you out of your chair, if you haven’t already read it. Johnson, just a few weeks after he got in the White House, he called in Dick Russell, the senior senator from Georgia who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and he says—and I’m just quoting what the tapes quote—he says: “Dick, what the hell are we going to do with that mess in Vietnam? We have no business out there, but I don’t know how to get out of the damn place.” And Russell said: “Well, remember Kennedy got that bunch to knock off old [President Ngo Dinh] Diem out there, and maybe you can find out who they were and get them, get some kind of a little coup to put them back in power, and then they could ask us—you’d probably have to pay them—but they could ask us to get the hell out of there.” He says: “That’s the only way I can figure out.” Neither one of these two senior political leaders, and both very bright, was willing to just say we’re coming home because we shouldn’t be there. They wanted somehow to get out without admitting we were wrong to be there. And that’s really, as you read these tapes, you’ll see that’s what was going on. And none of us who were criticizing the war had even a clue that Johnson had any question about it. And here the truth of the matter is he couldn’t stand it, but he didn’t know how to … he didn’t start the war, and he didn’t know how to get out. It’s as simple as that. Keep in mind Johnson was raised in the background of the Alamo. The Texas soldiers fought until the last man on the Alamo; well, every Texas schoolboy is taught that that’s the meaning of valor and courage, to stand up and die to the last man.
Scheer: What happened in those Lyndon Johnson discussions, the killer argument on his part was, “If I do this, I’ll be defeated.” That was the killer. “If I do this, they’ll have me for lunch; and so I can’t be the first president to lose the war, I can’t get out.” That has been the blackmail that has destroyed the Democratic Party, as far as I can see. At least Republicans, including Nixon, had a little bit of a cushion; no one’s going to call them soft, although they did with Eisenhower. And I imagine the discussion now in the higher circles of the Democratic Party and the White House was: I doubt very many people can make the case we should stay [in Afghanistan]; there’s a great deal of evidence that al-Qaida is not there; there are fewer than a hundred of them, according to the president’s intelligence adviser, and they can’t mount an attack, and so forth. We now have some reports about how it makes it much worse. But I suspect the compelling argument that may cause an escalation will be the one that drove Lyndon Johnson, which is: We will be hurt politically. And you stand as the exclamation point to that. They all say: See, we tried to do that—and you were defeated. Looking back at that history, what do you draw from that? Here was Richard Nixon, who was already breaking into your headquarters, already doing all these things, got a kind of free ride from the media right up through that election, Watergate didn’t break until after that. What is your feeling about you being used as a kind of poster boy for “No, we can’t do the right thing in foreign policy because we’ll be McGoverned”?
McGovern: Well, first let me say this. We did win the nomination. We did win 11 primaries, including the two biggest ones, California and New York. We were able to put together the best grass-roots army of dedicated people, I think, in the history of this country. Wonderful people. Marsha Hunt, back here, was one of them. I just described you as one of the best volunteers in American history. [Applause] Anyway, I think there’s no question that we prevailed inside the Democratic Party. We had a majority there. Now, the problem with that, politically, is that the Vietnam War was fought out within the Democratic Party. The hawks and the doves—those weren’t Republicans, those were Democrats. The Republicans finessed the issue by saying that “we’re going to support the commander in chief of the armed forces.” And that’s what they did, whether it was Kennedy or Nixon or Johnson or whoever it was, they were always with the commander in chief. It doesn’t mean they were for or against the war, they’re just saying … they finessed the issue. Democrats, no way, you were either a hawk or a dove, you had to stand up and battle. So while I think by the time the votes were taken in the bid for the nomination, a small majority of Democrats were probably against the war, that meant that almost half the Democrats were for the war. And therefore, when I won that nomination and then had to go out and face the country, the Republicans were united pretty solidly behind Nixon, and the Democrats were split right down the middle on Vietnam. There’s no question that a lot of those people who were in support of the war voted for Nixon. That’s the only way I can account for the landslide. I don’t think Nixon was all that likeable or that I was all that unlikable, but I think that war issue, which was a key with Democrats, I think that a lot of the pro-war Democrats voted for Nixon. That wasn’t out of evil; it was just out of their conviction that we had to stay there and fight, and we had to win.
PART 7: The Political Wisdom of an Afghanistan Pullout
(Editor’s note: Audience questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What sort of advice would you give President Obama on the great moral issues of today?
—Bruce Baron, middle school principal
McGovern: I would urge him to get out of Afghanistan. I could even make the case on political grounds. I’m convinced that war is going to turn sour. I’m convinced we’re not going to prevail there. People have been trying that ever since Alexander the Great. Genghis Khan even made a shot at it. The British throughout the 19th century were in there several times trying to pacify the thing and finally gave up. The Russians were there for 11 years, 1979 until 1990, they put in 100,000 crack soldiers, 25,000 of them killed dead in Afghanistan, another 25,000 crippled or injured. And the Russian treasury went broke, and some of our best Soviet experts believe that’s what really led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As you know, it’s now 16 independent states instead of the United Soviet Socialist Republics. So I would go through that with the president, and I would point out that some of the best reporters over there are telling us that the Taliban are getting stronger and we’re getting weaker in the minds of the people, and that you have a corrupt government involved in drugs, involved in just plain old-fashioned stealing and corruption. It’s a lousy government, and it’s very difficult, even for a great country like this, to make them look good. So I think we have every reason to withdraw, and I would try to urge that course for the president. In other words, I don’t want to see happening to him what happened to Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson was a great president, in many ways. He had a great vision; a Great Society, he got ridiculed for that, but there’s nothing wrong with a president seeing America as a great society. And he did a lot of things good; he got these two landmark civil rights bills passed that no other president that I know of could have gotten through the Congress. And so what brought him down, and led him not to even run again, was the war in Vietnam. And I’d remind the president—I’m a strong supporter of Barack Obama. I think he’s a brilliant young guy and I think he can make a great president. Certainly our place in the world has gone up dramatically with him in the … most people around the world don’t look like you and me, they look like him. And I think that our standing worldwide is much better, all across Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America. And I think he still stands high with the American public, but I think this war is his biggest danger. Now, on the other big issue, national health care, I wish he had not started with a compromise proposal. There’s always room for compromise as you go along. His bill, as the House passed it, is now 2,000 pages long. The one that Hillary Clinton had 16 years ago was 1,300 pages. The problem with that is it’s so easy for demagogues to pick them apart. And nobody’s ever going to read 2,000 pages; at least I never have. I was in Congress for 22 years, but I never read a [2,000]-page bill, and I don’t think anybody else will. And so it’s easy to subject them to it. I would have just had a one-sentence bill: Congress hereby extends Medicare to all Americans. Period.
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