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  • Interview: Eric Foner on freedom
  • Interview: George McGovern on Vietnam, Iraq and the election of 1972
  • Interview: Maurice Isserman on the 1960s, Vietnam and Iraq
  • Interview: Thomas Keck on judicial activism and the conservative Supreme Court
  • Interview: Bard O'Neill on Insurgency and Terrorism and the Iraq War


    George McGovern on peace and progress, then and now

    Continued | Back to part 2

    Q: The '72 election is well covered in the movie. I think if our time is limited, I might just ask you a few questions about things after '72. In 1984 you ran for president again in the Democratic primary. First of all, what did you see in '84 that made you want to run again?


    Thirty-three years after his proud but doomed campaign for president, George McGovern is the subject of a new documentary that raises the still-relevant issues of the 1960s and '70s and looks at the positive side of an election that is often viewed as a disaster. We talked to the former South Dakota senator and filmmaker Stephen Vittoria in New York before the film's premiere.

      Review: One Bright Shining Moment
    An admiring documentary tells the story of George McGovern — not just the guy who got clobbered by Nixon but the one who inspired a generation and opened the political system to social change.

    Interview, Sept. 15, 2005   MP3
    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, I hadn't intended to run in '84 — otherwise, I wouldn't have waited till the other candidates had been campaigning for a year before I got in. But I was distressed that some of the issues I thought were most important weren't even mentioned in that first year. One of those was our policy in Central America — Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala. All across Central America, the Reagan administration was intervening — I thought illegally, in violation of international law. The CIA was in up to their elbows. So was the Pentagon. So was the White House. You know about the Iran-contra scandal [which became public two years later].

    And since nobody was mentioning Central America, as though it weren't even there, in the Democratic camp — obviously nobody in the Republican camp — I thought somebody had to do that. I thought somebody had to talk about the need for national health care. Somebody needed to talk about the financing of higher education. You know, these great universities in America are so expensive now, you've got to be as rich as Croesus to send your children to one of these schools. Nobody was talking about that. Nobody was talking about the military budget — except they were arguing among themselves about how much it should be increased. [Laughs.] Why did we need to increase it when we already had enough power to blow the world up 10 times over? So did the Russians. Either side could have killed everybody on the planet — why did you need more?

    "Since nobody [in 1984] was mentioning Central America, as though it weren't even there, I thought somebody had to do that. I thought somebody had to talk about the need for national health care. Somebody needed to talk about the financing of higher education."  

    So those were the questions I wanted to raise, and I said that unless I won or came in second in the first two primaries I would get out, which is what I did. I came in [third] in Iowa, but I didn't do well in New Hampshire. Then I came in [third] in the third one, which is Massachusetts. If I'd have come in second in Massachusetts, I could have stayed in under the pledge I'd made. ... I'm glad I was in. I never heard any criticism of it after I [ran]. A lot of people thought I made more sense than the ones who stayed in and went all the way to the convention.

    Q: I was going to say exactly that. My memory of that campaign is that a lot of the coverage started out with, "There's old McGovern — what does he think he's doing? He has no chance of winning." And then people started to say, "Oh, actually, he speaks plainer and makes more sense than the other people who are running."

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah. Yeah. I heard that everywhere I went. There were people weeping in Boston the night I withdrew, but I had said, I'm going to get out if I don't come in first or second in the first couple of primaries. And my daughters begged me to stay in. They were just broken up that I took myself out. The Boston Globe wrote a long editorial saying, this is a mistake for George McGovern to get out, because if he stays in there and continues to talk common sense like this, and let the chips fall where they may, by the time we get to some of the big primaries — New York and California — he may be in a position to pre-empt that nomination. I don't lose any sleep over that. I gave it a shot. I was trying to influence the discussion of issues. And after my intervention in the campaign, everybody started talking about Central America and about health care and about whether we ought to increase military spending any further. So it was worth doing. I have a clear conscience about that.

    Q: It seems like, from maybe 1980 on, starting with John Anderson, there's been one candidate every four years whom the media and the public look at as a kind of straw candidate who's not really there to win but who's just there to talk sense. And people don't want to vote for that person but they want to hear from that person.


    Q: Why does that happen? Why do we want to hear from them; why don't we want to vote for them?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Because you make a judgement they can't be elected. They don't have enough money; they didn't get in early enough; they are making so much sense that the public just won't go for them. They're not flashy enough. I never knew why people went for Nixon, to tell you the truth. I didn't think he had any charm. But people have various reasons for why they vote the way they do, and I guess my shorthand answer to that is, I don't know.

      "Would John Kerry have done better if there were more difference between him and Bush on what seemed to me two of the central questions — the war in Iraq and the tax reductions? It's hard to know, isn't it?"
    Q: I wonder if there's a deficit of politicians with serious chances and with campaign funds who are willing to speak courageously.

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Maybe. Maybe that's the problem. Would John Kerry have done better if there were more difference between him and Bush on what seemed to me two of the central questions — the war in Iraq and the tax reductions? I don't know. Would he have done better or would he have done worse? It's hard to know, isn't it?

    I know how I would have done much better in '72, and that is if George Wallace had not been shot, because he fully intended to run in all the Democratic primaries and do well, which he did — next to me, he won the most primaries. And then, knowing that he would never be given the Democratic nomination, he intended to run as an independent, as he did in '68, when he got 10 million votes — I'm sure, almost all of those at Nixon's expense. He almost elected Humphrey. He was much stronger in '72 because he had run in all the primaries. If he had not been shot a month before I was nominated, I think he'd have taken 20 million votes, 90 percent of them away from Nixon. And under those circumstances, I might have won that race in a three-way contest. That's what Ross Perot did in the year 1992. He got about 19 percent of the vote — almost 20 million votes — and most of that was at the expense of George Bush Sr.

    Q: In the last election, when Howard Dean started to do well, there was a whispering campaign — including, I heard this from Democrats and liberal bloggers — that they were afraid that Dean was going to be "another McGovern." What does that mean to you? What does it mean to be "another McGovern"?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: It means you lose! [Laughs.] I guess. I always wondered why they forgot that I was the only Democrat in a quarter of a century elected in South Dakota. I won the nomination in '72 against formidable candidates like Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie. They seem to have forgotten about that — that I put together an almost miraculous bid for the nomination. And as I just said, in the general election, if Wallace had not been shot, that would have been a close election. I might even have won it. If I hadn't have stumbled on the Eagleton affair, we might have won. If I'd have given my acceptance speech at 9 o'clock prime time, instead of 2:30 to 3:30 in the morning when everybody was asleep except my mother and my wife, that might have made a difference. None of those things had anything to do with ideology. They were procedural matters, some of which I could control and some I couldn't.

    So there's a whole industry of political columnists who love to talk about McGovernism and McGovern as some kind of swear word. But I'm proud of that '72 campaign. We never told any lies. We never tried to deceive anybody. I never said anything I didn't believe. And I go to bed at night now and sleep like a stone, and I don't have any big desire to trade places with the winner of that '72 campaign. Not simply because he's dead — even if he were still alive, I wouldn't want to trade places with him. I think those charges about McGovernism are beginning to ring a little hollow. I don't know how many people swallow that. You walk down the street with me in any city in America, and you'll see I get a pretty positive reaction from rank-and-file Americans.

    Continued: Previous | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next

    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005

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