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George McGovern, former Senator from South Dakota (D.) He was severely attacked by Dole during his 1972 bid for the presidency.

Interviewed July 10, 1996


FL: This very unusual relationship with Senator Dole--for us to understand how unusual it was, we really have to begin at the beginning.......

MCGOVERN:

Well, when Bob Dole first came to the Senate I had been there for several years, and his teeth had been sharpened in the more partisan atmosphere of the House. He was known early on in the Senate as one of the most partisan members of the body. I think Republicans and Democrats alike would agree that the Dole of 1968 was vastly different from the broader more flexible Dole of the 1996. There's no question about that in my mind. But when I first really encountered Bob Dole was when I was emerging as the Democratic nominee for President in 1972. And he was the Republican National Chairman and that was a tough confrontation.

FL: There were numerous attacks, could you describe them, because these times are lost to a lot of people. What were the issues that were of concern to him, what was he attacking you for, and some of the language of it as well.

MCGOVERN:

Well the transcendent issue in the late 60s when Bob Dole arrived in the Senate and in the early 70s when I was emerging as a presidential contender was the war in Vietnam. No other issue approached that in terms of passion and heat on both side. Bob Dole believed absolutely right down to his toe nails in the American military involvement in Vietnam. I was just as passionately opposed to American/Vietnam involvement, and that became the basis of the central clash between the two of us. Here were two WWII veterans both decorated combat veterans, at loggerheads over the principle issue of the time which was the war in Vietnam.

He used to attack me, it seemed to me almost daily when he was Republican National Chairman, I didn't let it bother me too much, I figured he was working for Richard Nixon, my opponent, he was the head of the opposition party, he was totally committed to the war, I was totally against it, it seemed to me natural that he would be coming after me. But most of the early Dole attacks centered on my opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam war.

FL: Those attacks--why did it seem to so many people both Republican and Democrats, just beyond the pale?

MCGOVERN:

The thing that so infuriated me about those early attacks on my position in regard to the Vietnam War is the implication on the part of Senator Dole that somehow those of us opposed American military involvement in Southeast Asia were unpatriotic. That we were not loyal to the country, that we were turning our backs on American troops. I never once criticized one American soldier fighting in Vietnam. They were brave, patriotic Americans doing what America policy called on them to do. So it was the policy we should have been debating and which I attacked, not the kind of personal suggestions that those that didn't agree with the war were somehow personally disloyal or unpatriotic or even hostile to the best interests of American troops. I was convinced the biggest favor I could do [for the] American troops was to get them out of Vietnam, to end our military involvement. I'm positive of that today as I was then.

FL: Were there other people that you remember Bob Dole attacking--

MCGOVERN:

Yes, there were barbs thrown at both the Kennedys, both Teddy Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The attacks on Robert Kennedy came when Dole was still a member of the House. Bob Kennedy had been killed before Dole arrived in the United States Senate. But he frequently linked my name with Senator Kennedy, or with other critics of the war, Senator Church, other people in the Senate who had been dissenting. But I think it's fair to say that his principle attacks were aimed at me for the simple reason that it appeared I was going to [be] the Democratic nominee. And once I became the Democratic nominee, the attacks intensified.

FL: Working in the Senate where these attacks are made, was it difficult to sit down and have a cup of coffee, or is it just separation, don't talk to each other

MCGOVERN:

There were no personal clashes face to face, between Senator Dole and me, we both served on the Agricultural Committee during that period. But I would have to say relations to say the least were on the frosty side.

FL: Talk to us now about the change that happened with Dole......

MCGOVERN:

It was almost immediately after the '72 presidential campaign that I began to see a change in Senator Dole. Two things happened that may explain that. Number one, I was defeated, defeated overwhelmingly by Richard Nixon, secondly, the Watergate scandal began to emerge that thoroughly discredited Senator Dole's hero, Richard Nixon, the man he had been working for. And to add to the pain of that, Nixon fired Dole as Republican National Chairman. Notwithstanding the fact that Dole had leaned over backwards to be faithful [to] President Nixon, to champion his cause in every way he knew how, and to attack me, the presidential opponent of Mr. Nixon. Notwithstanding all of that, almost before the votes were counted, President Nixon sent word that he wanted Dole out as National Chairman.

So I'm sure that that shook him up. And made him take another look at this intense unwavering partisanship of absolute faith in everything Republican and hostility to everything Democratic. And then the fact that I was so overwhelmingly defeated, I think he began to have some second thoughts maybe about the kind of person he'd had been roughing up all during the campaign. He was beginning to watch me more in the Senate. And I think what he saw was a different George McGovern than the one he thought he was attacking in '72. He never made reference to that change to me, but almost, I would say as early as '73, the year after the election, he [made] gestures both on the Senate floor and in the committees on which we served to indicate he would welcome a friendlier working relationship and I responded to that.

There was another interesting factor. I think that Senator Dole thought that I had created the Senate-select committee on nutrition purely as a political instrument for my '72 campaign. When I never used it in that fashion, and in fact from the very beginning directed that committee in a very bi-partisan way, everything we did was bi-partisan and across the aisle, I think that made a great impression on him. As a matter of fact, he's on the public record at some point saying either on the Senate floor or in some forum, that George McGovern always ran that committee in a bi-partisan spirit, and I think that had a lot to do with his willingness to team up with me later on in the Senate.

FL: Let's talk about the food stamp program, if you could briefly describe the scope of it and Senator Dole's contribution to its passage .

MCGOVERN:

I don't think we could have carried out a major expansion of the food stamp program, the reform of that program, the strengthening, the improvement of that program without Senator Dole. He lined up Republican support for the food stamp program as effectively as it could be done. I was doing the same thing on the Democratic side. And so for the first time in the history of that program and other food assistance programs, the WIC program for Woman, Infants and Children, the school lunch program, we were able to expand and strengthen all of those programs in a major way and the key to that was the Dole/McGovern alliance in the Senate that brought on very broad bi-partisan support.

FL: Why was this important?

MCGOVERN:

U.S. food assistance has always had two driving engines. One, what do we do with farm surpluses. We've got more milk, we've got more grain, we've got more edible oil than we know what to do with. What are we going to do with American farm surpluses. Well, one answer is to give them away to the poor. And that's how food stamps began years ago, use them in the school lunch program, use them for women, infants and children, use them for other people that are vulnerable and need additional food. So you have the practical question of utilizing farm surpluses. Then there's the humanitarian side. These programs improve health, they meet the needs of the poor, they meet the needs of vulnerable women, infants, children, nursing mothers. Senator Dole saw that practical combination of humanity on the one side and agricultural self-interest on the other. He comes from Kansas, I come from South Dakota, it was a natural political marriage.

FL: Did his colleagues understand the importance of the food stamp program?

MCGOVERN:

They didn't occur publicly, but Senator Dole got many questions from conservative members especially on his side of the aisle, and even from some of the conservative Democrats who were mystified as to why he was teaming up with George McGovern, I was the chairman of the committee and Bob Dole was ranking Republican on the committee. But I think a great many people thought this was a tailor made for real combat, to have this liberal Democrat with a conservative Republican sitting there in the minority leadership position. So Senator Dole, knowing the kind of heat he was getting privately, would do things on the Senate floor publicly that kind of diffused this. And one of the things he did just before the vote on each of these bills, whether it was a food stamp bill or an agricultural bill, he would praise me and my leadership of the committee and tell the Senate how bi-partisan I'd been and that he had come to see that my interest was in the American people not in any self-gain. So you find those comments from Senator Dole both on interviews, television and radio interviews, with the writing press, but you could also hear them on the Senate floor.

FL: I wonder if you could offer any interpretation in looking back at this very unusual journey across the aisle which Dole took......

MCGOVERN:

This is pure speculation, because we never know for certain what is in someone's mind unless they speak about it publicly, or at least talk to us in private, I never had those conversations with Senator Dole, but I've been convinced for a long time and in fact was at the very time it was happening, that Senator Dole after the '72 presidential elections, after Watergate, after he left as Republican National Chairman, felt the need to show that he was a broader more humane, more decent human being than had come across in that earlier hard-line partisan role. I think that's a principle reason why he reached out to me and to others in the Senate to demonstrate his capacity to cooperate with people who he at one time treated as the hated enemy.

FL: I'm wondering whether you have any thoughts, again pure speculation, about the different ways in which the war experience might have shaped you or be of importance to you.

MCGOVERN:

Well, it's interesting, I think both Senator Dole and I are intensely proud of our participation in WWII, I've never had the slightest doubt about American policy in the Second World War. Hitler was a mad man who had to be stopped. Senator Dole believed that, I believed it, I believed that the Japanese imperialist had to be stopped, so did Senator Dole. So we have in common an absolute commitment to this day to the American role in the second world war. Where the difference came in I think rather soon after the war is that I looked back on the fact that 50 or 60 million human beings had died in that war and I was determined to do everything I could to see that a war like that never took place again. Senator Dole I think drew a somewhat different conclusion, that never again must America take the slightest chance with it military defenses. If we are going to live in this world, we better be armed to the teeth and on guard night and day. That lead him in the direction of a post WWII hawk, it lead me in the direction of what came to be called a dove. And I suppose that difference persists to this day. I've always thought since WWII that the American military budget was roughly double what it needed to be for any reasonable threat to our security. Senator Dole's never thought the military budget was big enough. He still doesn't. So there you have a fundamental continuing difference from two people that had a very similar experience in the second world war.

I think the difference with Senator Dole and me on this whole matter of war is that both of us having concluded that America was justified in being involved in WWII, Senator Dole seems to think we're justified in participating almost anyplace where we want to send American forces. I don't think we had any choice in WWII. We certainly had a choice in Vietnam and in other places around the world where the American interest was not on the line. Vietnam never attacked the United States. It never wanted war with the United States, it wanted our recognition. And our accommodation, our trade, our investment. And we should have extended that instead of sending American forces into a complicated internal struggle involving two groups of Vietnamese. I don't think Senator Dole understands that to this day. And it's the most fearful part of his approach to public issues in my judgement.

I regret to say that I don't see the evidence he has learned much about experience with war that is practical to the kind of a world we face today. We are in a very revolutionary world, a whole cadre of 100 different nations has come into being since WWII, most of them through revolutionary movements at home. I thought it was a great mistake to oppose most of those revolutionary movements which Senator Dole consistently does. But even now, my greatest area of concern about him is that I don't see that he has learned anything about the lessons of Vietnam. He still thinks everything we did was right there, that we should have been involved, that we should have stayed the course, he doesn't seem to understand the terrible folly of that war.

Now some people do learn from war. Robert MacNamara, one of the chief architects of Vietnam, now says it was not only a mistake, but a terrible mistake. Those were his words. I'd love to hear Robert Dole say that. I was wrong about Vietnam. I was just as wrong as Robert MacNamara, and I Senator Dole, a candidate for President will pledge to you that never again, are we going to send American forces under the conditions that we did when we were fighting those long year in Vietnam. That's what I'd love to hear, I don't expect to hear it.

FL: Interestingly, David Harris, in his interview, raised that very question. But he was equally tough on Clinton. I mean he applauds Clinton's challenge to Vietnam, but he says both of these men are unable to talk about that war. It's as if no war ever happened. Can you talk about both these men who in very different ways found it very difficult to talk about the war. For Senator Dole to say I was wrong, which he doesn't believe. And for President Clinton to say I was right.

MCGOVERN:

It's a tough thing, to know what to do about a war that deep in your gut you feel is wrong and yet watch your peers going off to fight in that war. That was the struggle that Bill Clinton agonized over in those months at Oxford so many years ago. I'm proud of that struggle that he waged with himself. What disappoints me about my friend President Clinton is that he hasn't really made a clear moral political position against that war in all these years since that decision when he decided not to go. He should have been saying all along, these are the lessons we ought to learn from Vietnam, we never again ought to put young Americans through an unconstitutional ill-advised conflict of this kind, I sympathize with every American who fought there, and as President of the United States, I'm going to do everything I can to see that their needs are met. But the central message of Vietnam is that it was a major policy mistake. And as President of the United States, I'm going to do everything in my power to see that we never go down that fateful road again.

I don't know how to explain it other than that he may still be embarrassed somewhat that 58,000 young Americans died in a war that in effect, he evaded. That may be part of the problem.

I think secondly, he has had some political reluctance to raise that issue, knowing that even to this day, it's a controversial issue in American politics. Perhaps he remembers in '72 when he was working for me in that presidential campaign, that this issue tore the country apart. It probably meant that no Democratic presidential nominee could win while that war was in progress. Why? Because Vietnam tore the Democratic party right in half. I think it defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968 when he supported the war, I think it defeated in '72 when I opposed the war. Democrats were almost equally divided on both sides of that issue. Bill Clinton may not have wanted to take a stand any time beyond what was absolutely necessary on that issue. He had to take a stand when the issue was am I going to go or am I not going to go. But I do regret his silence on the issue since then.

FL: And what does this tell us?

MCGOVERN:

It tells us that he is a political survivor. There may be some justification for that. He got to the White House, I didn't. So if you believe strongly enough in your program that's it's important that you reach the White House, I suppose that's at least a partial justification for remaining silent on issues that may keep you from achieving your goal which is to be President of the United States and do some other things that are very worthwhile.

[But] It's one of my disappointments with President Clinton that he has not sounded a clear note on the Vietnam war, clear opposition to it all these years and then attempting to explain what the lessons of that conflict are that are practical today.


continued

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