April 21, 2015
Tribute: Sen. George McGovern on the Presidency From Lincoln to Obama
Posted on Nov 6, 2009
What would be the consequences to President Obama’s domestic agenda and re-election chances if he did what you suggest regarding Afghanistan?
—Warren Olney, KCRW talk show host
McGovern: If he could somehow get through even a compromise national health insurance bill, I think that’s the kind of thing that gets presidents re-elected. We don’t know at this stage what’s going to happen on national health care, but every politician I talk with says that’s the key issue; I’m sure it’s true in South Dakota, where I live at least half time. It doesn’t seem to make much difference whether it’s a conservative state or a liberal state, there’s strong support for national health care. So I think it was wise for the president to begin with that on the domestic front. And if the economy turns around in the next two or three years, which it probably will—I’ve confessed my ignorance on high finance—but I think the stimulus program and other things the administration has done will be helpful, and the reports that are coming in indicate that sometime in the next year or two we’ll see it. And that’s going to work favorably in terms of the re-election of the president. If people are doing reasonably well economically, it’s hard to defeat an incumbent president. So no matter what the fallout might be, good or bad, on Afghanistan, I don’t think that is going to be as important as these two matters I’ve just mentioned, in terms of him getting re-elected. I don’t see the move on Afghanistan as a way to get elected, but I see it doing—the course that I recommended is a way of avoiding defeat. You have to have some other things to get re-elected.
If you were the president, how would you get out of Afghanistan?
—Lila Garrett, KPFK talk show host
Square, Site wide
McGovern: I would say to the Afghan people that we’ve been here for eight years, and we’ve come to the conclusion we can’t resolve your problems. You’ve got the Taliban, you may have al-Qaida, but—our soldiers have fought, died bravely—but it’s my conclusion, as president of the United States, that we can’t resolve the problems here. We’ll do what we can to help you, but we can’t do it with our military forces. As a matter of fact, while we’ve been here, the Taliban have grown stronger, and we don’t know where al-Qaida is—we think they’re in Pakistan—but having our troops in Afghanistan is not going to help that. So it’s our judgment that the best thing for us, and maybe for you, is for you to take over the handling of your own problems.
PART 8: The Lunacy of Our $700 Billion Giveaway
Scheer: If I don’t jump in now and ask this question—I know there’s a lot of you [with] questions—I’ll be yelling at my wife all the way home about why I didn’t ask this question. You said his biggest problem is Afghanistan, which I think is a big problem, and I think health care is a big problem. But I’m writing a book now on “The Great American Stickup: Greedy Bankers and the Politicians Who Love Them,” for The Nation, and I want to ask you, as … in touch with populist America, why isn’t there more rage about this country being sold out to the very bankers that got us into the problem in the first place? I don’t get it. I don’t know why people in South Dakota are not more upset about what’s happening. What is your sense of that? What happened to the old populist message against Wall Street, against big finance, and why doesn’t that resonate at all in the Democratic Party? We’re throwing trillions at these banks, and they’re not doing anything for us. What’s your take on it?
McGovern: Well, I agree generally with that view. I have to confess, Bob, I’m not an expert on high finance. I had a guy get on an airplane with me the other day. I was worn out, and I thought: “Well, I finally got up in a first-class seat. I’m just going to take a nap or read a book or something.” And a guy came up and sat down in the seat next to me, and he said: “The stewardess told me that I could come up for a brief time here, and I’ve got a suggestion to make. You want to know what’s wrong with this country?” I heaved a sigh, and I said, “Well, I can’t imagine.” He said, “The International Monetary Fund. And if you give me just a half an hour here, I can tell you what’s wrong with that International Monetary Fund.” I said: “Well, I’m going to save you the time. I don’t think my intellect is great enough to understand the International Monetary Fund, and furthermore, I don’t give a damn.” So he was kind of shocked, but he did go back to his seat at that point. I would never say that to you, Bob. No, I wish I knew more about high finance, but I would have voted against the $700 billion giveaway. I think that was a mistake, particularly since they didn’t attach any conditions to it. That was what bothered me, and I think there should have been a few populists taking the floor of the House and the Senate and say[ing]: “I can’t go down and get that kind of money from the government. What have these big banks and insurance companies, what have they done to deserve this? And what protection is there to the taxpayer? Are we just going to donate $700 billion with no conditions they have to meet?” So I think your point is well taken, and if we had Bill Proxmire here, he would come up with a really intelligent answer on that.
Scheer: OK. So I’m not the nut in the plane?
McGovern: I just take simple things, like the Afghanistan war.
PART 9: Plenty of Churches but Little ‘Social Gospel’
(Editor’s note: Audience questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.)
What would you tell President Obama to do for education?
—Jay Boberg, film producer and distributor
McGovern: Well, I think it has to be both a federal and a state effort. And if I were going to outline four or five points that I’d like to run on, if I were running for office these days, I’d put education on that list, because—for example, in my state, teachers’ salaries, I think, are last among the 50 states. And we desperately need some federal input there too. We just don’t have the resources to provide the kind of first-rate schools and colleges that I think are needed. So I’d like to see a program, both of federal support to raise standards in the schools, and also I think the states need to do more.
Scheer: Let me segue a little bit on this. You come from this dream of America, OK, where religion was a positive force, right? Your father was a minister. It was not something that, as the folklore comes down to us, that divided people, although they did kill witches at one point. But seriously, reading your writing about your background, it was an incredibly nurturing, positive experience. Good schools, teachers who cared, churches that were supportive and reasonable. What happened to that? How did those people end up on the wrong side?
McGovern: Well, don’t you think these television evangelists have something to do with that? I don’t want to knock all of them, but I think what I understand to be the function of religion isn’t met very well by some of these guys that have enormous audiences; some of them have enormous churches. I went to a church in Houston the other day just to see a guy that I’ve watched on television; I wanted to see what he looked like in person. That church has 36,000 members. The [South Dakota] church I went to had about 60 when I was growing up. And what he [the Houston preacher] gives that audience is a kind of a feel-good, God wants you to do well, God doesn’t want you to be poor, God doesn’t want you overworked, and various … I guess I’d just call it a kind of a feel-good thing. You leave thinking, “Well, if God is for all those good things, I guess there’s nothing much wrong in the world.” And we know there are a lot of things wrong in the world. And I think religion has to speak to those things. I think clergymen have to speak to those things. We probably might not have ever fully emancipated black people had it not been for those little Southern churches, the Baptist ministers and others. Martin Luther King, of course, came out of that background. But I think religion has to speak to the problems of everyday life. I guess it’s called the “social gospel.” And that, it seems to me, is what is missing in many churches. I live part of the year down in Florida, and once in a while I dip into a church there just to see what’s going on, and usually I’m left without much feeling that they’re coming to grips with the real problems of a real people. Religion, in my opinion, has to stand for social justice as well as for … in many of these churches they emphasize personal salvation. I never knew whether I was saved or not. They’d have these altar calls and urge you to come down. Some people would stand up and testify they’d been saved. I stood up a couple of times and I felt like a liar after I didn’t feel that I’d really been saved from anything. So there’s a little too much of that, in many of these churches, to suit me. I like to hear a sermon on peace. I like to hear a sermon on racial justice. I like to hear a sermon on the rights of women. I like to hear sermons that help us build a better society on Earth. I don’t know what’s out there beyond the grave; I always refer to it as the mystery beyond the grave, because I just don’t know. I don’t know whether I’m going to get out there and run into Nixon, or what’s going to happen. [Applause] That’s a very roundabout answer to your question.
Scheer: I think it’s a great answer.
McGovern: You keep asking me tough questions.
Scheer: No, no, I think that’s probably a good moment on which to end. I just want to say something. As a journalist, and I’m sure [some of] the others in this room are journalists, I’ve interviewed a lot of people in my life. I’ve been around a lot of people who are influential, political, and so forth. I’ve never met a finer human being than George McGovern.
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