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Remembering McGovern, WWII Hero, Politician, and Vietnam War Challenger

October 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A longtime Democratic legislator from South Dakota and a three-time presidential candidate, George McGovern was a proud liberal well-known for his vehement opposition of the Vietnam War who mobilized and inspired young voters. Judy Woodruff talks to former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart who helps remember his close friend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, we remember former presidential candidate and longtime Democratic senator from South Dakota: George McGovern.

GEORGE MCGOVERN, D-former U.S. senator: Well, we really are in the snows of New Hampshire, aren’t we?

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was a war hero who gained prominence opposing war and a three-time presidential candidate who lost one of the most lopsided elections in history.

His name itself became synonymous with American liberalism, for good or ill, over six decades in public life.

In 1988, George McGovern visited the NewsHour with the man who personified conservatism for a generation, Senator Barry Goldwater.

JIM LEHRER: You agree that just as a matter of political course, to be labeled a liberal, a McGovern liberal even…

GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yes, that’s the worst kind…

JIM LEHRER: … that’s the worst kind of liberal there is.


GEORGE MCGOVERN: You know, the interesting thing about liberalism to me — and I would say this to some of my fellow Democrats who seem to be running away from it as though it’s a kind of a swear word — is that virtually every program that we now have on the statute books that most Americans support — I would say that Barry Goldwater and George McGovern could probably get together on most of those programs — those began as liberal initiatives, over conservative opposition.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was that sometimes quixotic advocacy of the liberal ideal that animated his career.

George Stanley McGovern was born July 19, 1922, in the tiny farming town of Avon, S.D., son of a Methodist minister. He flew 35 harrowing missions over Europe during World War II, winning the distinguished Flying Cross as a young Army aviator.

In 2001, he spoke with the NewsHour about those missions.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: We had no choice in the Second World War. I never thought there was any choice. We had to stop those people and the military machines behind them, whereas, in Vietnam, it was a confusing situation. We undertook an impossible situation in Vietnam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McGovern’s opposition to the Vietnam War blossomed during the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate. His anti-war stance became a crusade that propelled his first losing bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.

Four years later, his youthful volunteers overwhelmed the party establishment and he emerged as the nominee.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: I assume that everyone here is impressed with my control of this convention and that my choice for vice president was challenged by only 39 other nominees.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, that 1972 convention in Miami was so chaotic that McGovern didn’t deliver his acceptance speech until the wee hours of a Friday morning.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: So, join with me in this campaign. Lend Sen. Eagleton and me your strength and your support, and together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the very beginning.


GEORGE MCGOVERN: From secrecy and deception in high places, come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home, America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In short order, though, vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton was forced off the ticket after revelations he had had psychiatric care and after McGovern initially said he supported him 1000 percent.

The South Dakota senator went on to win just a single state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia, as President Richard Nixon rolled to reelection. It was just five months after the Watergate break-in that would ultimately end Nixon’s presidency in disgrace.

Meanwhile, McGovern’s fervent opposition to Vietnam brought many into the party’s ranks. In 1984, he spoke with Cokie Roberts on the NewsHour about this activism his earlier run had generated.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: What gives me the greatest satisfaction is that they haven’t dropped out of politics. I think you would be amazed to know how many of the Democratic Party officials across this country from the counties to the states to the national are so-called McGovern supporters from ’72.

COKIE ROBERTS: So, you feel in some ways you have changed people’s lives?

GEORGE MCGOVERN: I do, indeed. Every once in a while, I run into somebody who tells me that she met her husband in my campaign or a husband who says, I met my wife. I have to tell you, I caused a few divorces too.


COKIE ROBERTS: You don’t want to tread too heavy on that.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: The schedules are very, very hard on married life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But apparently never on McGovern’s. He was married 63 years. His wife, Eleanor, died in 2007. 1984 found McGovern vying again for the Democratic nomination, this time to challenge President Reagan and looking to rekindle the old energy.

QUESTION: What America wants to know is, how serious are you? How — is this a nostalgic run around…

GEORGE MCGOVERN: It’s not a nostalgic run. You don’t run for the presidency out of nostalgia.

And I have spelled out as clearly over the last few months my differences with the Reagan administration and with the other candidates as it’s possible to do. There’s no question in my mind I have got a good, solid program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But running as a dark horse, he never gained traction. He bowed out after Super Tuesday in March that year with an elegiac appraisal of his campaign for the office he never won.

GEORGE MCGOVERN: One of the things I like are the labels that I came out with, your colleagues in the press, some of them referring to me as the conscience of the party, others talking about me as the peacemaker in the race, and still others as the elder statesman. Those are all fairly nice titles. It’s quite a triple crown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After that loss, McGovern spent years writing and advocating for his most cherished cause, ending world hunger. But he was never far from politics.

His last book, “What It Means to be a Democrat,” was released this summer. Not long after, he returned to Sioux Falls, S.D.

A few weeks ago, he was taken to hospice and suffered a rapid decline in health. He died early Sunday morning at the age of 90.

Gary Hart was McGovern’s presidential campaign manager in 1972. The former Colorado senator was also a longtime friend. I spoke with Gary Hart a short while ago.

Senator Gary Hart, welcome.

Let me ask you about George McGovern. You met him after his first run for president. What did you see in him and what he stood for that made you want to work for him?

GARY HART, former U.S. senator: He was a man of strong convictions and very strong principles and great courage, not only on — in his opposition to the stalemate in Vietnam, but also to a lifelong commitment to nutrition and hunger here at home and around the world.

And he was also involved in reforming the Democratic Party after the chaos in Chicago. And I was powerfully drawn to that cause as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was you, Sen. Hart. It was also people like former President Bill Clinton as a young man, Hillary Clinton as a young woman. They were both in law school. All of you were working for him at a time — at a time in your lives when the war in Vietnam was a huge issue.

But what was it about him that drew you to that cause?

GARY HART: There was a tremendous idealism created among young people, including those of us who had entered our 30s, left over from the John and Robert Kennedy days. And we were looking for a candidate that appealed to that idealism, who told us that America could do better.

And it turned out that was George McGovern more than any of the others. And I think we were all drawn to him not just because of opposition to Vietnam, but because of that idealistic message that the country could do better at home and around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think his legacy is?

GARY HART: Well, I’m perhaps alone in this. I think his success at saving the Democratic Party between ’68 and ’72 has been very much underestimated.

It — he — through the McGovern Commission that changed the rules, opened the party to participation by women, minorities and young people, and democratizing the Democratic Party, which led to the convention in ’72, has had a profound impact on the Democratic Party.

Many critics said that he ruined the party. I think he saved the party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting you say that, because I have been reading today about — you know, so much of the commentary.

And, for example, The New York Times said he really never lived down the image of the liberal loser. How do you see that?

GARY HART: Well, I have written on what constitutes winning and losing, and those in the political journalism profession tend to treat politics as a sport, sometimes a blood sport. If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser, and particularly if you lose 49 states.

But if you add up what this man did with his life, as compared to the man that was the winner in ’72, there’s no comparison as to who the real winner is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the party, the Democratic Party that he believed in still the Democratic Party of today, do you think?

GARY HART: Not in this sense.

All we hear about today from candidates of both parties is the middle class. When was the last time anyone talked about poverty in America?

And we still have one in five children in poverty. We still have 20 percent of children with no health care at all. There is a serious problem of poverty in America. But neither party, including my own, wants to talk about poor people anymore. It’s all about the middle class.

And I think the reason for that, frankly — and I spent a lot of my lifetime on this — is, you cannot have a New Deal and Great Society without an expanding economy. So the first thing is to get income into the hands of working people and middle-income people. When that happens and when they have economic security, then they’re much more willing to care for and pay for the concerns of the needy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sen. Gary Hart, we thank you for talking with us.

GARY HART: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, there’s more, including Gary Hart’s expectations for tonight’s debate. Plus, you can watch Jim Lehrer’s 1988 interview with George McGovern.

Funeral services for Sen. McGovern will be held Friday in Sioux Falls, S.D.