WASHINGTON – George McGovern is turning 85 on Thursday.
He looks good. He speaks slowly, but then he always did. It’s the gait of the Plains.
His hair has receded, but not noticeably farther than when he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at the 1972 convention in Miami Beach.
“My hair started falling out in World War II,” McGovern explains in an interview in a law office eight blocks from the White House, 35 years to the day after winning his party’s nomination. “I was a bomber pilot. You had the sheepskin helmet and then the goggles over your eyes, and then an oxygen mask. Your head was completely sealed and some of those missions were 10, 12, 14 hours long, and that’s when my hair started falling out.”
When John Kennedy narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in 1960 everybody knew about PT 109. But when Nixon trounced McGovern a dozen years later, how many voters knew the gentle-tempered anti-war Democrat had flown 35 B-24 missions over North Africa and Italy, that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross?
“I think we should have talked more about my own combat record,” McGovern says. “President Kennedy in everybody’s mind was a war hero. I should have done something like that against Brother Nixon and company in 1972.”
It is the fate of those who run for president, and lose, to forever fret the ifs. But on this visit he will be surrounded by scores of folks who consider his losing cause their finest hour. He has returned to Washington from South Dakota for a series of events celebrating his birthday and the anniversary of his nomination.
The timing is good. Another very unpopular war has given McGovern’s worldview currency. And the release of a new collection of Nixon White House tapes for the first weeks of November 1972 offer vivid evidence that McGovern secured his place in history with the enemies that he made.
“Did you ever see such an irresponsible campaign as this clown put on?” Nixon can be heard asking Nelson Rockefeller in the wee hours of the morning after the election, savoring his sweep of every state save Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
Next Nixon is on the phone to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger complaining about McGovern. “You know this fellow to the last was a prick.”
It was, of course, the same secret White House tapes that yielded the smoking gun in the Watergate scandal, leading to Nixon’s resignation in the summer of 1974.
But despite McGovern’s reputation (outside Nixon’s circle, at least) as an honest and honorable man, he has also carried the taint of 1972.
“The dread disease of McGovernism,” he says dryly – shorthand for an unvarnished liberalism and especially a perceived weakness on national defense.
In April, Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech before the Heritage Foundation in Chicago, said Democrats were embracing McGovernism anew.
And perhaps also, the public at large. According to recent polls, there is more support for initiating impeachment proceedings against Bush and Cheney than there is for the Iraq war.
“Nobody is going to get elected to the White House on a promise of continuing this war,” McGovern says. The Democratic presidential candidates – “one of the best fields we’ve ever had,” he says – agree. And yet, as in 2004, Democrats are struggling to frame their opposition to the war without tempting McGovern’s fate.
“It wasn’t my position on the war that cost us that election,” McGovern says of 1972.
He returns to the “ifs.”
If only George Wallace, who drew millions of votes from Nixon in 1968, hadn’t been shot. If only the convention’s dithering on the vice presidential balloting hadn’t pushed his acceptance speech into the middle of the night – his “Come Home America” oration delivered as America slept. If only he had not chosen Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri as his running mate, only to have to replace him with Sargent Shriver when it was revealed that Eagleton had received electric shock treatment for depression.
“Sure, Eagleton,” Nixon tells special counsel Harry Dent in an election post-mortem. But, Nixon says of McGovern, “His tactics didn’t lose it, his issues lost it.”
There’s no doubt McGovern was different than any other major party nominee since the end of the Second World War in his view of the Cold War.
Where other Democratic nominees revered Harry Truman, the architect of America’s Cold War policies, McGovern’s hero was Henry Wallace, who preceded Truman as FDR’s vice president and once appeared his heir apparent.
McGovern was a delegate to the Progressive Party Convention that nominated Wallace for president in 1948 against Truman on a platform that sought rapprochement with the Soviet Union.
“I always thought the Cold War was vastly overdone, both by the Russians and by the U.S., until Gorbachev came along and said, “This is nuts,’ and Reagan agreed with him,” McGovern says. “That surprised me. That’s the highest mark that I would give to Ronald Reagan. He went along with Gorbachev’s proposal to go put an end to the Cold War.”
Of course, the more conventional American story line has the sequence reversed, with Reagan in 1987 in West Berlin commanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” and Gorbachev complying.
“That’s a lot of nonsense,” says McGovern, smiling at what he considers the naivete of that narrative.
McGovern opposed the Vietnam War from the start. He opposed the Iraq War from the start. But he supported the first Gulf War, which he viewed as justified and which was executed with international support. He supported the invasion of Afghanistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden.
Still, ultimately, like Henry Wallace, he believes America’s best defense in a dangerous world is to feed the hungry and succor the poor.
“I’m for a strong national defense. I don’t want us to disarm ourselves to the point where we can’t defend our country,” he says. “I don’t see why we need a military budget bigger than that of the rest of the world’s nations combined when none of them want to go to war with us. There’s no Hitler out there, no Imperial Japan as there was in 1941, no Joe Stalin in Russia.”
But what of terrorism?
“Terrorism is not a military threat,” McGovern says. “You can’t deal with terrorists with a battleship or aircraft carrier or even an army. You’ve got this little band of desert warriors hiding out there. They’re not a military threat to the United Sates.”
“Didn’t you think he was about the worst candidate?” Nixon asks Dent in his election post-mortem. “Even last night, he starts out nicely in his (concession speech) and proceeded to jut his jaw out and said he was not going to support this or that. I came on I thought quite graceful to the son of a bitch.”
The most famous quote of all about McGovern came from his friend Robert Kennedy.
“I sometimes think George is the only thoroughly decent man in the United States Senate.”
High praise, but perhaps one that suggests a purity so rare precisly because it is not compatible with the demands of politics. Maybe Kennedy, in his admiring way, was agreeing with Nixon that McGovern was not cut from the right cloth to be president.
If so, McGovern says now, “I guess he was right.”
His generation is passing into history.
After Gerald Ford’s death McGovern revealed that he voted for Ford – a congenial moderate Republican, “like my father” – over Jimmy Carter in 1976, though he thinks Carter has emerged as the “most constructive and creative of all our former presidents.”
Lady Bird Johnson, who died July 11, initiated a correspondence with McGovern a few years ago after he was quoted saying that “except for Vietnam, Johnson would have gone down as one of the greatest presidents in our history.”
He thinks Lady Bird, after Eleanor Roosevelt, may have been our greatest first lady. But he allows himself the tender bias that if he had been elected president, his wife, Eleanor, who died in January, “would have gone down as one of the great first ladies, maybe the greatest.”
They were married 63 years.
As for himself, he says, “I think history will judge me favorably. … I think my opposition first to the Vietnam War and the equally foolish one that we are in in Iraq, I think that will stand up well in history.”
And, he says, “I think the battle I’ve waged all my public life against hunger both at home and abroad, will be a good credit.”
McGovern was named the first director of the Food for Peace program by President Kennedy and in 1962 he led a delegation to meet Pope John XXIII at the Vatican.
“We were arguing, should we kiss his ring, or what,” recalls McGovern, the son of a Methodist minister. But when he entered, “the pope held out a big hand and shook hands with every one of us around the room. When he came to me, he said, “Mr. McGovern, when you go to meet your maker and he asks, “Did you feed the hungry,’ you could say, “I did.”‘