By Stephen Zunes on Oct 21, 2012
An old friend who long ago gave up on the Democratic Party in favor of politics on the left fringe greatly enjoys bashing prominent liberals. He finds that the opportunism , the compromises, and the double - standards of leading liberal Democrats provide easy targets. Yet of former South Dakota Senator and 1972 Presidential nominee George McGovern , my friend once opined, "If all liberals were like McGovern , I'd still be a liberal ."
A full thirteen years after the stunning loss of his Senate seat to a right-wing Republican in the 1980 Reagan landslide, McGovern still displays, at seventy-one, the idealism and integrity that marked his political career. His faith in traditional American principles and his unabashed liberalism remain unshaken despite the rightward drift of electoral politics in recent years.
McGovern was raised the son of a Methodist clergyman, and served as a highly decorated bomber pilot in World War II. He earned a Ph.D. in history and government at Northwestern University, and returned to his native South Dakota to teach at Dakota Wesleyan. In 1956, he was elected to the House of Representatives and served two terms before being tapped by President John F. Kennedy to head the new Food for Peace Program.
First elected to the Senate in 1962, he briefly entered the 1968 race for the Democratic Presidential nomination in a last-ditch effort to rally supporters of slain New York Senator Robert Kennedy and dissuade party leaders from throwing the nomination to Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Following his successful leadership of attempts to reform the Democratic Party rules, McGovern received the Presidential nomination in 1972. He lost to Richard Nixon in an electoral landslide. He launched another run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1984, and considered joining the 1992 Presidential race.
Since 1991, McGovern has headed the Middle East Policy Council, an organization dedicated to better public understanding of the region. He has made several major trips to the Middle East, meeting with prime ministers, presidents, royalty, scholars, journalists, and opposition figures. I caught up with him for this interview on one of these sojourns, in his suite at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, Syria.
Q: What's your assessment of the direction of the Democratic Party in the twenty years since your Presidential race?
George McGovern: It's quite clear that since 1972 we have not had a campaign based on as much authentic liberalism as we saw then. I don't say that boastfully, but historically the Democratic Party has simply not had as clear a liberal vision in either foreign or domestic policy. The 1972 campaign wasn't simply against our Vietnam policy, but a fundamental challenge to the Cold War and the whole apparatus that supported it, including excessive military spending and the militarization of our economy and society. We haven't had that kind of challenge since.
I think it's fair to say that Jimmy Carter saw himself as a moderate to conservative governor and a moderate to conservativePresident. With the exception of a few initiatives, such as those dealing with human rights, he departed considerably from the emphasis we had made in 1972.
The same thing is going on now. Bill Clinton was coordinator of our 1972 campaign in Texas, I expect in considerable part because of my opposition to the Vietnam war. For at least the last decade, however, he has been identified with the wing of the Democratic Party that is said to want to move the party to the center or the right.
Having said that, I think the end of the Cold War may have made it a little easier for liberals to breathe free again.
Q: If you look at public-opinion polls, with the exception of certain law-and-order issues like the death penalty and drugs, Americans are at least as liberal as they were in 1972. Yet the idea of someone with your kind of politics getting the Democratic Party nomination seems rather remote at this point. Why do you suppose this is?
McGovern: I agree that rank-and-file Americans are more liberal than the Establishment sometimes asserts. I think there is a rather determined and influential element among media pundits who have dedicated themselves to the idea that the way to the White House is to move to the right. There may be some minor grain of truth to that, but the fact is that when you move out across this country as I do all the time and talk to audiences of every description, I find people expressing views that add up to a more liberal agenda in both domestic concerns and issues of foreign policy and national security. People didn't turn against Social Security, collective bargaining, e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m , civil rights, aid t o e d u c a t i o n , the women's movement, or a stronger health-care program. They've always believed in such things, which are the guts of the liberal agenda, but it has been difficult for liberal Democrats to win for other reasons.
I think the Democratic Party was fractured by three factors: the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which split off the once-solid Democratic South; the Vietnam war, which broke the foreign-policy consensus and divided the party into hawks and doves, and the lifestyle revolution of the 1960s, which built a generational wedge. All three of these were greater trauma to the Democrats than to the Republicans. I suspect these had more to do with fracturing the one-time Democratic majority coalition that used to win for us on the national level than anything directly related to an overall ideological shift.
Q: How important is campaign financing as an obstacle to promoting a progressive political agenda?
McGovern: Both parties are now feeding out of the same trough. As long as that's the case, Congress is not going to be the free institution it should be. Campaign-finance reform is most crucial at the Congressional level. I favor something akin to the system in the European democracies, which is based primarily on public financing. It would be the best investment taxpayers could make.
Q: Even after humiliating defeats, Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater were welcomed as respected elder statesmen in their later years by the Republican Party, something the Democrats have largely denied you. Is that because they still consider you and the ideas you espouse something of a threat?
McGovern: That is quite possible. I find increasing acceptance of my views within the Democratic Party and I still get an enthusiastic reception whenever I go out across the country from rank-and-file Democrats and even from some Republicans.
There is quite a contrast between this official Establishment view that I see in Washington among some of the pundits and some of my former political colleagues and what is out there among ordinary Americans.
There is a tendency for those in the Establishment to beat up on losers, particularly those who challenge their comfort and sense of smugness, which we did in 1972. A lot of the political pundits will never forgive me for making them look foolish by winning the nomination; they didn't think I had a prayer, as a liberal junior Senator from a little state, to knock out the giants of the Democratic Party. I'd rather have ordinary Americans on my side than these smart-ass pundits who think they know what's happening in American politics, but seldom do.
Q: How does your 1972 campaign look in hindsight?
McGovern: I think it was the most creative, stimulating, and courageous Presidential campaign I've ever witnessed. We took head-on the fundamental questions facing the country. Even though we lost, I don't have any regrets that we tried. Within a year, the polls showed that were the election held over, I would have won. How can you feel you have been permanently discredited when you have that kind of support?
Q: What is your assessment of the Clinton Presidency so far?
McGovern: I like the idea of seizing the health-care issue, and putting his wife in charge may finally bring some action in this area. I personally tend to favor the Canadian-style single-payer system, which we are probably not going to get under the present Administration. Nevertheless, I think we will get some kind of improvement on health care. I think his economic package is basically sound, but it lacks one fundamental ingredient: a major shift of public resources from the Pentagon to rebuilding the country. He is moving only very modestly in that direction, not fundamentally different than what we would have had under a second Bush Administration.
It may be as far as he can go on economic issues, however, given the current Congress.
Q: Why do you think Clinton has been so reluctant to make the necessary reductions in military spending?
McGovern: He is new to the national scene. He has not previously had to tangle with the military-industrial complex, and he isn't experienced in handling pressure from the military brass. It must be overwhelming for a young governor to come into Washington and try to take on the Pentagon.
His concerns over reactions to his lack of military experience and evasion of military service have made him cautious about taking them on. When he did challenge them on the gay-rights issue, he took something of a political pounding for it. He also does not see a clear alternative to the military-related jobs that would be lost—the Government has failed to do much in the area of conversion planning since the end of World War II. So, Clinton has probably recognized that he needs to take it slow.
Q: The line between hawks and doves has been blurred recently, as many of those who opposed U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Central America have supported a U.S. military role in Somalia and Bosnia. What do you see as a proper use of American armed force in the post-Cold War world?
McGovern: First of all, it should be within a collective-security framework, preferably through the United Nations. I can't say the United States should never consider military action outside the United Nations, but it would be highly preferable to work through the international community. In Bosnia, I see nothing wrong with the United States taking the lead against the Serbs, as long as it is within the framework of the United Nations and with the approval of Congress. If I were President, I would be awfully cautious unless we had the clear endorsement, participation, approval, and cooperation of both.
The Somalia intervention was acceptable, but it was the indiscriminate shipment of arms by the United States and others to the Barre dictatorship which set the stage for that tragedy.
That's one of the problems in talking about foreign-policy questions: I don't like to talk about what to do based on where we are now, because I disapproved of a lot of the steps which got us to that particular point in the first place.
Q: What kind of role do you see for the United Nations in the coming years?
McGovern: For the first time since World War II, the United Nations has the opportunity to do what its founders intended: provide a peacekeeping function, settle international disputes, build cooperative actions to deal with global problems such as health, food, and agricultural needs, and other needed functions.
The United Nations can and should emerge as a much stronger and more important force. With only one superpower, the United States will probably be the dominant voice, particularly on security matters, but that's better than to have the United States go it alone without a U.N. structure to provide something of a check.
Q: How do you view the Gulf war?
McGovern: I believe strongly that we should have challenged Saddam Hussein, but I think we should have stayed with sanctions for a longer period. I was even willing to support the stationing of a military deterrent force in Saudi Arabia, but the order to move on Desert Storm was very premature.
The President said several times that we had no quarrel with the people of Iraq and that our only quarrel was with Saddam Hussein. Yet we ended up killing 200,000 people with whom we have no quarrel, many of them children, and Saddam Hussein remains in power. I think the American people recognize, after the initial euphoria of victory, that somehow the war didn't achieve its objective.
While there wasn't a lot of talk about all the killing, my
sense is that if Americans really thought the war was a great American triumph, George Bush would probably still be in the White House.
Q: You have spent a lot of time in the Middle East since the Gulf war. What do you believe is its long-term impact?
McGovern: While the war gave us a certain prestige with some of the ruling regimes, large numbers of ordinary Arabs felt that what was really going on was a power play to safeguard an oil-rich regime rather than something that held out any hope of improving life for the ordinary person. What I'm picking up now in my travels is a feeling that somehow the Western powers showed little respect for humanity in all this. There is a feeling that a new form of imperialism is now operating in the Middle East. We may not have any colonies as did previous Western powers, but there is a belief that many of the ruling regimes are somehow tied in to the West in a way that does not enhance the well-being of the ordinary citizen.
I think we're headed for trouble if that perception prevails, particularly since there is a lot of truth behind it. These Arab regimes are going to have to become more sensitive to the problems of their own people. This is what this Muslim extremism is all about: It's a kind of desperate move by people who do not know how to get the attention of the ruling regimes any other way but to shake them up with extremist, radical, and sometimes violent methods.
Q: For most of your Senate career, you were an outspoken supporter of Israel, often to the point of downplaying concerns regarding Israeli violations of human rights and international law.
While still committed to Israel's survival, you have since become more critical of certain Israeli government policies and more sympathetic with Palestinian concerns. What caused this shift?
McGovern: I took the view of most American politicians for most of my Senate career, which was largely uncritical of Israel.
The Holocaust has always sickened me, as few other experiences in my life. Indeed, the Nazi persecution of Jews was a major reason I enlisted as a bomber pilot against Hitler. That horror gave me strong sympathy for Israel, as did my devout Methodist upbringing, which taught me that the Jews were God's chosen people. In addition, I had great respect for the democratic institutions Israel had created for its Jewish citizens.
In 1975, I had my first extended tour of the Middle East.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William Fulbright had asked me, a year earlier, to chair the Middle East subcommittee. For the first time, I came to understand the enormous suffering of the Palestinians. I was able to talk to many educated and articulate Palestinians, and learned that their aspirations for self-determination were every bit as strong as those of the Israelis. It seemed to me that if there were ever to be peace and justice in the Middle East, there would have to be compromise on the land, the water, and other resources. So, ever since, I have advocated a two-state solution, that of an independent Palestine alongside an independent Israel.
Q: In the years since the Vietnam war, how have you seen the U.S. reaction to Third World revolutionary movements?
McGovern: The revolutionary movements of Central America were never a threat to the United States in any way. They certainly weren't a military threat.
One of the great scandals of American history, I believe, was that we backed that murderous gang that ruled El Salvador, which we knew was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people for all those years. We have this notion that a communist—or even just a socialist— government is somehow offensive, and that they should have to straighten up and behave the way we want them to. If they are a huge country, like China or the Soviet Union, we can accept differences and get along the best we can, but if some little country like Nicaragua gets out of line, we feel like we can kick them in the tail. 1 think it's really unfortunate and degrading.
We ought to drop the double standard on how we treat little communist countries as opposed to the way we treat big ones. We have traditionally shown great deference to the major communist powers. It is considered politically advantageous on the Washington cocktail circuit to say you just got back from China, whereas Cuba or Vietnam are considered vicious, evil, and dangerous societies we have to boycott, and eventually root out and destroy. I never understood that. Why don't we just recognize them and start trading with them? This embargo we've had on Cuba for the past thirty years is a silly and self-defeating thing that defies logic.
Q: You have had a long-term interest in development issues, as director of the Food for Peace program in the Kennedy Administration and later through your work on such concerns in the U.S. Senate. There seems to be an assumption in Washington and the mainstream media that the fall of communism means that unbridled private enterprise and unlimited foreign investment is the only way a country can go, and that such an orientation is an integral part of democratization. How do you view this line of argument?
McGovern: I don't see that a totally free market is the answer, especially in societies that are moving out of authoritarian systems.
That's one of the problems in the former Soviet Union,
where everything has been planned and controlled all these years. They can't just leap into complete and unregulated privatization. A mixed economy would make for a much more satisfactory direction. I don't even believe in a totally free market in an advanced capitalist system like the United States. If you allow for a totally free market, people will rip you off any way they can, as we see in the savings-and-loan scandal, which could cost the American people half a trillion dollars. Lack of regulation can lead to environmental catastrophes, unsafe work environments, and other problems that are simply not in the best interest of the country. It is not unreasonable to advocate state guidelines and participation by the state in decisions
that affect our lives as much as the economy. Those governments which recognize this, and pursue a kind of socialdemocratic model, I believe, will likely do best.
Q: What about foreign trade—the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, in particular?
McGovern: I'm for NAFTA, though it has to be modified to address working conditions and environmental concerns. People who oppose NAFTA say that our factories will all go down to Mexico. Well, they're going down there anyway without it. With NAFTA, we may at least have some bargaining clout to improve environmental and working conditions. I've been a free trader all my life, and remain that way. However, the emergence of multinational corporations and the recognition of the global nature of environmental concerns require that free trade be modified with all the pressure we can bring to bear to address these concerns.
Q: In terms of political work, what kinds of things can you do on the outside that you were unable to do in elective office?
McGovern: You can be a little freer to say what you really think. For instance, I can speak more frankly about the Middle East than I could as a member of the U.S. Senate. On the other hand, there is no substitute for being on the inside to really effect change. As an example, I had a major influence when I was in office on anything to do with nutrition policy, agriculture policy, food aid, and other matters. You can do what Ralph Nader or Marian Wright Edelman do in terms of popularizing issues, but, in terms of actually moving a legislative agenda, it's much better to be on the inside.
Q: So you would still encourage young people with high ideals and hopes for encouraging social and political change to seek elective office?
McGovern: Absolutely. I hope the smartest and best people in the country will go into politics. That's where we need them more than anywhere else.
Stephen Zunes lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington. He is executive director of the Institute for a New Middle East Policy and a visiting professor of government and politics at the University of Puget Sound. Atage fifteen, he was a volunteer in North Carolina for the 1972 McGovern Presidential campaign.