The Campaign Tapes

Senator George McGovern

Senator George McGovern

George McGovern was the 1972 Democratic Presidential nominee, who suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of incumbent President Richard Nixon. McGovern had won the Democratic nomination through a groundbreaking primary and caucus campaign which mobilized a grassroots army of youthful baby-boomer volunteers – many who saw McGovern as the heir to the legacy of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated during the 1968 primary contest.

In this interview, McGovern talks about his Presidential bid, including the White House dirty tricks campaign waged against Democrats which culminated in the Watergate break-in. He also talks wistfully about how America might have changed had he won the Presidency, and gives his personal perspective on the murders of his friends John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Senator McGovern spoke to me at the McGovern Centre and Library at the Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota, on a bitterly cold January day in 2008. This is the second part of a two-part conversation; you can watch and read the first part here. Segments of this interview appear in the documentary film “First Stop, Iowa” and in the book “Vote for Me”.



John 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...

Senator George McGovern: I consider it every four years! (Laughs)

Barron: Still?

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. Ii 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 and KennedyMcGovern: 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: Can we talk a little about the 1972 campaign – Pat Buchanan told me about the way they went through all the documents on you, your public statements and voting record and pulled out one or two things they could use against you – what are your recollections of having what’s described as a “dirty tricks campaign” being waged against you?

McGovern: It was devastating, I didn’t realise at the time how effective they were. They picked out three things and they just pounded those day and night on these little 30 second spots, sometimes up to 60 seconds on television, on radio, in direct mail, pounding away “George McGovern would take away our national defense”- they found were I had offered amendments to reduce the military budget, which I was proud of because I thought there were certain areas where it was excessive – but they had a hand on the television spots showing me wiping away half the navy, the next day half the army, the day after the Marine Corps. “WEAK ON DEFENSE, WEAK ON DEFENSE”. They had me advocating a plan to help poor people into a plan where practically everybody in the United States should be put on welfare – I said in the campaign that everyone should have at least a thousand dollar income base for every American, and it was very similar to a proposal President Nixon made then pulled away from. So they had a worker on the top floor of a building looking down – everybody else is loafing, they’re all on George McGovern’s welfare system.

Thomas EagletonThen I had to replace my Vice Presidential nominee (Senator Tom Eagleton) in the election because it turned out he’d had a history of mental depression treated with electric-shock therapy and so on... and they had me changing my mind – they had a coin spinning; “Senator McGovern is for Senator Eagleton one day, the next he’s asking his to step down – against defense, everybody’s on welfare, can’t make up his mind” – and they pounded that every day. I thought it was kind of superficial tomfoolery – in a sense it was a cheap shot, but you forget that a lot of people don’t study the issue and don’t study the character of the candidates and their history – they see that ad on television when they come home from work, they see it before they leave for work in the morning, they see it Sunday afternoon, Saturday night on those three issues.

Then they got three highly emotional issues; he’s for drugs, he’s for abortion-on-demand, he’s for amnesty (for draft-evading) soldiers. They called me the “Triple-A candidate” – acid, amnesty, abortion – pounded that night and day and they circulated this by word-of-mouth, by pamphlets, and again I didn’t think that people... here I am, a father, my father was a Methodist minister, I was a combat bomber pilot in world war two decorated with the distinguished flying cross – I didn’t think people would believe that thing – that was a miscalculation on my part.

My position on those issues was quite conservative. On abortion I said leave it up to the states – it’s always been controlled by the states, leave it there – my wife’s never had an abortion, but she doesn’t want to dictate to other women how they make a decision on an unwanted pregnancy.

Acid? No, I was against legalising drugs – I did say that I thought we should turn a first possession of marijuana into a misdemeanour rather than a felony that would send people to jail - that had the practical advantage of not filling our penitentiaries with teenagers – hardly a radical position. Amnesty – I said not during the war< I am against this war but as long as this is the law of the land if you want to refuse to go you should be prepared to go to prison – that’s what Martin Luther King did for his convictions, that’s what (Henry David) Thoreau did for his convictions, but if I am elected President Ii will end that war promptly and I will grant amnesty both to the people who planned the war and the people who refused to fight it – the same position that Jimmy Carter took when he was elected four years later.

So I go into this in some details because those two trios; Acid, Amnesty and Abortion, weak on defense, weak on welfare and weak on making up my mind – those are the things that killed me I think in ’72.

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: Did you feel a sense of Déjà Vu in 2004 when another Senator, John Kerry was running for President; he too had been decorated for his wartime service and was now being shown in a not-dissimilar light.

George McGovernMcGovern: Well that was one of the most outrageous examples of that I think that we have ever seen in American history. Here you had John Kerry – twice injured in Vietnam, decorated for his leadership as a Lieutenant squadron-leader and a wonderful war record, and he’s attacked for his patriotism by a guy (President George W Bush) who was a draft-dodger – both draft-dodgers, both Bush and Cheney never had a day in combat even though they were of the age of other people like John Kerry who fought in the Vietnam war – John Kerry later turned against the war thank god, so did Bob McNamara our Secretary of Defense, so has just about everybody – but to attack John, the nerve of that – a couple of draft-dodgers attacking John Kerry over his war record so that his record became the issue rather than their absence. But, here again, John assumed that people would cast that aside and he didn’t really answer that for about a month that they were pounding the press, the media, the advertisers – he made the same mistake I did of not jumping down their throats and answer those charges. {For more on the 2004 Kerry campaign, see interview with his campaign manager Bob Shrum here.}

Bill Clinton didn’t make that mistake when he ran in ’92 he remembered working for me 20 years earlier in ’72 and he had his people alerted any time there was any criticism of him he didn’t go to bed that night until BANG they hit back and hit back hard – they had an alert system so they didn’t take one hit without blasting even harder than they got and I think he wouldn’t have been elected had he not done that, but he learned that, in my opinion, from working in my campaign 20 years earlier.

Barron: An important lesson to learn given that he had considerable negatives potentially to have to defend.

McGovern: Yes, he knew where he was vulnerable and he knew the opposition would stoop to anything to make a point – he had seen that happen in too many campaigns and he was determined it wasn’t going to happen to him and I think to his credit he had a system worked out where he answered every negative as it was thrown at him before it could take hold. If they said it on television he came back on television – if they said it on direct mail he’d answer, but he didn’t let the sun go down on a charge.

President Bush Senior, who he defeated, he said to me that “I was amazed at the system they worked out to answer everything that either I or one of my people threw at them in that campaign”.

Barron: Hillary Clinton referred to a ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’ – the interplay of right wing columnists and people in the White House like Pat Buchanan was in ‘72 – how this almost Orwellian turnaround of facts so that somebody such as yourself was presented in a different light to the reality?

McGovern: Hillary was absolutely right, I know she provoked howls of protest from the right wing that they weren’t really that strong or really that threatening, but they are and they have been a dominant factor in American politics for many years... By the way, in ’72 there were some of the so-called establishment Democrats who were only too happy to see me cut up by Richard Nixon and his team.

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 American might have been different at certain turning points.

McGovern: It’s too bad that we lost in ’ 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.UI. 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.

McGovern campaign buttonThen I would have change America’s role in the world from a confrontational affair that assumed we had to intervene everyplace 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 organized 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.

Barron: Do you find when you see what happened in that period of a decade from the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King – and your defeat – that there were forces that were insurmountable, that there was a resistance to change by conservative forces?

McGovern: I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t know that it would be fair to say that there was some sort of conspiracy that brought about the death of these men – I don’t think so. Ii think it was just a tragic turn of history that may have been controlled by a few people.

This guy that killed Jack Kennedy – I know there are all kinds of articles and books written about a plot – I have never seen the evidence for that, I think this was just a sick-minded individual (Lee Harvey Oswald) who went out on a gunnery range and trained himself to become a crack shot with a telescopic-sighted rifle, climbed up into that building and killed the president, and the same with Bobby – Bob Kennedy was a dear, close friend of mine, he never accepted the view that his brother’s death was the result of some Cuban conspiracy or Russian or Mafia or anything on that kind. And I think the same with him – you had this sick-minded guy (Sirhan Sirhan) who waited for an opportunity at a time when people running for the nomination didn’t have secret-service – until Bobby was killed in ’68 none of us running for the nomination had secret service – if he’d have had secret service this wouldn’t have happened. And the same with Martin Luther King – there were people who hated him because he was a black man trying to overturn the old system of white supremacy, and i suppose that was characteristic of that guy (James Earl Ray) that shit him from across the street – there again the evidence was scant that there was some big conspiracy behind the three of these things. I think it was just one of those turns of history, as was the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – we’re still having books written imagining that there was a conspiracy nation-wide to get Lincoln.

But these things happen in an open society like ours where it has been comparatively easy to get hold of a high-powered rifle or whatever and kill one of our leaders.

Barron: So, no conspiracy, but is there a common theme of opposition to change?

McGovern: Yes there is that, there is a common theme of an opposition to change and there is the uncomfortable feeling that some people have when they see advocates of change coming to positions of power. There are some people that just hate black people, some people hate rich boys from Harvard who get to be President, so these things happen.

There were threats all the time against me when I was running, but I had the secret service, 100 men – I didn’t ask for it, it’s just the way it happened after the ’68 killing. But I was aware that there were forces of terrible resentment against me, I knew they were out there and I think anybody who advocates change – and that wasn’t invented by politicians, Jesus Christ ended up hanging on on a cross, probably the greatest spirit that ever walked this earth – I”m not comparing myself or John Kennedy or anyone else to Christ, I’m just saying that people who advocate change have probably always been in danger.

Barron: Do you ultimately believe that change is possible?

George McGovernMcGovern: I do. I think change is possible. You know I grew up in the age of Franklin Roosevelt, he was changing things every year he was in office (1933-45) especially the first 100 days, and those programs are still with us and have saved hundreds of millions of Americans over the generations – social security, rural electrification, and collective bargaining – all these things one after another. Roosevelt was an agent of change in a big way and that’s the man I grew up with as a young person.

Barron: Finally to the old question of ‘can any child can grow up to be President?’ – do you believe that’s possible?

McGovern: I think so. Jimmy Carter proves that’s true growing up in Plains Georgia as the son of a peanut farmer. Barack Obama came out of rather humble circumstances, so did Bill Clinton – Hope Arkansas, parents that were in difficulty, poor and so on. I think it’s still possible in this country to rise from the low ranks to become President. That would be even more assured if we had the public financing of campaigns – as campaigns have become more and more expensive, it’s probably less likely that an ordinary citizen can rise to the top of the Presidential contest.

Barron: Is that okay in that you want an extraordinary person to be President anyway?

McGovern: Well and extraordinary President could mean somebody who got the nomination under the present system – George W. Bush...I do want an extraordinary person but I believe that sometimes extraordinary people come out of ordinary, low income backgrounds. So I want an extraordinary person who gets to the top on merit not money.

Barron: That’s the American dream.

McGovern: That’s the American dream.

Barron: Senator, thank you very much for your time.

McGovern: It was my pleasure - I hope I didn’t go on too long for you.

Barron: Not at all.

This is the second part of a two-part conversation; you can watch and read the first part here.

George McGovern

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