February 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

George McGovern

By |2018-03-21T18:21:55+01:00May 18th, 2004|Interviews|
McGovern with Bobby Kennedy in 1968, weeks before his assassination.

eorge McGovern is among the grand old men of American politics. Son of a Methodist minister, he was born in Avon, South Dakota on July 19, 1922. As a B-24 bomber pilot in World War II McGovern was based in Cerignola, Puglia, and flew 35 combat missions in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he participated in food relief missions to Europe. Later, he completed his undergraduate studies in South Dakota, attended seminary school for a year, and then earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American history and government. He was elected to the United States Congress in 1956 and re-elected in 1958.

After McGovern lost his first bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960, President John F. Kennedy named him the first director of the Food for Peace Program and Special Assistant to the President. He helped establish the World Food Program, now headquartered in Rome. Elected to the Senate in 1962, McGovern became a strong opponent of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict.

He was the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, but was defeated by Richard Nixon in a landslide of historic proportions (quips McGovern: “I wanted to run for U.S. President in the worst way. And I did!”) In 2000, McGovern was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton (who headed his 1972 campaign in Texas.) In 2001 McGovern was named the first World Food Program global ambassador on hunger. WFP is based in Rome. Judy Edelhoff, his special assistant while he was with WFP, interviewed McGovern in November 2003, at his South Dakota home and followed up with a telephone interview in March 2004. These are excerpts from both conversations.

How important will the issue of Iraq be in this American election year?

President Bush has a credibility problem. He told us that the threat (of weapons of mass destruction) was “imminent” and contradicted the report of the UN arms inspectors, as well as — we now hear — the CIA findings.

And the U.S. economy?

There are millions of people who are out of work and who can’t find jobs. The situation is growing steadily worse. The stock market is ticking better now, but we have made no progress on jobs. No help for the jobless.

Is Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s message clear?

He has talked about increasing jobs, but job retraining is expensive, and [he has spoken] of removing tax incentives for U.S. companies to locate overseas. He has to do more than he has so far (to clarify his message).

Did you see Kerry as a likely candidate? (McGovern had endorsed retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who dropped out of the race in February.)

He seems to have the makings of a frontrunner: name recognition; in the Senate for several terms; a war hero (Vietnam); head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (during the Vietnam conflict); lots of money; a talented and articulate wife. He comes from a big state with lots of delegates. [He has] considerable experience in military matters. President Bush lacks experience in combat.

John Kerry locked up Democratic nomination early. Is that an advantage?

No one else has had that luxury, it seems, since I have been active in politics. Well, [2000 nominee Al] Gore would be a close second: as incumbent vice president it was assumed that he would receive the nomination. I didn’t know until July of my election year; Kerry has March, April, May, June, July — five months.

Should he declare his vice presidential running mate early?

Yes, but not right away. But it’s wise to declare before the Democratic Convention [in July]. It’s a good idea. The background of another person you never know. At least if done 30 days or six weeks ahead of the convention, the press and Kerry’s enemies have a chance to investigate the person and bring forward any problems.

In 1992, former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton broke the “rules” about a balanced ticket and picked running mate not from another part of the country, but Al Gore of neighboring Tennessee. Should Kerry go back to the strategy of “balancing the ticket”?

From the South, he could choose (Wesley) Clark or (John) Edwards. They might help, one from North Carolina, the other from Arkansas. Both are highly articulate. Or [he could choose] from a “border” area and with labor interests: Dick Gephardt comes from Missouri, an important “swing state.” Or Bill Richardson, a Hispanic from New Mexico, who is from the West; the Hispanic vote is huge. Or Bob Graham, from Florida, a problem state in the last election.

What about former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Clinton?

No. She is not realistic: she was just elected and she is doing a good job as Senator in New York. She needs to be established.

What about the effect of a third-party candidate, Ralph Nader, on Kerry?

That’s serious. One would assume most votes will be at Kerry’s expense.

The most sympathetic to Nader’s issues are assumed to be Democrats … he may have cost Gore the last election, although that is not certain. Kerry’s major concern will be how to neutralize Nader. The last poll shows six percent of voters supporting Nader. That can hurt. Those votes are more advanced, are further to the left.

Do you mean more liberal?


Is that a negative?

Who wants to vote for someone who has no chance of being elected? I wish that he [Nader] had run in the Democratic primaries.

Hasn’t Nader avoided party affiliation (with the two major political parties) and remained independent?

Maybe. But the American public falls toward the middle: Nader will get lots of applause, but no votes.

Thinking hypothetically about cabinet appointments, assuming Kerry unseats Bush, who would be a good choice for positions such as secretary of defense or of state?

For secretary of state, former Congressman Lee Hamilton (Democrat of Indiana), who was the Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And for Defense, former Senator John Culver (Democrat of Iowa) would be my number one choice.

What about leaving (incumbent Secretary of State Colin) Powell in place?

Absolutely not. He had a chance to hold Bush in place, but now he is “soiled” and too identified as partisan. And he went to the UN and used that phony stuff — statistics — about Iraq.

Do you believe that he knew the information was wrong?

He misled the UN and I believe that he knew at the time that he did.

What must Kerry communicate as a candidate?

First, he must speak the truth. Sometimes it is hard to know what the truth is, but he must do the best that he can to find the truth; then, he must speak openly and clearly.

Second, he should not get fatigued and overwork himself. Too many candidates drive themselves to the breaking point running for president. He should not run, he should walk for the presidency. He needs some time to just sit and think. Jets, television — all those keep the candidate racing around. He needs to be rested and fresh. He should enjoy the campaign, too, and do the best he can.

He will be criticized for changing his mind on issues. But he should say, “Yes, I have changed my mind on issues. I changed because I am smarter today than I was yesterday. I acted on new information and had additional insights. I had the courage to change my mind.” I wish other public figures had had the courage to change their minds on Vietnam. He will be criticized for his record. Bush has no record.

What about his years as governor of Texas?

The governor of Texas is run by the state legislature. Kerry has 24 years in the Senate and his record on his roll-call votes will be scrutinized and they will comb through those files, just like they did for me. Kerry’s biggest mistake was in agreeing with the Iraq war resolution, but his strategy is to criticize the President’s handling of the war — not the decision to go into Iraq.

Have the U.S. relations with Europe and the EU been damaged by the war in Iraq?

The unilateral character of our invasion of Iraq greatly strained our relations with the European Union. We had almost no support with the exception of Italy, Spain, and Britain. Even there, I understand that the public opinion polls were all against the invasion.

So, while the governments of several of the European Union countries supported the invasion of Iraq, I don’t think it had much support on the part of the European people on the whole. So, I thought it was a mistake, first of all for us to invade Iraq, a country that was no threat to the United States and it had nothing to do with the 9/11 tragedy. The mistake was worsened by the fact that we went in without the approval of the United Nations, without the support of the European Union, without the support of the Arab League, with very little support military-wise.

What about the American rapport with France and Germany?

I think it’s unfortunate that the French opposition to our entry into Iraq has been treated by the Bush Administration as though [France] were an enemy country. France is a long-time ally of the United States. We stood beside them in two world wars; they helped us initially to achieve our independence. There are some scholars who think that the American Revolution would have been stopped by the British empire had it not been for the aid of France, which was certainly considerable.

The Statue of Liberty, which every American admires, was given to us by the French. They still produce good wine. They still have wonderful restaurants. They still have some of the great art of the world. France should be treated as a great nation historically and on the present scene. And they probably would have done us an enormous favor if they had been able to keep us from sending our army into Iraq, which is what they had wanted to do. They thought it was a mistake and they said so. … [It] would certainly be the height of folly, even for those who think that the French were wrong, to use that as an excuse to break off the normally good relations that we have had with France over the years.

Is there a way to repair the bond?

I hope that we won’t have any more silly actions like the Congress voting and deciding not to continue serving French fries in the House dining room. That was one of the sillier things that I’ve seen take place. Little things like that are foolish. But they all add up as a picture of the United States as determined to have its own way in Europe and elsewhere that I don’t think that we can afford to follow. Now people boycott French restaurants. I go out of my way to go to French restaurants just to show that some Americans appreciate the integrity and intelligence of the French people. I don’t think that they are hostile to the United States; I think that they are hostile to mistaken actions…

I well remember when President Kennedy was thinking about intervention in Vietnam. [French President] Gen. [Charles] De Gaulle wrote him a letter and he said, “Please do not do this. We went down that road and paid a terrible price for it. Don’t send American forces to that Southeast Asian jungle.”

He was right. He said that not because he was against America, but because he was for America and wanted to avoid what he saw as a dreadful sinkhole into which American troops would be swallowed for years and from which there would be no victory. Does that mean that he was anti-American? Quite the contrary. It means that he was concerned enough to urge us to avoid what he saw as a dreadful mistake.

How do you view Germany’s position now?

Germany is a country that learned in World War II what lessons from warfare could mean to a country. They have been on the side of peace ever since World War II over the last half-century. They have tried to avoid getting involved militarily with anybody. …

Now, someone said that Germany and France and Russia had an interest in Iraq because of its oil and because they wanted to have a key role in the future developments in Iraq. If that’s true, that’s a legitimate interest. Germany and Russia and France all do have an interest in playing a role in Iraqi politics and in Iraqi national development. I don’t see anything sinister about saying, “Yes, we have a national interest. We don’t want any one country dominating events in Iraq.” Neither do we want any one country dominating events in Iraq. … to say that other countries have an interest in Iraq is not to say that they are hostile…

Do you ever see the European Union acting as a single body?

Let’s be realistic about this. The fact that we have a European Union doesn’t mean that the European Union always has to speak with a single voice. These are sovereign nations that comprise the European Union and there will be differences from time to time. I don’t think that the European Union is going to fall apart by any means because they have so many things in common: economies, cultures. They usually have common security interests and they will again. But I think it’s too bad to needlessly strain the unity of the European countries. I don’t think that this should come as any great surprise that from time to time you are going to have two or three countries in the Union that are going to have a different opinion from the majority.

Editor’s note: George McGovern died in October 2012 at age 90.

About the Author:

Judy Edelhoff launched and became producer of a series of prestigious lectures on history, politics, arts and culture televised nationally from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Previously worked in for the Folger Shakespeare Library. In Rome, she served as Special Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. Her interest in cuisine has included collaboration with Italian chefs and master chefs, including the prestigious French Laundry in Napa Valley. She is a native Floridian and later Washington, D.C. resident.