By John Barron
George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nominee, who suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of incumbent President Richard Nixon has died at the age of 90.
Forty years ago McGovern won the Democratic nomination over the establishment favourite Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey — a campaign immortalised by the late Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.
McGovern’s primary and caucus campaign mobilised a grassroots army of baby-boomer volunteers — many who saw him as the heir to the legacy of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated during the 1968 primary contest.
McGovern had inherited Kennedy’s delegates to the ill-fated Democratic Convention in Chicago that year when Humphrey won the Presidential nomination despite not standing in a single primary.
While McGovern’s campaign against Nixon was a disaster, being successfully portrayed as “too liberal” and lacking judgement over the “Eagleton Affair”, his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was one that candidates ever since — Barack Obama in particular — have used as a template.
Yet, as Howard Dean found out in 2004, it has become a liability to be described as “another McGovern” — shorthand for “unelectable”.
I met Senator McGovern at the McGovern Centre and Library at the Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, on a bitterly cold January day in 2008.
McGovern had endorsed his friend Hillary Clinton for the presidency, but had some extremely positive things to say about Obama — in fact, as the nominating contest dragged on into May and June of 2008, McGovern swapped his endorsement to Obama.
At 85 years old, he didn’t look much different to when he campaigned for the presidency 36 years earlier — one of the benefits of going bald early perhaps. He was tanned, dressed in a smart blue striped business shirt, red striped tie, and navy blue blazer above a faded old pair of jeans and even more faded white tennis sneakers.
By his side the whole time was his aging Newfoundland dog named Ursa, whose eyes were milky with cataracts — she constantly bumped her large head against his hand seeking a reassuring pat — which he quietly provided while feeding her bits of his breakfast muffin.
George McGovern: You know who else had a dog like this? Bob Kennedy. He called his Brumus. It was a big dog; it was also the only Newfoundland I’ve even known that was kind of mean ... he’d try to bite people and I’ve never seen one like it. I was finally over at his house one time and you know Bobby had eleven children and harassed from morning to night by all those little kids that were trying to ride him ... and it spoiled his disposition.
John Barron: There have been a number of comparisons drawn between the [2008 primary] campaign of Barack Obama and your campaign of 1972 — do you look at Barack Obama and feel some empathy for him?
McGovern: I do, I like him very much. I have endorsed Hillary Clinton, partly because I’ve known her for 35 years — she and her husband Bill Clinton became my coordinators in the state of Texas in ’72 and so I have appreciated them ever since then. I don’t always agree with her stands — I certainly didn’t agree with her vote giving Bush her blessings on Iraq...
I admire Barack Obama very much. I think he has the makings of another Abraham Lincoln — and not just because he comes from Springfield as Lincoln did — but because he has some of the same capacity to tap deep moral and spiritual principles and to make them politically acceptable
I’m 85, but I’d like to live to be 100 — I didn’t used to think about things like that but I do now because I want to see some of these things happen. I want to see every hungry schoolchild in the world getting a good nutritious school lunch every day under the auspices of the United Nations — these are some of the things that even as an old guy I want to see done before I say goodbye to this earth.
Barron: Can you give us a bit of an insight into the thinking of the people who put themselves forward as a candidate to become president of the United States, the most powerful political office on earth — you campaigned twice, considered it a third time...
McGovern: I consider it every four years! [Laughs]
McGovern: [Chuckling] Yeah, I hear that fire bell ringing every four years — I resist it, but I hear it!
Barron: What’s the thought process, because it’s a huge responsibility and it’s a big job...
McGovern: I think you have to be a bit of an ego-maniac to think that out of a country of 300 million people you are the one best qualified to be president. Now, having said that, you need a big, healthy ego to be in public life, you’ve got to keep it under control, but I don’t know anybody who has run for the presidency of the United States who hasn’t got a rather large ego. Even the psychiatrists tell us we need an ego, a self-confidence and self-approval, and so if you didn’t have that you wouldn’t seriously consider running for office. I know a number of people that have been in public life that would have made a great president but have no interest in it and I’ve often wondered if it was because they had too limited an ego and not enough self-confidence that explains why they back away from that task.
Barron: In part is that because of proximity, that if you are a US senator you get to know the president and the people who run and you say “well if that guy can do it...”
McGovern: Yes, I think proximity has something to do with it ... in my own case, President Kennedy named me as Food-for-Peace Director in 1961 and '62 and my office was part of the White House structure, so I would see him frequently in the course of a week and, after a couple of years of that, I began to think, first of all that I ought to take another run at the United States Senate and then it was only a short step to think "Well look, if John Kennedy can do this, maybe I should consider running for president".
So I think that proximity process has something to do with it. Then there is the very practical issue that if you’ve had some experience as a governor or United States senator it tends to equip you to deal with the kind of problems a President is going to have to deal with.
Barron: Do you think all people who succeed in becoming President — at least in the modern era — have something in common or are there different kinds of presidential personalities and characters?
McGovern: I think there are great differences in presidents, in their style, in their values, in their temperaments and their judgemental strengths. John Kennedy once said that he thought his greatest qualification for the presidency was his sense of history. I would say somewhat the same about myself — I’m an old history professor and I always thought that equipped me to take the long-view of public issues. I know presidents that I wish had more of that, more knowledge of history — including George W. Bush — maybe we wouldn’t have stumbled into this foolish war in Iraq if we had had a president who was more familiar with what happened to us in Vietnam. So yes, I think there are differences in Presidents.
Barron: There have been reports in recent times that the quote on which that label of "acid, amnesty and abortion" was taken which was from a then-unnamed senator — the columnist who wrote that said after his death that it was in fact Tom Eagleton who said that to him.
McGovern: Well that’s what Bob Novak the columnist said, he said it was the first time he heard it — I don’t know, I never discussed it with Tom Eagleton or any other senator. So I don’t know where it came from but I do know that the Republican leader of the United States Senate [Hugh Scott] got up on the floor of the Senate and called me the triple-A candidate — Acid, amnesty and abortion. And in talking word-of-mouth with people he changed the word “abortion” to “ass” — amnesty, acid, and ass — it was one of the crudest things that I ever heard one senator say about another on the floor — I was outraged by it, and we should have nailed those things hard, we should have had other people speaking out on it but maybe I put too much faith in the common sense of the voters — I think I have had a tendency to do that sometimes in my career.
Barron: Politics is full of sporting analogies, some even talk about it as being a game, something not to be taken too seriously. Is it a game, is that how you saw it?
McGovern: I didn’t, I didn’t see it as a game — I saw it as a more thoughtful, well-motivated proposition than you would bring to the playing of a game. I know that players in football and elsewhere play hard and give their best but politics at its best should go beyond that, it should strike the mind, the heart, the soul of the people — it should try to lift us to a higher standard and help us to do better.
I was very serious about those objectives in ’72 — perhaps I underestimated the gamesmanship on the other side — Pat Buchanan and I have talked about this in the years since ’72 — we’ve become more or less friends — not intimate friends but I think we have a mutual respect for the other person as an individual. And Pat’s gotten more mature — maybe I have too — he’s gotten more humane and I even find myself agreeing with him on a number of things, including some of the major issues coming out of the Middle East. I think he’s against this war in Iraq — so I give him credit for growing with the years.
Barron: How did you feel about the fact that the Nixon administration was ultimately brought down by the lengths to which they went in that dirty tricks campaign against you?
McGovern: Well I had been warning against the bad conduct of the Nixon administration. I warned against the implications of the Watergate break-in — I warned against other things I thought were illegal and improper and so I drew some satisfaction of the impeachment of President Nixon.
But let me say this to you: I don’t think the things that Nixon did in 1972 were as impeachable as Bush-Cheney — I think they did more damage to America’s standing in the world than what was done by the Nixon people. That is not to say that I feel Nixon should not have been impeached — I think he should have been — I am saying to you that his offenses and those of his vice president Spiro Agnew were less damaging to the country and I think less impeachable.
Barron: You talked about the historical context through which you view a lot of things and how you would have brought that to a presidential role for yourself — what’s your view on the way in which in presidential elections it seems history can turn on something — and how America might have been different at certain turning points.
McGovern: It’s too bad that we lost in ’72 ... it really is. That could have been a turning point in American history; if I had won I would have quickly taken the United States out of the war in Vietnam, I would have gone overboard to treat the veterans of that war more justly than they have been, and then I would have begun to divert the enormous resources we put in to the Vietnam war — close to a trillion dollars — to divert those resources to things like healthcare, universal healthcare for the United States, assistance for students to go on to higher education — something like the G.I. Bill which permitted me after World War Two to go all the way to a PhD in history at Northwestern all at government expense — I would have advocated something like that for students.
I wanted to build a trans-continental railway system – the fastest, the cleanest, the safest, the most comfortable train system in the world. I wish we had it now that our airline system is under such strain that our airline system is almost inoperable.
Then I would have change America’s role in the world from a confrontational affair that assumed we had to intervene every place where some rival ideology raised its force to a more cooperative, sensible approach to the globe. So I think that we missed a great turning point for the better in ’72 — I don’t say that as a boast but because we had that great army of millions of Americans, well organised and ready for change. We didn’t have enough to win the election — we did have enough to fill the government with well-motivated Americans who would put us on a new course.
22 October 2012