George McGovern on Liberalism's Past, Present and Future

AP Photo/Chet Brokaw

George McGovern

Gambit | October 22, 2004
A first-term Republican president occupies the White House. The country is divided over a war that some call a quagmire. The Democratic challenger, a senator and a war hero, is campaigning against the administration’s military policy and raising questions about a draft.

As it lurches toward Nov. 2, the 2004 presidential election is strangely echoing the 1972 battle between President Richard Nixon and South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. In that race, McGovern campaigned loudly as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. Using ruthless tactics and painting his opponent as un-American, Nixon scored a major victory, winning 49 out of 50 states (he lost only in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) before seeing his presidency unravel in the Watergate scandal.

To most voters, McGovern will always be associated with his 1972 bid for president, and the cultural wars and political battles of the era. To some Democrats, his name also evokes a brand of liberalism that translates to lost elections. When Vermont Gov. Howard Dean began an unexpected surge during the primaries, many in the party not-too-quietly feared “another McGovern.”

But McGovern — who will be discussing his new book, THE ESSENTIAL AMERICA: OUR FOUNDERS AND THE LIBERAL TRADITION, this Friday at the Garden District Book Shop — is much more than a historical footnote. In addition to serving in the Senate for 18 years, he directed the Food for Peace program during the Kennedy administration, served as ambassador to the United Nations under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and in 1997 was named the U.S. Representative to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. McGovern’s tireless work to end hunger in the United States and in the world led him more than once to cross party lines to work with like-minded colleagues such as Republican Sen. Bob Dole.

McGovern was also a longtime friend of the late historian Stephen Ambrose, who wrote about McGovern’s military experiences in his book THE WILD BLUE and called the senator “one of the greatest patriots I know.” McGovern’s career is the subject of a new collection of essays titled GEORGE MCGOVERN: A POLITICAL LIFE, A POLITICAL LEGACY.

Earlier this month, McGovern, 82, spoke on the phone from his home in Mitchell, S.D., about his ongoing work. As he talked, Eleanor McGovern, his wife of 61 years, did the dishes. The couple’s home stands across the street from Dakota Wesleyan University, where they met as college freshman and George McGovern began what friends and foes agree is one of the most principled careers in modern American politics.

Q: You published your new book, THE ESSENTIAL AMERICA, just as the current presidential race started heating up. These past few months, we’ve been discussing John Kerry’s and George Bush’s actions during the Vietnam War as much as any other issue. Are you surprised by just how much time has been spent in the 2004 race re-debating Vietnam?

A: Yes, I hadn’t anticipated that. I suppose it grew out of two things. Number one, that Kerry wanted to make clear that even though he was a liberal Democrat, he was also willing to fight for the country as a young man, and he would exercise the same care as president. And then Bush’s frantic effort to undercut that position by somehow clouding Kerry’s war record, which is a brilliant record in my opinion.

Q: In your 1972 race, you were the anti-war candidate, and voters didn’t associate you with your own military record. Not until nearly 30 years later, when Stephen Ambrose wrote about your military experiences in his book THE WILD BLUE, did most people even know you saw combat.

A: You know, most World War II veterans never discuss their records publicly. John Kennedy’s father made sure that everybody knew about PT 109, but World War II veterans themselves didn’t boast a lot about their record. I don’t even remember Eisenhower talking much about his experience on the battlefield. So it wasn’t really until Steve Ambrose’s book came out that the reading public knew about my record in wartime. I probably should have made more of it in the campaign in ’72, but you always feel a little bit self-conscious about talking about how brave you are.

Q: John Kerry seems to have overcome that. When he accepted the Democratic nomination by saluting and saying he was reporting for duty, did you think he was being too theatrical about it all?

A: Yeah. Maybe a little bit too much. Particularly since it must have made the Bush people squirm, since it’s not quite clear just what Bush’s record was, how much devotion he had to the National Guard, and how much of that was actually avoidance of service in Vietnam.

Q: Do you think that too little or too much has been made of George Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s actions during the Vietnam era?

A: If he wasn’t so gung-ho about his fierceness as a commander-in-chief and his unequivocal steadfastness against the enemy, I don’t think that people would have mentioned so much about his own lack of a war record. But he almost invited that kind of surveillance of his record and what he had done when he was of military age.

Q: The subtitle of your book is “Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition.” In the second presidential debate, the word “liberal” only came up when George Bush used it as a pejorative.

A: Yeah.

Q: At that point, he seemed to be shifting his campaign focus into trying to paint Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal.

A: The most liberal member of the Senate, I think he said. Which is not true. I think probably Ted Kennedy has the most liberal record, now that Paul Wellstone is gone.

I think one of the problems of the Democratic leadership at times has been that it has not been liberal enough. I recognize that I was overwhelmingly defeated in ’72, but I don’t regret one thing I said in that campaign. I still think it’s common sense.

Q: In the debate, Kerry’s response to Bush was far from a defense of liberalism. He said something like, “We need to get past labels.”

A: I know. I think that’s a mistake. I have a passage in my book where I talk about hearing a prominent liberal senator, when asked about whether he was a liberal or conservative, he said, “Neither one, I’m a pragmatic progressive.” Now, what the hell does that mean? I’m not against that, I’m a pragmatic progressive, too. Or one senator put it the other way: he said he’s a progressive pragmatist. Why not divide the country into liberals and conservatives? Then if you got people who can’t make up their mind, put them in the middle of the road.

Q: Throughout your political career, did you notice a turning point where politicians became afraid to identify themselves with the word “liberal”?

A: I suppose the real onslaught began after my campaign of ’72. There had been some of that before. I had to run against the liberal label every time I was up in South Dakota, and I never backed away from it. I said, “Yes, I’m a liberal in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt.” I’m proud of that label. I think liberals are responsible for every forward step in American history. And I don’t back away from that. I used to say, I want my opponent to tell me which of the liberal programs he will promise us to repeal if he’s elected. Social security? Medicare? Rural electrification? Civil rights? Where’s he going to begin? Most people that I’ve encountered have no answer to that.

Q: When Howard Dean was surging in the polls, you heard a lot of Democrats comparing his candidacy to yours. There was a sense that he was saying what they wanted to hear, saying it with the force they wanted to hear, but that he couldn’t win, it was a dangerous flirtation.

A: I think there were two things that knocked him out of the race. One was the fierce negative battle that developed between Governor Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa, where they just daily blasted each other. And Kerry and Edwards made a conscious decision not to say anything negative about any of the other contenders. The other thing was this feeling that while Dean was saying the right things, he came from a little state way up in the corner of the country, he was a comparatively unknown person — they just didn’t think he could command a majority vote in the general election. So they went for Kerry.

I think those two factors kind of took Dean out of the race. But he defined the Democratic race in 2004, in my opinion. His was the most important voice sounded against Bush, and it led Democrats to think it’s OK to go after Bush.

Q: John Kerry is now being accused of having started really speaking out against the war in an effort to attract Dean supporters.

A: There may be some half-truth in that, I don’t know. I don’t think this country can stand another four years of Bush. That’s my view. I would take anybody in that Democratic line-up from John Kerry down to Reverend Sharpton, in preference to Bush. I say down to Reverend Sharpton, because he came in last in the polls.

Q: Gary Hart — who served as director of your presidential campaign — once wrote about the “passive centrist,” saying the worst place for leadership during a period of polarization is in the center. Do you think that Democrats, John Kerry included, have erred by trying to race to the center?

A: There’s been too much. It may be true that most Americans consider themselves in the middle of the road. But that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t need forceful leadership that takes strong positions on our unresolved problems. We’re not going to solve the problem of health care without a liberal solution. We’re not going to resolve the environmental hazards without liberal solutions. We’re not going to prevent stupid wars like this plunge into the Arabian desert, without a strong liberal leadership.

Now we’re getting some of that today. Curiously enough, we got it with Bob Byrd from West Virginia, who was a big conservative, originally. Tom Harkin, from Iowa, Barbara Boxer from California. We get it from Senator Kennedy, we get it from even certain Republicans, like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, a very good man.

Q: Could you give me your working definitions of “liberal” and “conservative”?

A: A conservative believes in a limited government, a balanced budget, fiscal restraint, caution in international interventions. A liberal believes in a strong federal government with a constructive role played on the side of ordinary Americans. But conservatives, from the very beginning, from John Adams and Alexander Hamilton down to George Bush, have tended to use the power of government to advance the interest of the business and commercial classes. The liberals have tended to work for the interests of the average Americans — farmers, workers, small merchants, the elderly, minorities, and so forth. That’s broadly the difference.

Now neither side is always consistent. Right now, Bush is running up the biggest national debt in the history of America. Reagan did the same thing when he was in office — all of the restraints were off. So those are violations of the conservative tenet. I would argue that the war in Iraq is another violation of the conservative philosophy.

Q: George Will and some other conservative columnists would agree with you on that point. I even read a Cal Thomas column from 2001 about Vietnam that was titled “George McGovern was Right.”

A: You know, I saw that. That ol’ Cal isn’t always wrong. (Laughs.) Most days he is. Not that day.

Q: Of all the Republican leaders you’ve worked with, who taught you the most?

A: Probably Bob Dole.

Q: What did you learn from Dole?

A: I learned how to legislate, how to get a bill through. I learned the importance of having a bi-partisan partner in anything you’re really serious about getting through Congress. That Congress has been so evenly balanced the last 15, 20 years, that you just about have to have bi-partisan support to move any important thing through the legislative mill, and Bob and I have been doing that together the last 10 years I was in the Senate, and in the 20 years since I left the Senate. I’ve come to know him as a reliable and solid friend and colleague.

We don’t agree on everything — we don’t agree on the war in Iraq. We didn’t agree on the war in Vietnam. But we do agree on almost anything that touches on the issues rising out of food and agriculture.

Q: Bill Clinton became a two-term president by perfecting the strategy of triangulation, of co-opting his opponents’ message. He said that the era of big government is over, among other statements. Did his strategy make it harder for liberals to call themselves liberal?

A: I think so. I thought that Clinton was a successful president. He was especially good on economics, with Bob Rubin calling the shots on how to handle fiscal issues. Employment went up, inflation was under control, he ends up with a half-billion surplus in the budget, which Bush promptly turned into a half-billion-dollar deficit each year. So I think that Clinton was a successful president, especially in the field of economics.

Q: But not one that made it easier to be a liberal.

A: No he didn’t make it easier to be a liberal, because he avoided the word. He took no time to explain what liberalism was. Maybe that’s what you have to do to get to the White House, in view of the mood the country was in then. But I think the day will come when we’ll have a candidate who says, “You’re damn right I’m a liberal, and I stand in the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Harry Truman.”

Q: You begin THE ESSENTIAL AMERICA by speaking very candidly about your faith and about your father, who was a Methodist clergyman. You hear some Democrats saying that they need to reclaim religion, that in the eyes of too many Americans, God has become Republican.

A: Yeah, I think that’s true.

Q: How did the Democrats let that happen?

A: These Republican strategists are shameless. They’ll do anything for a vote. Now, maybe some Democrats will, too. I don’t say we’re free of that entirely. But they have made a conscious effort to claim three things as Republican monopolies: the flag, the Bible and the family. Family values, whatever the hell that is. Faith-based initiatives. Stand up for your country.

They’re all worthy things. I’m for the flag, I’m for the family, I’ve got five kids and a wife, been married to the same woman for 61 years. So I’m for family values, and I’m for the Judeo-Christian ethic, which has been the prevailing religious doctrine in this country. I’m for that. I believe in the Hebrew prophets, I believe in the Sermon on the Mount, I always have. But I don’t think you ought to wear your religion on your sleeve, and I don’t think you ought to be waving the flag all the time, and posing as a saint because you’re loyal to your family. Those are just common-sense virtues that every American shares.

But the Republicans say that if you’re for the pro-choice position on abortion, you’re against God, you’re against the family, and you’re undermining America. If you don’t support the war in Iraq, or the venture into the jungles in Vietnam, you’re not an American. So they use these symbols and manipulate them in a way that makes Democrats seem kind of gutless and kind of halfway unpatriotic. And I think that’s been one of the great political problems the Democrats have had to contend with.

Now, Clinton handled it shrewdly and effectively. I’m not sure it was the best way in the long run, but in the short run, he ended the welfare system, he went after Milosovic, he fired missiles in response to terrorist attacks, and so on. He was for the death penalty. He even flew down to Arkansas to witness [the execution] of a mentally retarded boy down there. So he did things that conservatives liked. And it drove Bob Dole up the wall, because everything Dole was for, Clinton would say, “I’m for, too. I’m for controlling taxes and controlling spending, this is what we’ve done.” He kept Dole wondering where he could get an edge anywhere. Nonetheless, he won two terms for the presidency and you’ve got to hand it to him.

Q: Gary Hart wrote about his experiences in your 1972 campaign in his book RIGHT FROM THE START. It includes a map showing how the McGovern campaign criss-crossed the country. But you don’t see any lines going through the South in that map. For the Democrats, was it a mistake to let the South go Republican, or was there simply no way to prevent it?

A: It really wasn’t clear to Democrats what was going on. We had a chance to pick up a number of those Southern states. First of all, you had a growing black vote. If we had concentrated enough energy, time, effort and money on getting out that black vote across the states of the old Confederacy, and then presented an appealing message to the more enlightened whites, we might have carried several states in the Deep South.

I’m not running for president again, but if I were, I think I’d kick off my campaign in Atlanta or New Orleans or Austin, Texas, or some place like that. And then work north after making a dozen stops in different places in the South. I thought about another run, and that’s what I was going to do. I was going to take a boat trip up the Mississippi River and stop at every town. Something I didn’t do in 1972.

Q: More than anything else in your long career, you’ve worked on the issue of world hunger. What is the essential thing that Americans need to know about hunger?

A: It’s the number one problem for at least one out of seven people on the planet. Eight hundred million people are chronically hungry. I don’t mean that they’re the victims of floods or hurricanes — they’re chronically hungry throughout their lives. Obviously, to those 800 million people, hunger is the number one problem. Anyone who doesn’t think that, just go without eating anything except maybe half a serving of porridge for 30 days, and see what it is that you regard as your number one problem. Or watch one of your children waste away and die with the flu, because they’re so weakened from malnutrition.

But it also creates problems for all the rest of us. It means the amount of disease in the world increases, it means the productivity of the planet is decreased, it may even feed the anger and hatred and bitterness behind the terrorist impulse. Why is it that young Arabs in their fury turn against the United States? I think part of what they hate is the misery of their own lives and the untimely death of their brothers and sisters.

I wish the Bush people would just take off one day at least, instead of telling us that they’re going to try to hunt these people down and kill them, just ask themselves, why? Why do they do this? Why do they try to knock down the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What is it about those symbols that infuriates militant young men across the Middle East? Hunger is one of the things that feeds that. I’m convinced of that.

We saw those great towers, the World Trade towers come down, I was horrified. I hadn’t seen anything like that since I dropped bombs myself, in World War II. To us, it was awful. But what about the frustrated, angry, resentful young guy sitting out there without a job in a village in Afghanistan or Pakistan, even the back country of Saudi Arabia. What do they think when they see one of those gigantic buildings come down and the side of the Pentagon torn open by their people, people their ages? I think they figure, by God, now maybe they’ll notice us.

Q: You once said, “Freedom is not divisible. You cannot be free to support and not to oppose.” I don’t hear anybody in leadership today speaking so clearly in favor of dissent itself.

A: We haven’t had much, have we? But that’s one of the founding principals of American life. We began with the Boston Tea Party. That was rougher than anything I’ve ever done. I’ve never even dumped anybody’s CUP of tea over, purposefully. But that’s the way it was in the early days with Sam Adams and Patrick Henry. Give me liberty or give me death.

Q: Do you still endure charges that you are un-American?

A: Not much anymore. I think Steve Ambrose kind of killed that. I haven’t heard that for several years, now.

Q: Yet you’re still speaking out as forcefully as ever. Last year, you published an essay titled “The Reason Why” in THE NATION, calling Bush “a president of painfully limited wisdom and compassion and lacking any sense of the nation’s true greatness.” You added that he’s aided by what you called a timid Congress, a compliant Supreme Court and a subservient press.

A: The major papers, the WASHINGTON POST, the NEW YORK TIMES, all rejected that piece.

Q: At 82 years old, a lot of statesmen would be happy to sit back and work on their memoirs or libraries. Why do you still feel compelled to stay in the fight?

A: I don’t know what drives me. I guess I still think I influence some opinions around the country. I don’t know how much, but I could never just retire and drop out of life. People keep asking me when I’m going to write my memoirs, and I tell them, after I get old.

Sen. George McGovern will sign and discuss his book THE ESSENTIAL AMERICA: OUR FOUNDERS AND THE LIBERAL TRADITION at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 29 at the Garden District Book Shop (2727 Prytania St.). For more information, call 895-2266.


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