Talking With McGovern in a Time of Palin and Israel’s Settlements

by James M. Wall

I was fed up with the ugliness of American political dialogue. I knew it was time to call George McGovern.

I found him on St. Thomas Island, where he was attending  the funeral of an old friend, Henry Kimmelman, his campaign finance director for McGovern’s 1972 presidential race.

We set aside a longer period to talk the next day when he would be back at his winter home in St. Augustine, Florida. He spends the rest of the year in Mitchell, South Dakota, across from the new George and Eleanor McGovern Library on the campus of Dakota Wesleyan.

McGovern abruptly left elective politics in 1980, shoved aside, with four other liberal Democratic US senators who lost their seats in the political tsunami powered by Ronald Reagan’s defeat of Jimmy Carter: Frank Church (Idaho), Gaylord Nelson (Wisconsin), Birch Bayh (Indiana), and John Culver (Iowa).

I first met McGovern when we campaigned together in Illinois for his 1972 Democratic nomination for president.  I was running a futile race for Congress, and a successful one as a McGovern delegate.

In the Miami nominating convention prolonged by a needless ABM (Anybody But McGovern) last minute effort to nominate Hubert Humphrey, McGovern finally won the nomination. The old guard does not like change, as Barack Obama almost found out in 2008.

McGovern lost the general election to Richard Nixon. Eighteen months later, Nixon, facing impeachment over the Watergate matter, resigned in disgrace.

Two months after the election, I interviewed McGovern at his home in Washington. In its January 31, 1973 issue, the Christian Century magazine published that interview, Politics and Morality: A Postelection Interview with George McGovern.

At the close of the interview, I asked McGovern what he would have done in Vietnam had he won the election. He answered:

I would have ordered an end to all military operations in Indochina within minutes after I was sworn in as President. Then I would have announced that our forces were being withdrawn systematically, on the condition that our prisoners would be released. I would also have terminated any further military aid to General Thieu. . . .

I think it is conceivable that, depending on what my relationship to Nixon would have been, the war might have been terminated even before the inauguration. I would have requested him to join me in an effort to bring the war to an end. It is possible that without an electoral mandate behind him he would have been in the mood to accept that.

With Nixon, and Gerald Ford as presidents, the war lasted three more years. American Republican politics have not been the same since.

Thirty-seven years after McGovern’s defeat, the most passionately supported Republican presidential candidate for 2012, is Sarah Palin.

This month it is impossible not to encounter Palin. She is on a book tour, delighting her right-wing followers. What sort of a president might she be?  She gave a hint of her foreign policy credentials in an interview with Barbara Walters.

Palin was asked about Israel’s 900 additional housing units now under construction in Gilo, a sprawling, ugly, massive Israeli settlement that butts up against the “little town of Bethlehem” where the Christ Child was born, in case former Governor Palin and her acolytes, have forgotten. Her response:

I disagree with the Obama administration on [the settlements]. I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow.

More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

I did not want to ask McGovern about Palin. I knew it was no point in asking him that question. George McGovern does not speak harshly of anyone. Case in point: He says about Richard Nixon:

I bear no malice toward Richard Nixon. Indeed, he governed as a moderate liberal. His administration launched the Environmental Protection Agency, he supported civil rights, he established detente with the Soviet Union and opened the door to China, he invoked wage and price controls to stabilize the economy–just to name a few of his moderate liberal steps.

What we lost when George McGovern did not make it to the White House might best be understood when we realize that McGovern not only reads and respects the work of Israeli peace activist Avraham Burg, he agrees with Burg”s statement on the conditions for a just peace, which Burg wrote in the Israeli journal, Yediot Aharonot in 2004:

We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. . . We must remove all the settlements and draw an internationally recognized border between the Israeli national home and the Palestinian national home.

The man who should have been elected president in 1972, offers a stark contrast to the former governor of Alaska, who would like to be the Republican nominee in 2012.

When George McGovern accepted his party’s nomination in 1972, he presented the nation with a vision that says, regardless of its ambiguity, politics is the arena where we must shape hope into organized, positive, action..

I wanted to be reminded of that vision, because in Ramallah, President Abbas plans to resign, while in Tel Aviv, Bibi Netanyahu continues to insult and defy the president of the United States, the only world leader who supports him.

McGovern’s vision echoes the wisdom and eloquence of Reinhold Niebuhr, who once wrote,  “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

McGovern frequently quotes Niebuhr; he did, after all, spend a year in seminary before he shifted to Northwestern University’s graduate school, where he earned a Master’s degree in history.

Our current political dialogue, which McGovern is well prepared to critique, is conducted in such an environment of ignorance and anger, that it is hard not to sink into a dark funk over what comes next.

Of course, periods of darkness are not uncommon in the Middle East.

When Yasir Arafat was presiding over a newly formed Palestinian Authority initially created in Oslo, I traveled to Gaza in November, 1994, with an American church delegation.

We went first to meet with Arafat’s wife, the former Suha Tawil, a member of a politically active Palestinian family.

In the delegation was a United Methodist bishop from Ohio. Before we left, she offered a prayer in the Arafat home. After the prayer, Suha said to the bishop, “Please give that same prayer when you visit my husband in his office. Something needs to be done to lift the darkness over there.”

Which is why I wanted to talk with George McGovern.

I told him I had been watching the documentary film on his life, One Bright Shining Moment. I found it inspiring.  McGovern thought it was a good film, but he felt it makes him look “too radical”.

Perhaps it does, but it also reminded me of the summer of 1972, when, in spite of all, the future looked both bright and shining.

I told McGovern I have been reading his latest book, Abraham Lincoln, which reveals that the initial campaign speech Lincoln gives from the front porch of his store in Salem, Illinois, was the same speech he used throughout a losing campaign for the legislature.

The speech is included, word for word, in John Ford’s film, Young Mr. Lincoln. I had always assumed it was the work of a script writer. McGovern’s research discovered the speech belongs to Lincoln.

I have also been reading McGovern’s superb defense of  American liberalism, The Essential America, in whichhe describes his lifelong focus on bringing  America’s policies closer to those of our founding ideals; ending the hunger of our world’s poor; and bringing peace to the troubled Middle Eastern region.

We talked on the phone about these three areas.  McGovern, now 87, is not slowing down.  He still writes books and newspaper columns, and he still travels the country to give speeches, primarily on world hunger. He is also in demand on these trips for his political opinions.

On one recent trip for a speaking engagement in San Diego, Robert Sheer, longtime Los Angeles Times political writer, interviewed him for a television segment. You may see and hear the contemporary McGovern in that interview, by clicking here.

After we concluded our telephone conversation, I went back to reread McGovern’s 1972 convention speech, “Come Home America”. He gave that speech on an early July morning, using words that remind us that the world’s problems today are essentially the same as they were then.

Read these closing lines and let them break you out of darkness. We need to be alert and ready. There is work to be done.

Together we will call America home to the ideals that nourished us from the beginning.

From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America.

From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America.

From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick — come home, America.

Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream.

Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward.

Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land — from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters — this land was made for you and me.”

May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.

Do words like these matter in a time of Palin and Israel’s settlements?  Yes they do, as the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, once wrote:

I want to sing. I want a language that I can lean on and that can lean on me, that asks me to bear witness and that I can ask to bear witness, to what power there is in us to overcome this cosmic isolation…I’m screaming at a moment when screams can go nowhere. And it strikes me that language must force itself into a battle in which the voices are not equal.

The picture of George McGovern at the top of the page was taken by Keith Robert Wessel at the 2005 dedication of the George and Eleanor McGovern Library in Mitchell, South Dakota.

About wallwritings

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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11 Responses to Talking With McGovern in a Time of Palin and Israel’s Settlements

  1. Claudia Olsen says:

    Thank you Jim! This was one of your best columns ever!

  2. Pauline Coffman says:

    Oh, the memories you bring back! Thank you…there is a quotation from Mahmoud Darwish on the memorial tomb of Yasir Arafat in the Mukata in Ramalleh that was also inspiring. I don’t have it with me, but it demonstrates the need for inspiration we all share.

  3. John F. Kane says:

    Thanks, especially for the lengthy citation from the end of McGovern’s “Come Home America.” How much we still and always need such words. John

  4. Bill Gepford says:

    Jim, thanks for reminding us of what we are, and should aspire to be.

    When I was on the staff of the American University of Beirut back in the 1960’s I was privileged to have known the great Lebanese statesman, Dr. Charles Malik, one time ambassador to the United States and a co-signer of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1945.

    In one of our conversations on the state of the Middle East, I will never forget his comment, “For decades we here in the Middle East always welcomed, and wanted, Americans (teachers, doctors, missionaries, etc.) because they brought their qualities of justice, fair play and respect for others, but now that has all changed. They are bringing their arms, biases and political arrogance. It can only bring more conflict, violence and death.” He was a prophet of his time.

  5. Sally Mitchell says:

    Thanks for this article. McGovern was one of our guiding lights. So happy to know he is still active, writing etc. Sally

  6. Mart Bailey says:

    This is an extraordinary column. I appreciate not only the insight into George McGovern’s continued contributions (I’ll get that Lincoln book!), but also your analysis of the drift, or more likely a takeover, of the Republican party in the years that followed Nixon.
    As others have written, it also evokes memories. I was a member of that United Methodist delegation that visited Arafat’s home and office. I agree, the visit to the home was a truly memorable moment. The baby was sleeping, but Mrs. Arafat asked her Nanny to bring her to meet the delegation when she awoke. We were in the middle of a luncheon, as I recall… Thanks, Jim, for pursuing these issues so forcefully.

  7. Betsy Mayfield says:

    Like all those above, I thank you for this article. It brings tears to my eyes as I think we may be failing.

    John and I are in Australia and traveled to Tasmania last week where tasteless and offensive “Black Faced Dolls with thick red lips and fuzzy hair” were on sale everywhere and where, once long ago, every single Aborigine was murdered by the English settlers who came to Tasmania in the mid-1800s. Their heirs, now B&B hosts, told us that the Dutch were worse. Could that be possible?

    I confronted a vendor selling the dolls who became enraged at my complaint, and chased me with a sign saying that the dolls represented what the Brits thought of the Blacks in Egypt, not Tasmania where there are no Blacks, but Egypt.

    Another vendor had told me that Americans buy them. In any case, the man yelled with a fist in the air saying that in Tasmania he could call anyone whatever he wanted, sell offensive dolls, and, he told me, “damn you Americans.” I guess other Americans had commented. The concept of Tasmanian contempt reminded me of our Cherokee Trail of Tears. In Tasmania, however, the indigenous were not just sent away, they were put on an island until the last one died of diseases spread by the victors. Which is worse than the other in such acts of hate?

    When will our nations and nationalities learn respect for each other? We have a chance again in America to stop the destitution of hate in Palestine/Israel, in Afghanistan, in our own country. What will it take?

  8. alexvoltaire says:

    I am here a day late and a dollar short, but thank you for this fantastic article. I wrote my dissertation on McGovern’s campaign (and indeed, Mr. Wall, you graciously agreed to do an interview with me.) This was a terrific, insightful read.

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