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World Views: Former U.S. Sen. and Presidential Candidate George McGovern (May 07, 2012)
Former U.S. Senator George McGovern’s bid for the White House in 1972 focused on a strong, anti-war message. Forty years later, McGovern says lessons learned about Vietnam can apply to Afghanistan. He’s also the author of the new book What It Means to Be a Democrat, where he offers his vision of his party’s future ahead of this fall’s presidential elections.


ZACH MESSITTE, HOST: George McGovern, thank you for joining us on World Views.

GEORGE McGOVERN: It’s my privilege to be with you today.

MESSITTE: I want to begin by asking you about your new book What it Means to be a Democrat, and I know you are someone who is greatly influenced by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. And, of course, FDR first ran for president in 1932, and you ran for same office in 1972. Does being a Democrat in 2012 mean the same thing as it did in 1932 and 1972?

McGOVERN: No, I don’t think it’s the same thing, but there are similarities. For example, in ‘32 we were in a deep Depression.  Now we call it a recession, but some of the byproducts are the same. Large numbers of people unemployed, the economy sputtering, so there are some close similarities.  We’re also now much more involved in the life of the world. We now have to worry about every continent, we have to worry about trouble spots such as Iran, so I think we’ve got a full measure of problems both foreign and domestic today just has we did in 1932.  I suppose in ‘32 we were concentrating almost entirely on the domestic side.

MESSITTE: But there were storm clouds already forming by then in Europe.

McGOVERN: Hitler was on the move.  He came into power, as I recall, in 1933 and Roosevelt came into office that year, and they become the two great antagonists of World War II.  So, as is usually the case, the United States is perhaps the major power, has always had challenges on the foreign front.

MESSITTE:  Let me ask you, one of the things that comes through clearly in your book, is the sense of partisanship and rancor, in Congress in particular today, is that permeates everything, it’s at a different level than it was in 1972 or during your time in Congress. But hasn’t politics always been nasty?  I mean think about 1972 when you think about the Watergate break in, and plumbers, and dirty tricks. Isn’t this part of the American political game?

McGOVERN: Yes, I think you’re right, that we’ve always had negative aspects to our politics, but today it seems to be almost exclusively so, and especially with the Republican Party.  They don’t have the White House, they don’t have the United States Senate.  They do have the House of Representatives, but it seems to me at times they strain overboard to find things to criticize our president, President Obama, who after all, is the president of all the people not, just the Democrats.  If he fails, all of us are hurt, no matter what our party is, and yet the Republicans seem to me are more and more concentrating on partisanship and negative approaches to our public issues. I heard the senior senator from Kentucky say after…

MESSITTE: Mitch McConnell.

McGOVERN: Mitch McConnell, yeah, you got his name right.  I don’t know him well, but I’ve met him, and he’s probably an honorable man, but he said something that I was just shocked by it. He said that he was going to devote the next four years, after President Barack Obama was sworn in, to try to make sure that administration was a failure, that it didn’t deserve to be reelection. The defeat of President Obama was his chief goal. I never had a goal like that when I was in the Senate. I always thought my job was to represent South Dakota in the nation as best I could in trying to support those programs that would help whoever was president, Democrat or Republican, and I think that’s the attitude we need to revive in this country.

MESSITTE: I want to ask you one question about the 1972 presidential campaign, and it’s a little bit personal so bear with me for a moment. I’m 44 years old, I was 4 years old in 1972 and my name is Zachariah, my full name is Zachariah, my last name is Messitte, so I was in nursery school in 1972, and my nursery school teacher was somewhat perplexed by my name. She said, “You have an Old Testament first name, Zachariah, and yet you have this very Italian sounding last name. What are you? Are you Jewish or are Catholic?” And I said as a four-year-old, “I’m neither, I’m McGovern,” right?  This is what I said during the 1972 campaign as a four-year-old, but this story, which I tell often to people, got me thinking about this idea about whether or not your campaign in 1972 did something similar for the Democratic Party that Republicans often cite about Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 that there was a sort of new coalition of people that were brought together that paved the way for people like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Do you have that sense?

McGOVERN: I do have that feeling.  I think we activated more women in ‘72 in my campaign that had been the case before. We really got the women excited about public issues, especially the war in Vietnam. I made that the major issue of the campaign right from the start, and the reason was it was a dominate issue in the nation.  My position on it, which was to the war, appeals strongly especially to women and young people, after all the young people are the ones who do the dying in a war. So yes, I think we activated large numbers of young people who have never been involved before.  I think we activated many women who had never particularly interested in politics before.  We gave new hope to the black people, to the Hispanics, and others.  I think it was a good coalition of people who up until to that time only played secondary roles in American politics.

MESSITTE: Let me ask you about Vietnam while we’re on that, and you hear Vietnam invoked today, thirty-plus years plus after the conflict, in fact in your book you talk about the lessons of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. What is the lesson, and have we forgotten lessons of Vietnam now, a generation beyond the end of the conflict?

McGOVERN: I think one of the things we’ve learned about Vietnam is that we need to know more about the proposed enemy. Why did we think that Vietnam, of whatever faction, was a threat to the United States? We need to ask questions like that about future suggestions that we commit our Army to far away places. I don’t know what we’re doing in Afghanistan. That’s not an American strategic interest, it’s no particular threat to us.  It is a mixed-up, confused country with a weak, wobbly government.  It’s deep into the cultivation and use of heroin.  I wish that we had looked at some of the problems in Afghanistan that we should have looked at, and didn’t, in Vietnam. Be sure you know what you’re doing before you commit the American Army to combat. Combat means the possibility of death, or injury, or suffering, or illness, and before we just say idly say, “Let’s go get ‘em,” let’s remember what we are talking about: our own sons, our own daughters, while we stay here at home and bask in the sunshine. So I hope that Vietnam will have taught us once and for all - it’s easy to get into a war, it sure-as-the-dickens is hard to get out.

MESSITTE: You’re listening to World Views on KGOU, and we’re talking to former U.S. Sen. George McGovern (D-SD), who was also the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.  On this issue, of sort-of “armchair warriors.”  In your book, you talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, and you write, “A lot of the people,” and I’m quoting you, “who beat their chest have never been near a military plane or a battlefield, they’ve never heard a bullet pass an inch above their skulls.  They’ve never seen a buddy- in-arms gasping his way to death.”  How did your experience in World War II, you were in combat, how did that shape your world view?

McGOVERN: Every of those things that I mentioned about the bullet passing an inch from your head, people gasping or last breath, I saw in World War II.  That big bomber that I piloted was hit many times by anti-aircraft fire.   That shrapnel breaks into a thousand pieces, and they go through, if they’re close to the airplane, they can put that many holes into your plane if you’re not careful, and there’s not much you can do about it after you turn on the bomb run, so I saw that kind of death, I saw that kind of agonizing gasping for a last breath.  I didn’t see it, but my navigator was killed during the war, and I had lots of other friends who died in that conflict, in fact half of the B-24 bomber crews that I flew with never survived the war. Fifty percent fatality rate, that’s high.  I’m proud of what we did in World War II.  We defeated Hitler, who was a mad man on the loose.   We defeated Mussolini, we defeated enemies that were out to destroy civilization as we knew it, and so I’m proud of that record, but I also saw the death and destruction that comes with war. It’s not something that we ought to enter lightly.

MESSITTE: So let me ask, how has President Obama done in his first four years? Internationally, how has he done in terms of foreign policy?

McGOVERN: I think he’s done pretty well. I personally didn’t think we should have sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan. I don’t think it’s made much difference in the outcome of that struggle, but almost nothing you do in Afghanistan is going to arrive at a happy result.  It’s a country that’s conflicted with all kinds of localized problems: warring tribes, different political ideologies that clash with each other.  It’s got a massive heroin trade, and I’m afraid all too many Afghans are addicted, including people high in the government. So I think we’re up against an impossible situation, and I wish we had not gone in there, and I think that wasn’t one President Obama initiated, but it’s one that he built on by adding another 30,000 troops, which I think was a mistake.  I would rather have seen him pull out 30,000 troops, and maybe three months later another 30,000, until we had them all out of there.

MESSITTE: In your book, there’s a chapter on the Middle East, and you talk about going to visit Golda Meir in 1975 and she stood you up.  Right? You were supposed to go have lunch with her, and she didn’t want to talk to you because you sat down with [Yassir] Arafat prior to going to see her. And I want to get your opinion about where we are in the Middle East peace process now, and also talk to you about this idea of whether or not Israel is become a wedge voter issue. You talk about this in your book, that this has become a way out of trying to cleave people towards a different political candidate.

McGOVERN: Yes, let me say about Golda Meir, she was a great woman.  She was a citizen of Milwaukee where my youngest daughter has lived for many years, but after she became the prime minister of Israel, she took a very hard line towards the Palestinians.  She was unwilling to consider a free and independent state for the Palestinians.  I think the two-state solution is the only one that’s going to work. You have a free, strong, independent Israel, and it’s easily the strongest military power in the Middle East, and we should have by now strong secure well-defended Palestinian state.  We’re on the way to that.  We do have a semblance of that, but this should have happened way back in Golda Meir’s time, and that’s where she and I differed.  As you said, when I met with Arafat, who was her opposite among the Palestinians, the person who you have to deal with if you want peace with the Palestinians. She thought it was terrible that I advocated that she meet with Arafat.  I don’t think it was terrible, and eventually her successors did meet with Arafat, and they did get a more or less peaceful arrangement worked out.

MESSITTE: Let me switch over to another topic that you care passionately about and that’s food and hunger issues around the world.  You’ve had a long experience both in your Congressional career, but also later as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.  It’s remarkable, and I know these statistics, but when I read your book, that there are almost one billion people who are hungry.

McGOVERN: That’s true.

MESSITTE: How is it that here we are, this technologically advanced society, this world that’s moving at the speed of sound that one billion of people are hungry. Why is that?

McGOVERN: I agree with the thrust of your question. It doesn’t make sense. Now that doesn’t mean that the United States ought to carry this burden alone, but working through the World Food Program of the United Nations, working through the other major agencies of the U.N. that deal with food and agriculture, the FAO most notably. We need to do what we can to do two things: Number one, immediately share our abundance, along with other countries that have an abundant supply, with the hungry of the world, and then in the long run we need to be working on helping them grow more food on their own.  Showing them how modern methods of cultivation, of irrigation, of insecticides, and other things of that kind, can be used to increase the volume of food production. There’s no reason why India shouldn’t be a food sufficient area.  They are now actually exporting wheat, so they should be able to meet their own needs, but they need some technical help from the European countries and from us on how they can produce more efficiently, and I think that’s the long-range answer to hunger around the world.

MESSITTE: This reminds me of a passage that I really liked in your book.  John Kennedy, when he was campaigning in 1960, came to South Dakota, and you campaigned with him, and he got up at his first stop, and talked about food and agriculture issues to farmers, and he clearly didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, is what you write in the book.  And you sort-of sat with him afterwards and said, “Here’s what you should say…” and that message sounds a lot like what you just said. Is that right?

McGOVERN: It’s pretty much what I said.  I didn’t offer it until he asked me, “What am I going to do?” He said, “I laid an egg with these farmers that are here for the National Plowing Contest.”  I’ve forgotten whether it was the National Plowing Contest or the National Corn-Picking Contest.  I think it may have been the latter.  Anyway, he was very humble, he said, “George I blew this speech.  What the heck am I going to when I get to your hometown at the Corn Palace?”  And that’s when I laid out this idea that we’ve got these huge surpluses that some people describe as a headache, and it is a headache if we don’t know what to do with. What we should do with a lot of it is make it available to hungry people in our own country and abroad, and if I’m elected president, I had suggest that he say, I would put a person in the White House who concentrates entirely on using our farm abundance to reduce hunger in the world. Guess who was the first director of Food for Peace?

MESSITTE: That’s right. That’s right.

McGOVERN: I described my own job which he awarded to me after I lost the Senate race that year.

MESSITTE: Let me ask you a concluding question, and Ill draw it actually from something that you write about in the conclusion of your book.  You said that, “We, the United States, are also dogged by the notion that other countries are overtaking our long-held position of preeminence in the world.”  When you look forward twenty five years, what are your hopes?  What are the challenges for the United States globally?

McGOVERN: I think for a long time coming that the United States will still be number one in terms of productivity, in terms of finances, in terms of standard of living, in terms of creativity in the manufacture and development of commodities of all kinds, but I believe that other countries are catching up to us.  China comes to mind, and it’s a good thing that China has turned out to be that kind of a productive country because they have over a billion people there, about a billion and a half.  So we ought to applaud the economic, trade, and fiscal development of the Chinese.  India is another one that’s pushing upwards.  I wish they would go even faster and more effectively, but about one- third of the population of the world is in those two countries, China and India, and I’m glad that they both are doing well and I hope they do even better in the years ahead.

MESSITTE: Well, George McGovern, U.S. Senator from South Dakota, and the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, thank you for joining us on World Views.

McGOVERN: It’s my pleasure to be with you today.

Copyright © 2012 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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