10/23/2012 12:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

George McGovern 1922-2012

In 2005, I had the good fortune to interview former Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern for Venice Magazine, in conjunction with the release of Stephen Vittoria's documentary "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern," which looked at McGovern's ill-fated 1972 bid for the White House. During our interview, and during a lengthy dinner at Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills several months later, (which happened to fall on what would have been the 80th birthday of his close friend, Robert F. Kennedy), McGovern was thoughtful, direct, and kind-hearted; a gentleman and a gentle man. When we raised a glass to toast Bobby Kennedy's memory, Senator McGovern said quietly "Bobby made us all want to be better people." A more fitting valediction of George McGovern couldn't be said. Rest in peace.

Alex Simon: The first thing I've wanted to ask you since the 2004 election is, since your '72 campaign platform revolved around your opposition to the war in Vietnam, let's talk about some of the parallels you see between what's happening today in Iraq and what happened in southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s.

George McGovern: One parallel is that neither country posed any direct threat to the United States, although we contended that each country posed a great potential threat to the United States, which turned out to be false in both cases. Secondly, in each case, we knew very little about the culture that we were going into. For example, we were told that Vietnam was just a puppet of China, when actually there had been a thousand years of tension, antagonism and bribery between Vietnam and China, which flared again after we pulled our troops out of Vietnam. China, and the troops that were recently fighting us squared off against each other. It was settled rather quickly, but our government tried to claim that Ho Chi Min was getting his orders from Mao Tse Tung and Beijing, when if fact he was not. But we didn't know those things, and didn't know the history of the area, and the same thing is pretty much true of Iraq. We didn't understand the culture and the wishes of the people there, and we still don't. A third parallel, although it's not quite as close, is that what we did in Vietnam was to intercede in a strong revolutionary, grassroots movement that first was aimed at the French, and expelling them from their colonies, which they'd held for a hundred years, secondly aimed at the Japanese who occupied southeast Asia during WW II, and thirdly aimed at us, who came in after the French. So it's not exactly the same as Iraq, but it's similar in that there's this very widespread insurgency moving across Iraq, and I don't see it weakening in any way. It seems to be becoming more widely spread.

The senator rallies "McGovern's Army," with a speech in Syracuse, N.Y., Halloween 1972. When interrupted by church bells, McGovern exclaimed, "The bells are tolling for Richard Nixon!"

Since we all know now in retrospect how Vietnam ended what do you see both in terms of the future of Iraq as a country and also in terms of American involvement.

The only thing I'm sure of is that we can't dictate the outcome. I have no idea what's going to happen after we withdraw. I suspect there will be continued internal conflict between the Sunni Muslims and the Shiite Muslims, and the Kurds in the north. They don't like each other all that well. Whether or not they can get together eventually as a unified country is, I think, an open question. I don't see how you can ever have a unified Iraq as long as we're involved there. There's always going to be a sizable group resisting this American occupation, so the best thing we can do is disengage our forces and then give them whatever help we can in terms of moving toward a unified, sovereign country. Also, I'd like to say that I was very disappointed in General Powell when he went to the United Nations and made what was supposed to be a scientific, factual presentation about the situation inside Iraq that turned out to be pretty flimsy material.

I think General Powell is disappointed in General Powell.
Well, he should be! (laughs) I've always had a high regard for him, but was very disappointed in that particular instance. You know, he even had questions about the Gulf War, ten years earlier. He wanted to hold on for six months while we sought an Arab solution to it.

When George W. Bush put Powell in his cabinet, that was the one ray of hope I had, because he was always the one person who had the guts to say 'no' to Bush's dad.

I felt the same way. I had expected we'd get the same kind of level-headed and independent judgment this time, but I'm afraid we didn't.

From his base in Cerignola, Italy, Lieutenant McGovern sent home this snapshot of himself in front of his B-24, the Dakota Queen.

You also did a tour of duty in Europe as a bomber pilot during WW II.

I was in Europe for a year, and in training for a year and half before I went overseas. I flew a full string of 35 combat missions over some of the most heavily defended targets in Europe. We were hitting Hitler's oil refineries, his tank factories, his aircraft factories, his railway yards. Those were our prime targets.

How did that experience change you?

It gave me a new appreciation for the terrible character of war. I wasn't a pacifist then, obviously. I've never regretted my service in World War II, but I developed a healthy respect for the destructive character of war, and it's been one of the reasons I've been cautious about sending young Americans to die anywhere in the world, but especially in areas like Vietnam and Iraq that pose no threat to our security. When I was in the war, I was lucky that I was in a plane and never saw the carnage close-up.

If you had seen it up close, would your perception of the American role in WW II have been different?

I don't think so. I thought we had to do everything humanly possible to smash Hitler's war machine, and I've never changed my mind on that. Hitler was a monster, and was leaping across one country's frontier to another. He was going to conquer Europe, and then take Russia before they got him stopped. He made the same mistake Napoleon made. (laughs)

Tell us how you decided to make the jump into politics. At the time, you had a certain measure of security as a professor at your alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan, and had a young family to support.

It was regarded as a very reckless thing to do, at that time. The Democrats were not strong in South Dakota at the time. The legislature had 110 people, only two of whom were Democrats. So it was 108-2. It was very unhealthy for the state. I saw a suppression of ideas and an unwillingness to look at other possibilities. So when the state democratic chairman invited me to take a leave of absence and organize a Democratic party, I decided to do it. I worked awfully hard at it, and after a couple years had enough support to run for Congress, and get elected. Before that, I got some 24 people elected to the South Dakota state legislature. Two years later, we elected a Democratic governor. We organized an excellent grassroots base out here in South Dakota, which still more or less exists.

As early as the late '50s you were aware of the situation in Vietnam and very vocal about it.

That's right. I felt that there were social and political revolutions and upheavals convulsing that whole colonial part of the globe: in Africa, in Latin America, and especially in Asia. I had read a great book by Owen Lattimore called The Situation in Asia, which came out in '49. He predicted these upheavals all across Asia. Even before I went to the Senate, I was opposed to any military involvement by the United States, or any other western country.

Tell us about President Kennedy.

I was in the House when he was in the Senate. I got to know him then, and I got to know Bobby then, too. They were both friends of mine, and both campaigned for me when I was running for the Senate.

When you first met John Kennedy, what was your impression of him, and as you got to know him, how did those impressions change?

He was a highly intelligent person. He was an attractive, appealing figure in terms of personality, carriage and everything. People seemed to warm up to Kennedy almost instinctively. He would speak directly on things, and was a very engaging person. At the time he first started talking about running for president in 1960, I was supporting my next door neighbor, Hubert Humphrey, who literally lived right next door to me in Washington. Hubert actually found us our first house when I was a young Congressman. But when he dropped out after losing a couple primary elections, I switched my support to Jack Kennedy and that support remained from then on. I ran for the senate first in 1960 and was defeated. He always thought that he caused that defeat, because I only lost by 1% of the vote, whereas he lost South Dakota overwhelmingly. He became much more confident after he made it to the White House and at the time he was killed, he probably could have carried South Dakota (in the '64 election).

Many historians argue that had he lived, history might not have been kind to him in terms of his performance as a politician. Do you agree or disagree with this?

I think a martyred president draws support from everybody, so he wouldn't have had that going for him, but he also had run into a number of legislative jams in the Congress. Jack was not as skilled as someone like Lyndon Johnson in getting the Congress to do what he wanted them to do. Johnson was a master at understanding the members of the House and Senate: what their vulnerabilities were, what their interests were. He carried a lot of personal knowledge in his head about members of the Senate, in particular. He was even nicknamed "the master of the Senate." Whereas John Kennedy just didn't have that kind of long-standing intimate knowledge of the legislative process and the Republicans really handled him with a great deal of hostility, so it's quite possible that had he lived, those partisan differences might have diminished his widespread popularity, but I just don't know. I can see, however, how some historians might have come to that sort of a conclusion.

Let's talk about Robert Kennedy. From everything I understand, as brilliant as JFK was, Bobby had an even more impressive intellect than his brother did. Was this the case? It also sounds like the two of them were very different men personally on many levels. Is that accurate?

I think that John Kennedy was every bit as intellectually equipped as Bobby was. I would see the differences between the two men in this way: after the president's death, Bobby became a more compassionate and sensitive person than he had been before. It wasn't an intellectual transformation as much as it was an emotional and personal one. I think the suffering he went through in losing his older brother changed Bobby noticeably, and the notion that he was something of a ruthless, tough politician was a sort of misnomer after the death of his brother. He may have played it rough and tough when he was taking care of his brother's political concerns in a management role of some kind, but we saw a different side of him when he lost Jack, whom he adored, and had to fend for himself. I think he became a better person, and certainly a more compassionate, deeply caring one in the last years of his life.

Once again, we're engaging in conjecture, but had Robert Kennedy lived, do you think he would have gotten the Democratic nomination in '68 and would have won in November?

I don't think he would have gotten the nomination. I think Vice-President Humphrey had an overwhelming majority of the delegates nailed down. Bobby was campaigning through the last primary, and most of the delegates then had already been picked. As I recall, he had 143, which later went to me when I was talked into becoming his standard bearer after his death. That was the old system of getting delegates, which was done largely by insiders and political and municipal organizations. So I think Humphrey had the nomination pretty well locked in '68.

You make an interesting comment in the film that you had sympathy for both the Chicago police and the demonstrators during the '68 Democratic convention.

I think they were frightened of each other. The cops were basically young men too, as were the protestors. The cops didn't have the educational background in most instances that the protestors had, who were to a considerable extent college students and faculty members. But Mayor Daley probably had it right when he said that riot wasn't caused by the police, it was caused by the war in Vietnam. I think that's true.

So you think even if Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King hadn't been killed earlier that year, the storm was already brewing, so to speak?
I'm not sure. I think that if they had both still been speaking out and counseling for peaceful action, it's possible they might have been able to head off some of those eruptions.

One thing the film points out is that the Democratic party still hadn't healed from the split it experienced in '68. As a result, when you announced your candidacy in '72, many of your fellow Democrats were scared by you, and viewed you as a radical voice. Did you feel that, at the time?

I knew that was true. I don't know how they thought I got elected in South Dakota for a quarter century if I was such a radical! (laughs) That was what my enemies put out, though, and conservatives in the press put out the same charges. I always thought of myself as a moderate liberal, a fighter for peace and justice. I never thought of myself as being all that far out. I was described as the candidate of the three A's: acid, amnesty and abortion.

As an historian yourself, you know that history eventually records the truth, and the truth about the Nixon presidency was revealed. When Nixon and his administration were disgraced, did you feel any sense of personal triumph and vindication when that happened, or did you just feel sorrow for the country?

I felt both. I didn't feel elated. I felt vindicated. I had been saying in every speech that we were dealing with the most corrupt administration in American history. And I felt somewhat vindicated when those words were proven in sworn testimony, but I can't say I felt happy about it. I wish the country had not had to go through that and had an alternative come to the fore in 1972, namely myself. I felt that I would be a strong president, and that I could unite the country and taken a healing approach on the divisions in the country, and I think I would've succeeded. So I've always regretted I didn't have that opportunity.

But it must be equally vindicating that people continue to approach you to this day, and acknowledge that fact to you.

They do. I couldn't even put a number on it. Hardly a day goes by that people don't come up to me in airplanes, in hotel lobbies or on the street and say "I was praying for you in '72. I wish you'd made it. We'd have had a different country." I hear that around the clock, so that stays my morale. I know we were right in '72. I know we told the truth. I know the positions I outlined would have strengthened and improved our nation and our society. I just wish we'd had the opportunity to demonstrate that.

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