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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

  •  INTERVIEW: GEORGE MCGOVERN

    George McGovern on peace and progress, then and now



    Continued | Back to part 3

    Q: My perception of the time since '72 is that the Democrats for most of that period have been very intimidated, as if they believe that there is a "silent majority" against them. Maybe '84 being about the pinnacle of that — at that time they were especially intimidated by Reagan.

      
    GEORGE MCGOVERN
     

    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.
     RELATED ARTICLES


      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.

     AUDIO 
    Interview, Sept. 15, 2005   MP3
    GEORGE MCGOVERN: That's possible. I've thought the same thing myself — that the Democrats seem to have taken on a kind of timidity that isn't natural for people who are in the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy. We shouldn't be cowardly and silent, just because we've taken a couple of beatings.

    After the Goldwater defeat in '64, there was a certain amount of anxiety over whether the Republicans could ever rise from the ashes. Well, we all know that that was '64 — in '68 they were back in the White House, and they've been there a majority of the time since.

    Steve Vittoria, who's sitting over here, is a tremendous Hollywood filmmaker, and this film he's made about me I want to just say a word about. I love that film. Not because it's so flattering to me — it's other people who are talking, not me. You don't find me boasting in that film. But you have people that I admire, saying good things about that operation in '72, how much it has meant to them in the 33 years since then. And I think he's done a brilliant job of putting it together. ... And I think this is a film that's going to have an impact on viewers that see it.

    Q: Well, let me ask Steve a question or two. How did you decide to do this film?

    STEPHEN VITTORIA: I was a teenager when Senator McGovern ran, and I was fiercely anti-war. I saw kids coming back in my neighborhood in body bags — in '70-'71, up to 2,000 a week sometimes. Jerry Rubin said that you shouldn't trust anyone over 30 back int he '60s. Well, George McGovern was one of those people that you could trust. And you got the sense that he wasn't running for something — that he was literally trying to end the war. After the McGovern-Hatfield amendment, I think the main reason he ran was that the only way to stop the war was to win the White House. It wasn't going to stop any other way. And that was a campaign that, for me, was my one bright shinink moment; I think it's the country's one bright shining moment. We try to make that little dramatic irony there and say that the ultimate political defeat of the 20th century may in fact be its high-water mark.


      
    "The Democrats seem to have taken on a kind of timidity that isn't natural for people who are in the party of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Woodrow Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy. We shouldn't be cowardly and silent, just because we've taken a couple of beatings."  

      
    I became a bit of a political atheist for a good number of years. You know, once you kind of figure out that the system is a bit rigged and if the country can actually pick a Richard Nixon over a George McGovern — I don't know if there's ever been that clear-cut of a choice. I just kind of stayed in the shadows. And after eight years of what I considered to be cowardice and compromise by the Clinton administration and four years of insanity with the neoconservative administration, I felt it was time to tell a story that might frame some sanity for a body politic that has been witnessing, and unfortunately accepting, for the most part, behavior that most of the time appears to be insane. ...

    It's interesting you talk about — I think Gloria Steinem talked about it in the film — always hearing McGovern's name associated with failure and losing instead of with a great mind of history, or prescience. And George McGovern's always been on the forefront of thinking, I think. It's hard to talk about when he's in the room. At the height of McCarthyism, you know, here was a very young congressman talking about the military-industrial complex and the insanity of the Cold War. As a two-month freshman senator, he got up on the floor of the United States Senate and broke from the administration to talk about America's "Castro fixation." The speech about Vietnam in '63. You know, it's a great American and an American with courage, who never backed down.

    That was the wonderful thing about the '72 campaign — that it was truthful. He dealt honestly with the American people. There were mistakes made, and he lost so badly. The thing that interests me as a filmmaker is, you deal straight with the American people, you don't want to kill them, you want to provide health care, you want to provide education, you're a populist candidate — and you get slaughtered. What does that say? So that's what interests me about the film — revisiting a buried piece of history, and trying to unearth it, and say, "You know, there might be a light underneath this bucket." A man and a campaign that's just been vilified for so long.

      Filmmaker Stephen Vittoria in George McGovern
      Filmmaker Stephen Vittoria
    Q: Is there an element of that story that surprised you when you found out about it?

    STEPHEN VITTORIA: Yes! Absolutely! You know, I knew that there was McGovern-Nixon, obviously, and I realized that the Democrats weren't as supportive as they could be. I didn't realize that they were as destructive as they were — the labor, the other candidates. Humphrey in California — a lot of those charges that Humphrey was throwing around in California were the same charges that the Nixon campaign used a couple of months later. That's what surprised me that much. Why was George McGovern threatening [to] his own party? Here was a man who was an FDR liberal, someone who believed in the tenets of the Democratic Party and had the courage to look at the canvas of the United States of America, see the stains, see the mistakes, and say: We have to change this. We have to change it real quick. I saw it, at that time, as strictly trying to save lives — not only American lives but Vietnamese lives. This was insanity — it was a free-falling murder spree. It had to stop, and here was a man that was putting his life on the line to stop it. So for me it wasn't a Democrat-Republican thing — those tend to be a little bit simple. This was about an American patriot of courage, and it's been an honor to tell the story.

    Q: The film describes the '72 convention — in fact, the '72 convention speech — as the "one bright shining moment" that emerged from the whole story. And I think the point of view that I found interesting there was that it was the point where a whole combination of social movements, that may have been somewhat separate before, converged. That seems to be what the film says.

    STEPHEN VITTORIA: Absolutely.

    Q: And I would say that the Democratic Party hasn't been on a winning streak since '72, but those movements have had their effects since then. Do you think it's an important moment for that reason?

    STEPHEN VITTORIA: Absolutely. McGovern for President lost, but the changes were out there. I've heard people say, "Okay, so what that he lost." I think Gary Hart said it in the film: "People who make change often don't win." It's not always about winning. And I think that the McGovern commission literally transformed presidential politics with the inclusion of youth and minorities and women. I think Democrats like [Richard] Daley and [George] Meany and Humphrey and some of those guys, they wanted their party back. And maybe we lose an election — though we might think we had not much of a chance to win anyway. And if McGovern goes down in flames, then [it was thought] the changes that he made go down in flames with him. And I think the journey of the film — a number of people, I think, back that up, that they wanted to see this campaign go down in flames and take some of those progressives [with it]. You know, here was McGovern reaching out to dissident movements — he had a platform with gay rights and strong civil rights. And I think it threatens the establishment, it threatens the status quo, the power structure when you position people first. And I think that's what McGovern for President did, it positioned people first — and not only American people but the world's people. And that's real threatening to the establishment.


      
    "The thing that interests me as a filmmaker is, you deal straight with the American people, you don't want to kill them, you want to provide health care, you want to provide education, you're a populist candidate — and you get slaughtered. What does that say?"  
    — Stephen Vittoria  

      
    Q: Senator McGovern, how involved were you in making the film, and has this occasion made you think about your life differently than before?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yes, it's given me a new appreciation for a significant chapter in my life — that '72 campaign. I thrilled, watching the campaign, to see how Warren Beatty, the great Academy Award-winning actor; Gloria Steinem, one of the leading feminist voices in the country; Dick Gregory, the great black activist and champion of justice; Frank Mankiewicz, who was my campaign political director; Gary Hart — all of these people that I think so highly of [spoke about the campaign]. And yes, I was involved quite closely in the development of the film. Steve frequently called me and we visited over the telephone. he sometimes came to see me to do some more interrogation and some filming — that was done several times. I think once he came to Montana and once to my home in South Dakota. We did some filming out in Los Angeles, where he has his home office. So I felt that I was closely involved with the film at every stage.

    Q: And what has it told you about yourself?

    GEORGE MCGOVERN: That I'm not too bad a guy. [Laughs.] That I have had some impact on many people's lives. I very much like the film because it left me with an upbeat feeling at the end. That's hard to do with a candidate that's lost as heavily as I did, but I think Steve Vittoria saw beyond the percentages and the election outcome to what it was we were trying to do, and what in fact we did accomplish with that losing campaign. I got less than 30 million votes, which was not enough to stop Mr. Nixon. But it was enough, I think, to stop the war in Vietnam. Once 30 million voters went to the polls and said, "We're going to support a candidate who has pledged to stop this war as soon as he's inaugurated," I think Nixon and all his men realized they had to terminate the war. The Congress did too, and as you may know, the Congress moved to terminate the war even before Nixon did.


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    SEPTEMBER 21, 2005
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