After the former U.S. senator’s death on Sunday morning, we look back at a 2009 conversation between him and Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer.
George McGovern has been a witness to history, as both a scholar and one of the first senators to oppose the Vietnam War. At a recent Truthdig event, he shared his insight into past and current events, from Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment to the war in Afghanistan.
The following material was recorded in Los Angeles on Nov. 1, 2009 at the Truthdig salon “Sen. George McGovern on the American Presidency: From Lincoln to Obama.”
Part 3 of 9 - Abraham Lincoln, “a good man speaking well”
Part 4 of 9 - A Bitter Lesson
Part 5 of 9 - Where Are the Great Leaders?
Part 6 of 9 - Landslide
Part 7 of 9 - Afghanistan
Part 8 of 9 - The Guy on the Airplane
Part 9 of 9 - Questions
Transcript begins on Page 2.
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
McGovern: Since I didn’t talk about it when it might have helped, maybe I might just take a couple of minutes to tell you why I volunteered to be a combat bomber pilot in World War II. I had taken a course at the little college I went to, Dakota Wesleyan, in flying. The government had announced that if you could get 10 students to sign up for the course, the government would provide an airplane, an instructor and an airfield. So one of the guys in my class was desperate to learn how to fly. And he had talked to me about it several times before I finally decided to go. One of the reasons I did that is that when I was in junior high school, we had a coach by the name of Joe Quentle. He was a good coach, but one of the meanest son of a guns I think I’ve ever known. You really got a tongue-lashing for any kind of mistake. And one day when I was about 13, maybe 14, junior high school, and he had us in a gymnastic class, and one of the things you had to do was run across that gymnasium as fast as you could go, and when you got to the end, dive over one of these big leather horses. I think probably you’ve—you all look like you’re in shape, so you’ve probably been through this. But anyway, you had to dive over it, duck your head, and then roll. I’d run up to that thing—I could not do it, I just couldn’t; I knew I’d break my neck if I did. Finally the loudest whistle I’ve ever heard from Joe Quentle. He said, “Mac, what the hell’s the matter with you?” I said “Well, Mr. Quentle, I’ll do anything for you, but I just can’t dive over that horse.” He said, “You want to know why? You’re a moral coward.” I thought I would die. I really thought I’d die right there. I didn’t think anybody would ever speak to me again, you know, the 60 young guys that were doing this—not all of them, but practically all. So that bothered me for a long time. Four years later, when I was 19, Pearl Harbor came. And I thought, here’s my chance to show Joe Quentle. So I signed up as a bomber pilot. There wasn’t any Air Force then, there was the Army Air Corps and the Navy Air Corps, and all 10 of us who had taken this course in flying, we borrowed a couple of cars—in those days, no student had a car—so we borrowed a car from the president and one from the dean, and drove to Omaha, where both of the recruiting stations are. And we’re debating, you know, should we join the Air [Corps], and one guy says, “Oh boy, trying to land on a carrier at night in a storm?” You know, that scared us a little, but another guy says, “You know, they do this and they do that,” silly arguments, we didn’t know what we were talking about. When we got there, one of the guys picked up a rumor that if you signed up with the Army Air Corps or even went to the recruiting station, the Air Corps would give you a free meal at a downtown cafeteria in Omaha. So on the strength of that unsubstantiated rumor and a meal ticket probably worth about a dollar, all 10 of us joined the Army Air Corps. It’s the cheapest I’ve ever sold out. So anyway, that’s the background on why you listed me as a hero. I was trying to get over the coward in me. So I hope I succeeded. [Applause] I can honestly tell you that the first time I stood up on the floor of the United States Senate, again as a freshman congressman—I’d only been there six months, 1963, and I had worked for the previous two years at the White House with President Kennedy, whom I loved. But I stood up and made my first speech saying the war in Vietnam was a mistake, that we had no business being there, and the quicker we disengaged, the better. That was the first speech in either the House or the Senate against the Vietnam War. [Applause] And I knew it was right at the time, but the political problem is that most people thought it was not right, and I never recovered from that politically, in terms of the millions of people that thought that was outrageous. I did it in considerable part because I know what war does. Half of the bomber crews that I flew with in World War II never survived the war—50 percent casualty rates. I’m proud of my role in World War II. I thought Hitler was a madman that had to be stopped—among other things, killed 6 million innocent Jewish people, mostly his own citizens. So I’m proud that I played some role in helping to smash his military machine. But I’m also proud that I stood up against a war that I thought was wrong, that killed 58,000 young Americans, probably the best troops we ever sent overseas, and all of this for naught.
PART 3: Lincoln’s Strength Lay in Reading and Writing
McGovern: Let me give you a few words about Abraham Lincoln. There are more words and pages written about Abraham Lincoln than anybody else in world history, with the exception of Jesus Christ. My authority for that is this word master at The New York Times who died recently—I can’t think of his name [editor’s note: William Safire]. Anyway, more books in this country have [been] written about Abraham Lincoln than all the other presidents combined. So why another one? I did it partly to educate myself about Lincoln. I read all of his speeches, I read most of his letters, I read a number of the secondary books about him, and I did come to a deeply increased appreciation for this remarkable man. This is a part of a series. Henry Holt is the publisher; they’ve now been taken over by Macmillan—but they’re doing a book like this on each of the presidents, beginning with George Washington, and they’re supposed to be about 165 pages. And I’m glad they put that limit on it; I had to cross out an awful lot of brilliant stuff, but—I did it tearfully—and I think in holding it to 165 pages, each one of us probably did better than if we had had unlimited pages. You’ve heard the old saying, “Sorry, I don’t have time to write a short letter.” And it’s the same, I think, with books. A lot of these 900-page books, in my opinion, would be better if they were tightened up a bit—maybe to four or five hundred pages. Every writer thinks that every word is precious, but some of them aren’t all that precious; they can be tightened up.
I admire Lincoln, first of all, because of the kind of man he was. There was an old Roman orator by the name of Quintilian, an orator, and he was asked one time: “What makes a great orator?” And he said: “A good orator is a good man speaking well.” Today we’d say “a good person speaking.” To be a great speaker you should first of all be a good person—you agree with that, Bob? It’s probably the same with journalists. And I came to the conclusion Lincoln was even better than I had thought. He overcame incredible handicaps. One was the lack of education. About one and a half years—there were a few teachers, sort of traveling teachers that came through his little village, and they might stay around for a month or two and teach a few of the kids, but historians tell us that he had less than two years’ formal education. No high school, no junior high, no college, no law school, nothing, nothing like that. But he did learn two things in that little school. He learned how to read, and he learned how to write, and he never quit. Reading, reading, reading, reading, all of his life. He was hungry for every book he could get his hands on. He knew Shakespeare, he knew the King James Version of the Bible, he knew some of the great poets, he knew Aesop’s Fables, and hundreds of other things that he read. And writing—he loved to write. I think he became the best writer ever to serve in the White House. How are you going to improve on the Gettysburg Address? Talk about tightening things up—a definition of democracy: government of the people, by the people, for the people. That’s all you need to know about what democracy is all about. It took two and a half minutes to deliver that speech, but contrary to what you may have heard about him writing it on the back of an envelope on the way to the address, he worked on that speech for days, as he did every speech, those first and second inaugurals. Sometimes after he got a draft down to his satisfaction, he would call in members of the Cabinet, most frequently Secretary Seward, the secretary of state, and he would read his speech to the secretary or whoever was listening—“what do you think of this, what do you think of that”—Seward at one point said I think this particular phrase is a little dull, it’s a little flat. Why don’t you change that to “the better angels of our nature”—in that inaugural address. I’ve always wished I’d thought of that phrase, appealing to the better angels of people’s nature. But he didn’t have ghostwriters. He wrote his own speeches, and then he would let somebody else make a few suggestions. Then, after he incorporated the changes, he would read the speech—no, he would have the critic read the speech to him to see how it sounded. There’s a wonderful book just out called “Lincoln’s Sword.” And Lincoln’s sword, according to that author, was his writing ability and his speaking ability. If you want a really interesting book on Lincoln, [“Lincoln’s Sword” will] tell you how he produced those great masterpieces.
PART 4: A McGovern Family Tragedy; Lincoln’s Greatest Accomplishment
McGovern: He had what today we would call clinical depression, really severe clinical depression. He would sink into these spells of despondency that almost paralyzed him. It’s a terrible malady for anyone to have. I know a little about it because we have it in my family. My daughter Terry saw the first despondency settle in on her when she was a freshman at the University of South Dakota. She was a good student, she was a very intelligent young woman, had a great sense of humor—till the day she died, she had a great sense of humor—but she was depressed. And she finally told [my wife] Eleanor and me one night that she just couldn’t stand it, she thought she should end her life. So we took her to a psychiatrist, and they worked with her for a long time, several years; didn’t do much good. So she finally found a cure: a bottle of vodka. If you got hold of a jug of vodka and drank a glass or two, you could have a whale of a good time. You weren’t depressed; you could go to a party and make everybody laugh. And that eventually led to alcoholism. We had her in and out of all the treatment centers we could think of. And one night Eleanor and I were expecting her home for Christmas. By then she had two little girls, ages 7 and 9, and we had thought she was getting better—but always the relapse. That’s the biggest problem for an alcoholic, are these miserable relapses. And she was supposed to be home about three or four days before Christmas with her two little girls. I had sent them airline tickets; they lived in Madison, Wis., where Terry went to school. So Eleanor and I went out to dinner at a little restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. It was a fun evening; the restaurant owner played the piano and the accordion, and what passed for singing, so we had a pretty happy time. When we got home, Eleanor went upstairs and went to bed and was reading a novel; I was down in the living room reading a magazine, and the doorbell rang about midnight. I thought: “Gosh, who would be coming here at midnight?” We lived in a kind of a secluded part of Washington, along Rock Creek Park, and I thought: “Well, maybe Terry has moved it up a couple of [days].” So I went to the front door, but as I got there I could see through the glass, on either side of that big door, a police officer on one side and a chaplain on the other, and when I let them in, the officer said: “Senator, we’re awfully sorry to come to your house at Christmastime with such sad news, but we must tell you that your daughter, Teresa Jane McGovern, was found dead today.” That was it. He said that she was frozen to death in a Wisconsin snowstorm, apparently while deeply intoxicated. So that was a bitter lesson for me about both depression—which should not be fooled around with, it’s a treacherous thing—and alcoholism. I don’t take any money from any of the books that I sell. They all go to the Teresa McGovern Treatment Center in Madison, Wis. None of these treatment centers are too great, but this is one of the better ones. So I just want you to know that I’m not here to make money today, and every dollar that I get out of these books—I’ve written 14 books now, and this one promises to be a bestseller. But I want you to know the revenue goes to this treatment center.
Just a couple of quick additional things about Lincoln—I’ve probably gone too long, haven’t I?—he thought his greatest achievement was the Emancipation Proclamation. I would very respectfully disagree. That was important, but it was only a partial emancipation. It just emancipated the slaves in the 11 Southern states. And with the war in progress, there wasn’t much Lincoln could do to enforce the emancipation. It didn’t touch the slaves in the border states, and it didn’t provide for a permanent right of people to be free of slavery. That came after Lincoln was re-elected, and it’s in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which not only freed all people who were slaves then, but freed people for all time. Nobody can be held a slave in the United States; that’s a federal crime. I think his greatest achievement was not that; it was the saving of the Union. The United States could very easily have disappeared as the United States of America. The New England states had threatened at an earlier time to secede over the tariff question, and then 20 years later comes the Southern secession. But Lincoln was determined to save the Union. He was very open on this; he tried to deal with the South so they wouldn’t secede. He said: “If I could save the Union by freeing all of the slaves, that I would do. If I could save the Union (and this was a sop to the Southerners) by freeing none of the slaves, that I would do. If I could save the Union by freeing some of the slaves and holding others (which is what he eventually did) that’s what I would do. But the Union must be preserved.” And that’s why he absolutely refused to compromise on slavery in the territories or on new states coming into the Union. Not one inch of soil would be settled with slaves in it, except for the 11 in the South. And that’s where he drew the line. So anyway, that to me is his greatest achievement: He saved the Union.
PART 5: The Founding Fathers’ Greatness; a Straight Shooter Named Goldwater
Scheer: Let me ask you a question. The old guys look good, yourself included. But seriously, I read Jefferson and Washington, and in my book I go on and on about how great Washington’s farewell address was. It’s a fabulous document, for people who haven’t read it. First of all, am I exaggerating how good these guys were? You know, at least they had brains; they thought. Now we do have a president who has a brain, so that’s been a good change. But I just wonder, what are we to make of the Founders, what are we to make of this great history? It did involve slavery, it did involve exploitation, it was white-male exclusive. What about that whole history, and to what degree is it worth relying on? Everybody does; even the right wing relies on it.
McGovern: Well, I think they were great, those Founding Fathers. I think Jefferson was a tremendously farsighted and intelligent man. Washington was a great administrator, and probably the person that was needed to launch the Union. He also had the ability to keep Jefferson and Hamilton in the same Cabinet without them shooting each other. Hamilton finally got shot by somebody else, but he and Jefferson didn’t agree on too much, and Washington wanted both of them in his Cabinet. So I think you’ve got to say Washington was a very great figure in the way he handled the first eight years. He was assailed right and left, even as was Lincoln. Lincoln, just to give you a few words that I recall, was called a senseless baboon; a traitor; was accused of selling out the country; even his physical appearance—he was described as an ugly creature. One problem with that is that Lincoln always thought he was ugly, he always thought he was homely. I don’t agree; I think he’s got a very noble face. I’d trade my mug for his any day. But he thought he was ugly. And when they tried to get Washington to run for a third term, he said: “I would rather be in my grave than to spend another four years in the White House.” And he bristled under these terrible things that were said about him. But I think these were great men. I think Adams was; Adams was a conservative, but we need that kind of conservative. I’ve never had any quarrel with honest-to-goodness conservatives any more than I had with honest-to-goodness liberals. I can’t stand these neoconservatives, I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I that think a person like John Adams you have to respect. One thing about the Founding Fathers: There were just a few of them, there were only about 150, and they all knew each other. And they wrote letters to each other, and they recommended books to each other, and they sent speeches to each other. Some of them were educated in three or four languages, including Jefferson, but a number of others—Lincoln is the one that had to get by with the least education, but he had great wisdom and great knowledge that was self-taught. So I think they were a very remarkable group of men. People ask me why we don’t produce people like that today, and I think probably we do, but in that time there was just this little group, as I say, maybe 150 or 200 people, and even Jefferson and Adams wrote hundreds of letters to each other, even though one was a liberal and one was a conservative. Mrs. Adams raised Jefferson’s children after Mrs. Jefferson died. And so they were close to each other; they had differences, but they were close to each other.
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?
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.
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
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.
Collage of photos taken by Alexander Gardner / Truthdig / Pete Souza