Q&A: George McGovern

One-time presidential candidate on Nixon, Iraq and why he's rooting for Barack Obama

Sen. George McGovern among crowd of well-wishers in Brooklyn on June 13th, 1972. Credit: Dennis Caruso/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

When you ran for president in 1972 against Nixon, your campaign was really an out-growth of the tremendous upheaval of the 1960s. How do you remember that era?
It was a turbulent time. But the dissent over our policy in Vietnam really began in the Senate during the Kennedy administration. Young people, even at the college level, didn't start to get upset until 1965. They always thought they were ahead of the dissenters in the Senate, but I don't think that's true. The Senate fed their dissent more than the other way around. It wasn't until the draft started to pinch that young people really got exercised.

A lot of people in the music industry and Hollywood gravitated toward your stance against the Vietnam War.
They helped move youth into the campaign. Warren Beatty organized this great concert with Carole King and James Taylor at the Los Angeles Forum. They had almost 20,000 seats, and we filled every one of them. It was just jammed with people standing in the aisles — the fire marshal was going crazy.

Was it odd for you to be interacting with the whole counterculture, anti-war hippie generation?
Yes. I actually thought it hurt us politically. It didn't come across well on television at the national convention, and it infuriated labor leaders like George Meany and more traditional Democrats. It helped cause me to lose the endorsement of much of organized labor. Meany objected to my being photographed with these longhaired, bead-wearing, pot-smoking young people. The speaker of the House said that he thought McGovern's campaign staff looked like the cast from Hair. People told me, "Get away from them they're not your kind of people. God, you're killing yourself."

But you never distanced yourself from your supporters.
I wouldn't give up their enthusiasm and dedication. These young people that were gathered around me, they were really smart and intelligent and historically grounded. It was quite an impressive generation.

How did Hunter Thompson get to spend so much time with you when Rolling Stone sent him to cover your campaign? Weren't Meany and the old-line Democrats appalled that you were being embraced by a rock & roll magazine? 
It's hard to hold Hunter off the lead plane — he's going to be on it one way or the other. But I kind of enjoyed having him on board. He and his sidekick Timothy Crouse, who wrote the great book The Boys on the Bus — those guys, to me, were lovable. Hunter was crazy four out of seven days a week. But he was still very bright, and he knew I was going to win the nomination before I did. We would talk, and he would make me think about everything I was doing. His book Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail may have been the best book about '72. You can't walk through a college dorm today without seeing copies of that book.

When you look back on your campaign, what was most important about that period? 
We showed that individuals can make a difference in the direction of the country. We showed that in '68, with the energy of the anti-war movement, and we continued on over into the 1970s. I hope this doesn't sound too egocentric, but I always thought that after we lost Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, my campaign in 1972 provided a haven for the people who were roused in '68 and still hadn't turned against the system. I take a lot of satisfaction in the fact that, ever though we lost, we helped end the war in Vietnam. My campaign made it impossible for that war to continue After 40 percent of the country voted for a candidate who promised to end the war now, Congress passed an amendment to cut off the funding.

Do you have any regrets about the way you ran your campaign?
Yes, I mishandled the Eagleton matter terribly. After we picked Tom as my running mate, we were shocked to learn that he had a history of manic depressive illness and had received electric-shock treatments. I should have just said, "Look, I'm not going to waste my time talking about some ancient illness. Tom's been a good senator. So what if he had a little illness? I once had hepatitis — would that disqualify me?" Instead, we got all psyched up and I called a press conference and put Tom in front of the national press. That made in into a big event, and we had to ask him to step down. If we had handled it differently, I think we might have won the election.

What did your loss mean for the country in 1972?
Oh, gosh. It changed the course of this country in so many ways. Nixon was forced to resign two years later, and that made us all more skeptical of government that operates in secret, behind closed doors.

Do you still hold any animosity toward him for all the dirty tricks his campaign used against you?
How do you get away from that? I remember one of the key people in the Nixon machine later told me. "Did you ever have any idea how much money we spent against you?" I said, "I have no idea." And he said, "Well, whatever you think it was, triple it." Then he indicated it was something over $300 million. That wouldn't amount to anything today, but 35 years ago, that was one hell of a war chest.

Why did you decide not to vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976?
He seemed to be pandering to the conservative elements in the party. He didn't show much knowledge of the government. It wasn't that I felt closer to the ideology of Jerry Ford — it's just that I thought Ford was a more evenhanded and stable guy and had a better knowledge of the workings of Congress. But by the time Carter ran for re-election in 1980, I was all for him. He was a pretty good president, and he would have been even better in his second term.

A lot of people today compare Iraq to Vietnam. Do you see similarities?
Yeah. First of all, in both cases we went to war with a country that was no threat to us. Second, we went into countries that we didn't know much about. In the case of Iraq, we didn't have people who spoke Arabic, we didn't have much intelligence on the ground. We were groping in the dark in both countries.

You were one of the first to begin calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. What do you say to those who insist that pulling out of Iraq will only make things worse?
The problem that rocks Iraq — the insurgency — began with our military occupation of somebody else's country. Things aren't going to quiet down there until we get out. The longer we stay, the more things are going to boil internally. What went wrong with Iraq is the same lesson we learned in Vietnam: that nationalism is still a strong force. And if it has religious overtones, it's even stronger.

So why did we invade in the first place?
Bush and Cheney both have an obsession with oil. They thought they could use the 9/11 tragedy falsely, as an excuse to grab Iraq without much problem. And now they're trying to do the same thing with Iran. Suppose for a moment that Iranians are, in fact, trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Why would they do that? Because they're number two on the "Axis of Evil" list, and Bush has already knocked off number one. If you're Iran's minister of defense, I think you'd try to develop at least one nuclear weapon to save yourself from what happened to Iraq.

You have a doctorate in history. Give me your unvanished take, as a historian, on the legacy of George W. Bush.
He's easily the worst president in American history. I don't think that's exaggeration at all. Nobody has put us into such a godawful mess as this one. Nobody. I read the other day that the interest on the national debt is $750,000 a day — just on interest. You and I are paying that. Before we get up in the morning, we've got another huge increase in the debt on our backs.

What do you think motivates him? Is he just incompetent, or is he an ideologue?
Both. He's terribly incompetent in managing the ship of state. He doesn't know where to begin — Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are calling the shots. I don't think he has a glimmer of reality on the big issues before the country: global warming, the escalating arms race, the war, the environment, education. He's a disaster. I didn't feel that way about his dad. Before his dad went into the first Gulf War, he took the time to get the approval of the entire United Nations and key leaders in the military and the national-security apparatus. Just about everybody was on board. Even then, he gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum: Either get your army out of there or we're going to hit. He even told him the day.

So you'd prefer to have Nixon in the White House?
Of course. Nixon knew what he was doing. He was dishonest and defined the Constitution to suit himself in various places. He deserved to be impeached, but not as much as this gang. But the mood is different now. Bush was re-elected even after people knew what he was like.

How did he pull that off?
Bush and Cheney are very skillful in using fear. Nixon used to say, "People don't vote on faith, they vote on fear." People didn't vote for Bush and Cheney in the faith that they were the kind of men who would stand up against dishonesty and deceit. They voted for them because these guys scared the hell out of them. They just lie and twist everything. Goering once said it's the easiest thing in the world to get a nation in war — you just make up a story and wave the banner of fear. The public falls in line, you can do what you want.

Looking ahead, is there anyone you see as a key leader in the future?
Barack Obama. He's got a moral base that's quite clear — that seems, to me, genuine. He's a master at presenting constructive liberal ideas in a way that sounds quite reasonable to most people. I like Hillary, who worked hard for me in '72, but I can't abide her inability to say she was wrong about Iraq. The whole country knows it. Seventy percent of the country knows that the war is a disaster. Why is it so hard for her to say. "Well, I walked down that trail once to give it a chance, but I realize now it's a disaster and I'm for getting out as soon as we reasonably can"? She's imitating the worst trait of men — belligerency and waving the flag — to make herself look tougher: "I may be a woman, but let somebody cross me and they're going to get it in the teeth."

What do you see as the biggest challenge the next president will face?
We've got to get our national priorities reordered. We had the Cold War going for 50 years, and we kept saying that there would be a peace dividend when it was over. We've never collected that. The military budget just keeps growing and growing. We can't go on spending a major part of our budget year after year on imaginary enemies who aren't there. Coming to grips with that will be very important over the next ten years.

You spend a lot of time speaking on college campuses. Are students different today than they were in the Sixties? 
They have less faith in the political system changing things, no matter how hard they work. In the Sixties, young people genuinely thought they could change the direction of the country — and to some extent, they were vindicated in that. But after the shooting of all these great leaders, the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and the overwhelming loss that I suffered in 1972, it became harder for young people to believe that intelligent political action can make a difference. But I still think it's worth doing. At the very least, it keeps things from getting worse.

Looking back, what do you think has changed for the better since the Sixties? 
The most solid and most enduring gains were the civil rights movement and the women's movement, both of which really triumphed in that period. I was proud of both of those. The civil rights revolution was a great historic achievement. Putting through those landmark bills on voting rights cost the Democratic Party the South, but it was our finest hour. I've never joined in this talk about how bad the Sixties were. I think they were one of the more admirable periods in our history.

In the final analysis, what do you think the legacy of the Sixties will be? 
That older, experienced political figures can be wrong — even the best and the brightest. Young people saw that our leaders could be dreadfully wrong in their judgments. That's the legacy of the Sixties: that people no longer automatically assume that those in high places know what they're doing.