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Senator George McGovern Talks About Politics Past And Present

Above: Former Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) stands during day four of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) at Invesco Field at Mile High August 28, 2008 in Denver, Colorado. U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is the first African-American to be officially nominated as a candidate for U.S. president by a major party.

Audio

Aired 11/4/09

Former Presidential Candidate, Senator George McGovern visits San Diego to talk about his book on Abraham Lincoln and his work in progress on the War in Afghanistan.

George McGovern will be signing copies of his book ABRAHAM LINCOLN this afternoon at 3:15 at Redwood Terrace in Escondido. And this evening at 7 at La Mesa Community Center.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Many books have been written about the life of Abraham Lincoln and many of them have been quite daunting in both length and scope. A new volume, part of the American Presidents Series, manages to present the life, challenges, controversies, victories and tragedies of Lincoln in a clear and compact format. Perhaps that's because the author, my guest Senator George McGovern, after a lifetime in politics, has a unique insight into some of the challenges and hard decisions Lincoln was called upon to make. George McGovern represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1981. He is perhaps best known as the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972. Senator McGovern is also an historian, the author of more than a dozen books and, along with former Senator Bob Dole, the recipient of the 2008 World Food Prize for his work on an international school food program. And, as I mentioned, his latest book is titled “Abraham Lincoln.” It's a pleasure to welcome you, Senator McGovern, to These Days.

SENATOR GEORGE MCGOVERN (Author): It’s good to be on your program.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Now since you’re an historian, before you wrote this book, you must’ve thought you knew quite a lot about President Lincoln. I’m wondering, did you learn things researching this book that surprised you?

MCGOVERN: Yes, I wouldn’t say any dramatic things that brought me right out of my chair but I did learn the depth of his character better than I had understood it before. He was a great man. He was not only a great president—some historians say our greatest president—but he was a very great human being, overcame incredible handicaps in order to win the White House and then preside, I think, brilliantly as President of the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Now the story, the great story, of Lincoln, his birth in the log cabin, his struggles with his own personal melancholy, his compassion during the war, this has inspired so many Americans, including our current president. And what is it that you think about the way President Lincoln handled adversity that we find so compelling?

MCGOVERN: Well, who would’ve thought that a man with only two years of formal education, even that was hit or miss at times, sometimes dependent on traveling teachers that would visit the village, who would’ve guessed that he could emerge with enough wisdom to become a great President of the United States. But in that less than two years of education that he had, he learned to read and he learned to write, and he never quit. For the rest of his life, he was reading, reading, reading, reading. Every time he could get his hands on a book, he devoured it. His father couldn’t accept that. His father was a hardworking farmer, and that’s a tough job. I know that, having grown up in South Dakota. But when he would assign a task to young Abe Lincoln, frequently an hour later he’d find him leaning up against a tree reading a book, and it drove him wild. The differences between the two men became so intense that Lincoln left home and didn’t even attend his father’s funeral. He had two mothers. The first one died young, and then the second one, and they both saw his intellectual capabilities and those two women had a lot to do with urging him to read and to write and to inquire and to ask questions. And so he became one of our best informed presidents. I tell young people today, one of the great things you can do after reading a book on Abraham Lincoln is to start reading even beyond what your teachers assign. Ask somebody you admire what’s the best book you’ve read in the last couple of years? And then read that book. And then ask somebody else. And keep reading all your life and you’ll get more out of life and you’ll be more respected.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Senator George McGovern about his new book titled “Abraham Lincoln.” And, Senator McGovern, in this book you do have some critisin – criticism, that is, for President Lincoln for the way he suspended civil liberties during the Civil War. Tell us about that.

MCGOVERN: You know, the only oath that a president takes when he’s sworn into office, it’s the same with those of us that served in the Senate, the only oath we take, you hold up your right hand, you put the left one on the Bible and you swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That’s it. You don’t swear to carry out your platform. Some people are hoping you won’t carry out your platform. But you should stay with that constitutional pledge. And Lincoln knew that. He was a great lawyer. He was a student of the constitution. And I think he made two mistakes during the Civil War that disappointed me. This doesn’t keep me from thinking he was our greatest president but he disappointed me in that he lifted the writ of habeas corpus which entitles a person, once they’re arrested, to know why they’re being held, and to appear reasonably soon before a judicial figure of some kind to be determined whether he’s being held or she’s being held legally or with good cause. And he decided he would just lift that right. I think it was a mistake. I couldn’t find any evidence that it added one note of strength to the northern cause during the war. The second thing he did was to close down several major newspapers that were critical of his administration. Harry Truman used to say, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I think Lincoln withstood a lot of heat. And every politician that’s been around for a while have had days when they’d like to choke the local editor but that’s illegal.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

MCGOVERN: The first amendment says freedom of the press, and that means the freedom to criticize. So I think he made mistakes in those two areas.

CAVANAUGH: Now there is some parallel between President Lincoln’s interference with civil rights during the Civil War and President George W. Bush’s suspension of habeas corpus for some people in America during his administration, the war on terror. How are they the same? Do you see similarities between the two?

MCGOVERN: They’re not – they are the same. That’s presidents taking shortcuts with constitutional law. I criticized former President Bush for those decisions, and it would be inconsistent for me to criticize President Bush for violating the constitution and then say it’s okay for Lincoln to do it. So I felt I had to be consistent and that’s why I took exception to it.

CAVANAUGH: I know that you – a few years ago, you wrote a book that urged American withdrawal from Iraq. I want to ask you, do you think America should ever have invaded that country?

MCGOVERN: No. Absolutely no. The – Iraq had absolutely nothing to do with the 911 attack in New York and at the Pentagon. The administration tried to imply that maybe they had some attachment to Al Qaeda. Actually, Saddam Hussein, as big a dictator as he was, had nothing to do with Al Qaeda and he certainly had nothing to do with the attack in New York. So there was a similarity to some of the things that President Bush did. And, you know, I think especially in time of war, presidents should stay with the constitution. The constitution also provides that we shouldn’t go to war without a declaration of war, a debate and discussion and declaration by the congress. I’d like to see the constitution strengthened rather than weakened.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Senator George McGovern and he’s here talking about his latest book titled “Abraham Lincoln.” We’re going a little far afield in talking about present foreign policy but I can’t resist asking you a couple of more questions about this, Senator McGovern. I wonder if you agree with how the Obama administration is handling the withdrawal of troops from Iraq?

MCGOVERN: Well, I wish they’d speed it up. Just about—I don’t think I’m exaggerating—I think three-fourths of the American people now know that that war in Iraq was a mistake. A good many of the soldiers we sent over there know it was a mistake. So why delay the departure? I had hoped that maybe in the first six to nine months of the administration we’d have our forces out of there. I know President Obama was against going to war there. But at least he has set a deadline, and so I give him credit for that. We know we’re going to be out of there in 2010. I worry about Afghanistan. I…

CAVANAUGH: I know that you are presently writing a book about Afghanistan, is my understanding.

MCGOVERN: Well, I’m at least going to write an article about it. I haven’t decided. A book might not be in time to have the impact I would like, which is to encourage the administration to get out of there. We can’t control events in Afghanistan. We can’t control that government that’s in power there now; they’re corrupt, they’re in the drug trade, they’re misusing funds. Many people in Afghanistan know that’s a crooked government and why we want to bolster them and make them stronger is beyond my comprehension. I think it’s too bad this challenger dropped out of the race. I don’t know whether he could’ve won. But I don’t think it’s our responsibility to try to build good governments in various countries around the world. That’s a very difficult thing to do. You know, we’re talking here about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. We had a heck of a time building a nation here, and we had the greatest leaders we’ve ever had. Still, it was very difficult. And I think we’d be much better off to get out of Afghanistan and let the people there work on their own problems.

CAVANAUGH: In fact, back to the book “Abraham Lincoln,” you have – you talk about the lost promise of Abraham Lincoln’s second term and what he might have done to bring this country to a better resolution of the Civil War than we actually saw.

MCGOVERN: Well, Lincoln told his cabinet during the Civil War, speaking about the southern states who had seceded and forced the Civil War, he said, when the time comes, let’s let them up easy. He meant to welcome the south back into the union. And I think he had a sense of compassion and of caring about people, even people that disagreed with him, that would’ve made him the ideal president to handle reconstruction after the Civil War. The south suffered terribly in that war. It was the bloodiest war this country’s ever been in because the only people who died in it were Americans, one group of Americans fighting another group. And Lincoln had the deep sense of compassion and actually genuine love for other human beings including people that differed with him, and I think he’d have been the perfect president to guide us through those difficult years of bringing the nation back together.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Senator George McGovern and we’re speaking about his book “Abraham Lincoln” and several other topics while he’s here. And one of the things, Senator McGovern, that I was – sort of brought me up short when I was looking into research for this interview was about your work fighting hunger and this partnership that you have with Bob Dole. Now, for many people, you two make an unlikely pair.

MCGOVERN: Well, we teamed up in the Senate. Bob Dole and I didn’t agree on a number of things, including the war in Vietnam, but I found that we had similar interests on agriculture and on the products of agriculture, what to do with food, school lunches, food stamps, the WIC program for low income, pregnant and nursing women and their infants through the age of five. I was the chairman of a new subcommittee in the Senate, actually a Select Committee, on Nutrition and Human Needs, as it was called. And Bob became the ranking Republican on that committee, and I said to him early on, Bob, we can play politics with this issue of hunger in America but I don’t think you want to do that and I don’t want to do that. And I – we worked together hand in glove, and revolutionized food assistance in America during the 1970s. Now, President Clinton named me as American Ambassador to Rome to deal with the two food and agriculture agencies of the United Nations that are based there, and I came up with this idea of an international school lunch program for hungry kids in Asia, Africa, Latin America and so on. And the first person I called was Bob Dole, and I said, Bob, would you help on this if I get the – try to get the United States government and then the United Nations to underwrite an international school lunch program. He asked a few questions about it. What would it cost? And would there be diversion of food? Good Republican questions, I thought.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, the two of you wound up last year winning the World Food Prize.

MCGOVERN: We did, and we’ve worked very closely together. The UN is now reaching 22 million hungry school kids in the poorest countries. I’d like to see that go to 100 million before I say goodbye to this world, and so that’s my passion at the moment.

CAVANAUGH: You know, we are just about out of time, incredibly, but before you go, Senator McGovern, I – many people have come up to me—they know that you’re coming here and speaking with us—and they said they feel America would be a better place today if you had won that election back in 1972. And I wonder, in writing this book about Abraham Lincoln and observing the presidency up close and personal the way you did all those years in the Senate, do you regret not being president?

MCGOVERN: I do. I thought I would be pretty good at it. I had the education for it, I had the experience, I’d served in the congress for 22 years, and I think I’d have been a good president if the voters had given me a chance to serve. I went to President Nixon’s funeral and listening to the eulogies to him, the thought occurred to me that even from his standpoint, he’d have been better off if I had won. He wouldn’t have been thrown out of office in disgrace a few months after the election.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you. Thank you for that answer and thank you so much for being here with us.

MCGOVERN: It’s my privilege and my pleasure.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Senator George McGovern. I want everyone to know, first of all, the title of his latest book is “Abraham Lincoln,” and he will be speaking and signing books at the Redwood Terrace in Escondido this afternoon at 3:15, and La Mesa Community Center, of course in La Mesa, at 7:00 this evening. Stay with us. These Days continues in just a few minutes.

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