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Interview with Dr. George McGovern

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McGovern, George S. (George Stanley), 1922-2012 ; McKiernan, Stephen


George McGovern (1922 - 2012) was a professor, author, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election. McGovern earned a Ph.D. in History from Northwestern University and taught at Dakota Wesleyan University.




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McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Senator George McGovern
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Carrie Blabac-Myers
Date of interview: 13 August 2010

(Start of Interview)

SM: The first question I wanted to ask you is, one of the concerns that I see as a person who is a boomer is a lot of the criticisms that are being directed toward boomers today, whether it be politicians or media critics, basically claiming that a lot of the reasons why we have problems in America today is because of the boomers: break up the family, increase in drugs, lack of respect for authority, and a tremendous amount of lack of trust in all leaders in America. Could you comment on whether you consider that criticism really fair for this generation, which is basically individuals born between 1946 and 1964, sixty million strong?

GM: Well, all five of my children are baby boomers. They came in at that period in the ten years, that marks the last year of the war and the next ten years afterwards, and I would not accept that criticism about any of my youngsters or most of their peers. I think it is overdone. To me the greatest difference between the baby boom generation and my generation is an economic difference, and that they did not experience the Depression. They did not experience World War II, money came easier to them. They did not develop the sense of sacrifice and struggle, it was characteristic of my generation. And that obviously, may have produced a somewhat softer generation I use that term soft not in a derogatory sense but to indicate they have not been hardened by the fires and the discipline and the struggle of the Depression the years of scarce income in the home and money available for other things. This is a generation that has grown up expecting to get what they want. If they want $120 pair of shoes, they expect it. If they want a hi-fi set and CDs and Cokes and Big Macs and movies, things that I could only dream about as a child my children have always taken for granted. And I think that in that sense the economic circumstances may have produced a softer generation and one may be less appreciative of struggle and discipline and effort. I noticed in politics, I am kind of racing ahead of your questions here but, I just had said some things I wanted to say about this generation. I notice in politics that they do not bring the degree of passion and deep personal conviction to public issues that I think characterized an earlier generation, they had that kind of reaction to the Vietnam War. But I became somewhat disappointed to discover that a lot of it had to do with the immediate impact of that war on their own convenience and their own lives and plans. And I do not see other issues that they have seized on with the same passion that they brought to their opposition to the war. Even a person like Bill Clinton, it seems to me does not bring the degree of personal conviction to politics that I would like to see it is more management of politics, use of communications, a skillful employment of techniques and pull with consultants. And I saw some of that same thing with some of the other political figures produced by this generation, not in my opinion, the degree of conviction and, personal passion about issues that I have always thought were important aspects of public commitment.

SM: To follow up on that question. As a boomer, I have always felt in comparing today's college students and young people today who were the sons and daughters of boomers and comparing them to their parents of another, that the people of the (19)60s and early (19)70s had more passion than the young people of today. Could you comment on the impact or lack thereof of what the boomers have done with their kids, today's young people?

GM: Well, there was somehow we have inculcated this current crop of young people with much more skepticism about politics, much less faith in the capacity to use political effort to achieve worthwhile goals. Much less confidence in the leadership of the country. And I think there is some explanations for that. The whole series of shattering events that has taken place beginning with the assassination of the two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, my overwhelming defeat in 1972. And then the accompanying dissolution over Watergate, Vietnam, Irangate, the [inaudible] scandals and subsequent events I really think has had a shattering impact on both the boomers and their children and undercutting a lot of the enthusiasm and passion that we had in the 1960s and at least the early part of the (19)70s. My experience on college campuses over the last ten years, which is very extensive, I have been on over one thousand campuses since I left the senate some fifteen years ago, has led me to believe there is a lot of decency and a lot of admirable qualities in these youngsters today. But there is also a kind of a clear disillusionment and turning away from what was very important in my life, which was active participation in public issues and Public Affairs.

SM: Getting back to the boomers again, that sixty plus million born between (19)46 and (19)64. And obviously, even within the boomer generation, there is a lot of differences between the older ones, some Bill Clinton's age, and the younger ones who are like thirty four - thirty five years old right now. Could you in a few just give a few brief story perceptions of the positive qualities that you saw in the boomers and then some of the some of the negatives?

GM: Gary Hart generation yes.

SM: And Bill Clinton and the positives and their negatives.

GM: Yeah. Well, one, they have a more cosmopolitan exposure to the world through the communications, advances through television, through proliferation of information of all kinds, and I am very much impressed by the wide information and knowledge that these young people have about the whole culture as a scene I do not mean by that they are better educated than we were fifty years ago, but I do think that they have a broader range of information, I am struck with my own grandchildren on what they know about the arts and that whole scene, the world around they know an awful lot that went beyond my horizons with the time I was that age. [Hello!] I also think that I have to say this carefully that the measure of skepticism that they bring towards public figures and towards our political process is not entirely bad. Perhaps there was too much naiveté in my time about public leadership and what the governments were doing and so on a certain measure of skepticism probably is, to be admired rather than scorned. You can carry that too far as you know, to the point where it becomes inaction and non-involvement but a certain healthy skepticism is a good thing. And I think in the long run these young people may be able to balance out their skepticism with their need to do something about things that they are skeptical about.

SM: Those are positives and negatives. If you were to, again, another term to look at the boomers because boomers are now just reaching fifty.

GM: Yes.

SM: And so they got a lot of life is still ahead of them.

GM: Clinton just turned fifty this year.

SM: Right. And Al Gore, I think, turns fifty next year, and Mrs. Clinton turned fitty this year, too. As you see the boomers today in 1997, what has been the greatest impact they have had on America to this point?

GM: I suppose it is on our lifestyle. The values and practices that they brought to relations between the sexes. The kind of entertainment that is popular, the kind of television and radio and press stories and features that we get. I think this generation does have a unique lifestyle. It is more relaxed compared toward the old guidelines on marriage and sex relations and, the races and [inaudible] even clothing styles. I think our culture to a great extent today is shaped by these boomers and by their children. I noticed one of the ads on the Super Bowl yesterday run by Holiday Inn which you think is one of those establishment places with a transvestite, trans, uh. You can get away with that on television ten years later, with this gorgeous looking woman ̶

SM: Bob? Or something like that!

GM: That kind of thing bring a laugh now to everybody but it would have brought a gasp of horror when I was the age of most of the people that are watching that game yesterday. That is an impact. That is a contribution to the youth culture and a dramatic change in the role of women in our society that is a real revolution. It is a bigger revolution than the racial changes that have occurred. The fact that women are now filling up the rosters of basketball teams, races, stock market, driving their own cars and managing their own portfolios. I think that the boomers and their children did that. They brought they brought about the change in the role of women in our society.

SM: How do you respond that the Christian Coalition says that is a negative?

GM: Well I disagree with the Christian Coalition on that part. I think it has been altogether good. It is brought about strains on the family we have not learned how to deal with yet. There is no doubt in my mind that the divorce rate increase is associated with the emancipation of women in the workforce and their greater sexual freedom, all of these things it has had an impact on the family that at least is transitionally difficult. I think we will sort that out in due course. Learn how to share the raising of children between the sexes and sharing the work and sharing career opportunities. These things are difficult, but I think they will come with time.

SM: Looking, talking about the women's movement but when you look at the issues that are identified with boomers, certainly the ending of the Vietnam War, protests against the war and certainly the civil rights movement. Could you comment on your thoughts in terms of why did the war end? Were the college students on college campus ̶ The main reason for the war ending or why did the war end? Okay.

GM: I think the young people probably did force an end to the war in Vietnam, it was not only those who were protesting on this side but the morale collapsed in the forces that were fighting in Vietnam. General Abrams told me his biggest problems are not the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese but morale problems and venereal disease and drug addiction and desertion. So I think the morale was collapsing over there. At the same time that it was quite clear, young people were resisting the whole war ever here and I think they were the decisive factor in forcing an end to it. I probably couldn't have won the nomination in (19)72 on a straight out antiwar platform had it not been for that. Not that there weren't a lot of older people with us too but they provided the shock troops and the volunteers and a lot of the emotion that carried me to the nomination. I do not think I could have won without the young people, the boomers in other words ̶

SM: Looking at that time again, knowing how you just stated that there were a main reason why we left Vietnam. Looking at the divisions that were in America at that time, tremendous divisions.

GM: Yes.

SM: And certainly in 1982, the Vietnam Memorial was built, hopefully to heal the veterans and to heal the nation as Jan Scruggs said in his book.

GM: Yes.

SM: Have we really healed since the Vietnam War, in terms of the divisions for those who were for and against? What are your thoughts on the whole concept of healing? Have we healed or do we have a long way to go?

GM: We have made progress on it in considerable part because so many people who then supported the war now say that it was wrong. I think that it comes as close as you can get to a confession and redemption for the people who supported the war and McNamara's book is he most celebrated example of that. But I think now most Americans who lived through that recognize the war was a mistake. And that general acceptance has been a big healing factor. The fact that we are opening up relations now in Vietnam has been another factor. But I would say there are still continuing scars in those divisions. I do not entirely trust people who were so gung ho for the Vietnam War, and I do not think that some of them fully trust me, just to put it in personal terms. The divisions were so deep that I was totally convinced the people that supported that war effort were out of their minds and I think they thought those of us who were opposing it had lost our balance so they ran very deep, as you know, and it takes a long time for that to heal. We have not gotten over the scars yet of the Civil War entirely.

SM: Yeah, I want to thanks for bringing that up because when I took students to meet Senator Muskie, a couple years before he died at his office. It was arranged just like we did and Gaylord Nelson arranged it for us. We asked a question about the 1968 convention and the lack of trust in America at the time, and it was a pinpoint question. And I as a boomer wanted to reiterate to him that I still have a problem with trusting people in positions of power and authority based on that timeframe. And some of the students remember looking at me saying, what are you saying, Steve? But then Senator Muskie In response, was almost like a one minute silence. And then he had tears in his eyes. And then he said, he talked about Ken Burns' series about the Civil War and he said, we have not healed as a nation since the Civil War. Do not just do not talk about Vietnam.

GM: I think that is so.

SM: And the question I am asking, if so many people in that generation went to their graves still having bitterness toward their opponent, the north and the south, despite all the Civil War reunions that took place. Are the boomers going to be in the same trap of, you know, many people say what really does not affect my life but does consciously and subconsciously affect most people? That the divisions were never truly healed and they are all going to go to their graves, with a lack of healing?

GM: There will be some of that. I think that I guess what I am saying I do not think the healings complete. I think we have made a lot of movement in that direction. And you can now talk about this issue with less heat and passion and [inaudible] But no, I quite agree that people probably will go to their graves with some measure of hurt and injury from the Vietnam, especially the veterans. I do not think that a lot of them have healed at all. And I think that a lot of the verbal participants in the war, those of us that were out of the combat zone that were waging the arguments verbally here at home. I think those arguments left wounds too. I am sure they did. I am sure that Dean Rusk you know, went to his grave, with deep scars and Rich Bundy who died recently.

SM: Oh, he did? I did not know that.

GM: I think that people were scarred as committed hawks on the war. But I also think that the critics of the war still have problems dealing with that war situation.

SM: How do you feel about Robert McNamara who wrote the book In Retrospect that seemed as draw the ire are so many Vietnam veterans and it is like too late is one of the ones we always hear. What were your thoughts on McNamara then and that effort through that book was actually about healing, really.

GM: I thought at the time that he was one of the most [inaudible] wretched and wrongheaded people on the national scene. All during the war, I couldn't see any indication of doubt or openness on our policy there. It seemed to me that he was a total apologist for what we were doing there and had a kind of a gung ho, straight ahead, attitude about it. I am glad he wrote that book, and confessed, however late in the day that he was wrong during all of that period. We have not had books like that from some of the people who were just as wrong as he was including Henry Kissinger, others who will probably never concede that they were wrong. But I think that it was just woefully late in the day. It is better than he did it too late and not at all. It is terrible that it took so long and baffling to me how anyone, supposedly intelligent person could have been that blind to the historical forces that are opposing it. He says in that book, he did not know until I think he said 1988 and Ho Chi Min was more of a nationalist than a communist and that was brought out in the most elementary teach-ins way back in the early (19)60s and mid (19)60s. Day after day it was reiterated and reiterated unendingly on the Senate floor by Fulbright and Mansfield and Church, Cooper and McGovern and God knows how many other senators that were painstakingly spelling out all these things in the mid (19)60s. Then McNamara said he did not learn until the late 1980s. He said it was because the Joe McCarthy drove the Asia experts out of the State Department. Well what about the experts in the Congress and in the universities, and about Walter Lippmann and the other respected journalists who are spelling all these things out day after day, you do not have to depend on the experts in the State Department for common sense.

SM: I want to get back at that issue of trust, because it seems to be a problem. I have a problem with it still. And I am, as I approach my late forties and so forth, and I think a lot of boomers still have that problem of trust. And getting back to the ̶ we were the TV generation, the first generation really grew up in the (19)50s and (19)60s, looking at television, seeing the body counts and everything they were coming back. Could you comment on not only the way Lyndon Johnson dealt with the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which lots of people do not trust him on that particular issue because we have and then I am going to go right into the Americanization of the war with Richard Nixon? So we had two presidents back to back then we also had presidents who preceded them with John Kennedy, who we find out later may have been involved with the killing of Diem and so forth and given the okay, so, and then we actually really got involved even when Eisenhower was there. So we were seeing a succession of presidents from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, Nixon and then Ford getting us out of there. But your thoughts on the national leadership in the president's office during those five presidencies?

GM: Well, I think they all failed as beginning with Eisenhower on Vietnam, there was an awful lot of clandestine movement, beginning with the Eisenhower administration going through Kennedy on to Johnson and Nixon. All four of those presidents were mistaken on Vietnam, Johnson and Nixon more than the others and practically all the killing took place during the Johnson and Nixon years, but the seeds for our involvement there were sown in the Eisenhower and Kennedy period. I thought that the Gulf of Tonkin was just a flagrant piece of deception, in which the Congress of the United States was deceived, the American people, the press; everybody was deceived by this phony contention that our ships had been attacked in an unprovoked way on the high seas. It turned out later those ships for on missions themselves that are not entirely [inaudible] there is a grave doubt and lack of any kind of proof they ̶ where ever attacked. So that was a major deception in the war, but so was this whole Nixon policy for four years he kept talking about peace with honor while we were just obliterating Southeast Asia with the heaviest bombardment of the war. So that the whole Nixon policy on Vietnam is a deception. It is true that he disengaged most of the American forces during that period, but all the while accelerating the war in the air and from the sea and the artillery attacks and napalm to defoliate. And people knew about that eventually. So that produced enormous disillusionment, I think on the part of well-informed people.

SM: When you look at, you know, it is tough to define sixty million young people, but the boomers were between 60 and 65 million at that time. Maybe I am wrong in this, but I personally feel that the subconsciousness of all boomers, not just a 15 percent of people say we were involved in some sort of activism during that timeframe. But even the eighty-five who just went about with their daily activities in their lives, is somehow in some way, they were all affected by what happened when they were young.

GM: No, no doubt.

SM: Many may deny it. But I sense it.

GM: I agree with that. It is very hard to prove, because of the absence of active political participation. But I think that continues to this day. An awful lot of that 50 percent of the people who do not even bother to vote, are disillusioned with the political process, even though they have no investment in it. They have not bothered to register and go to the polls. But I talked to those people just as I talk to people who were not actively engaged in the (19)60s and (19)70s. And there is no question but they are influenced by the prevailing political culture the time in my opinion, I think it infects the whole society. You know if I can personalize this a little bit, I got I got a little less than 30 million votes in 1972, I would dare say that most of those people thought that I was an absolutely honest, straightforward, sincere person, which I think I was. They also, they also came to feel that Nixon was a crook. And really a disgrace to the presidency of the United States. So when they saw him win in of the biggest landslides in history, that was a massively disillusioning experience for the thirty million Americans that voted in worked and sweated the other way. I have had people tell me that we had a choice between good and evil in 1972, and it makes me feel a little self-conscious even to use that phrase again, because it sounds so self-righteous, but I think basically, that is true that you had a candidate who leveled with the public and who said what he thought and he was honest about public questions, defeated by one of the most deceptive and clever and unethical men ever occupy the White House. He not only won, he won overwhelmingly, and I believe that left a tremendous, malaise in the country on the part of the nearly 40 percent of the public or for me, and then those who were for Nixon, they shared the disillusionment after the Watergate thing began to unfold, they felt like fools, I assume they did, they should have if they did not. And so that; nobody's ever really measured the impact of that (19)72 experience. We know about the impact of the assassination of John Kennedy. We do not know about the trauma (19)72 and what that did to recovery.

SM: I am not aware of any studies being done by any scholars at the present time. I want to get into the area of civil rights too, because we talked about the Vietnam War and civil rights was another issue that were on the minds of a lot of the boomers. Freedom Summer in 1964. People remember that. But basically boomers were about sixteen at that time. They were just coming to the fruition but they saw these things. The Free Speech Movement at the Berkeley campus started in (19)63. Boomers are really coming to themselves in the late (19)60s. But in 1970, there was a split between those who were against the war in Vietnam and those who were involved in the civil rights movement and I noticed on college campuses, black students would no longer be seen Vietnam War protests. And the white students. There is a big split there. And of course,

GM: That was in the (19)70s, the mid (19)70s.

SM: Right. Well, I know in 1970 at Kent State, when the protests happened, African Americans were not to be seen anywhere. There was a direction on the campus I was at SUNY Binghamton at the time, but I went to Ohio State [inaudible] and I remember we were reading about it.

GM: Even Martin Luther King was grappling with that question.

SM: Right. Can you comment on the civil rights movement and the civil rights movement in the (19)60s and early (19)70s, with the rise of black power, certainly Doctor King dying in (19)68, there was a big struggle going on at that time. But still, there was a hope that we were working together to solve the problems of the nation, to solve the problems of the poor seemed like we all cared. What has happened between again another issue of those times in terms of division of America. Is it still the most important an important item on the part of many Americans and where the boomers?

GM: The civil rights issue?

SM: You had a civil rights issue that was on the minds of many boomers. How important is that and Boomer lives now?

GM: Yeah, I do not think it is all that important in boomer lives. I think that is one of the disappointments about the contemporary scene and American politics is that we still have not really seized the high ground of the civil rights movement to finish that effort. There does seem to me to be a kind of an indifference towards it on the part of whites, young and old across the country. It is lost some of its passion and enthusiasm. I suspect that part of that is a reaction to the fact that a great many whites, especially white males, are fearful that the civil rights emancipation has brought into the workforce a lot of people who have been shown favoritism, the affirmative action programs and they have seen a lot of the top jobs go to blacks, Spanish Americans, to women and others who have been assisted by affirmative action, and they were not always comfortable with that. They have also seen, you know, related thing, Michael Jordan, earning twenty-five million a year in the top slots in professional sports and television anchors and other high paying jobs go to blacks and so on. And I think that has created a kind of an unease in the country that maybe we have gone too far. And trying to deal with the concerns and the aspirations of blacks and a lot of other people are having some difficulty with recognition and advancement are cooling off somewhat in their passion for the civil rights movement. I do not know whether that is a major part of the explanation, but I think it is one part of it.

SM: Of course, the statistics will show that really there aren't that many positions being taken by African Americans. Carl Rowan writes in his latest book, The Coming Race War: A Wake Up Call. It is one of those misperceptions. It is a myth.

GM: I think is a misconception but it is a reality that perceptions do influence public attitudes. I hear these concerns expressed all the time. That is why I am bringing it up.

SM: Do you consider? Would you? One of the slogans of boomers used all the time was the ̶ we are the most unique generation in American history. We are different than any other generation that came before, or probably will come after. We are. We are the change agents of society. We are going to change the world for the better. Could you comment on that kind of mentality? Because I know I heard it when I was in college. We are very proud in many respects of the things we were involved in. We felt empowered. There was a concept of feeling that we could do things. A status quo was no longer something that we accepted. That IBM mentality of the same of everybody coming out of the house, kissing his wife wearing a hand getting into the same car. Not us.

GM: And four kids.

SM: Right? Not us. But then we were going to save me the changes for the world. And now here we are, in 1997. Boomers are most of them are in middle age. Your thoughts on that kind of mentality and were they the most unique generation our history?

GM: I am not sure that they were and I am not sure that the changes they were talking about were always that fundamental. When you consider the change that took place in American society, Depression, the New Deal and World War II. And I am speaking now about my generation. I think those changes were more fundamental and terms of American society than the changes the boomers had in mind after World War II. There was ̶ were more changes in lifestyle, ours were changes in the possibilities for justice, for opportunity, for equality, for collective action and dealing with international problems. I do not know that we have had anything from the boomers yet on the scale of the New Deal in terms of the impact it has had on American society. I used to listen to Gary Hart talk about change and I have listened to Bill Clinton talk about change and listened to Paul Zhan let us talk about change. These are all boomers who were very much into the rhetoric of change. But when you look at the changes, they were advocating, in most cases, they weren't that fundamental, they tended to be style changes in procedural changes. Watch Bill Clinton today, the changes he is proposing are really quite minor. And some of them are more symbolic more than substantive. So I think somehow that boomers may have exaggerated the extent of their commitment to genuine change. They were throwing off some of the restrictions and some of the inhibitions and some of the traditional ways of doing things but I am not sure to what extent they were really fundamentally altering American society with the exception of the women's movement, which I did not want to minimize that was very important. And I give a lot of credit to young people for bringing about that change.

SM: When the best history books are written about this era. What do you think the history books are going to say about the boomers?

GM: Well, they'll give them high marks for rejecting the Vietnam War. We will give them high marks for the women's movement to whatever extent they enlisted in the civil rights movement, they will get high marks. Beyond that, I do not think history will single them out for a really unique and powerful instrument for constructive reform and change. They may not come off as much as my generation did. To think the New Deal, Depression, World War II generation it was remarkable truly. Shaped by history. It was the said somewhere just recently that it takes great events to produce great people and we certainly had the challenges. The Depression and war and the leadership of Roosevelt in the New Deal was really great events with great leaders.

SM: Things I have been trying to do with most of these interviews is to list some of the names of the individuals who were from the era. And just give a couple quick words in terms of how you feel about these individuals. Because these individuals are identified with the boomer generation; the (19)60s many some of them have passed on, and others are still alive today. The first two would be Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.

GM: I do not think they were major figures. I always thought they were somewhat frivolous in their impact on American politics. They played absolutely no role at all in my campaign which was one of the more serious efforts in that period. I never took them very seriously and I still do not.

SM: How about Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden?

GM: More serious, more perceptive more important. More correct in terms of identifying with the real problems of the time. Both serious people.

SM: How about Benjamin Spock?

SM: Another thoughtful, perceptive emancipated man who did a lot to improve our understanding of children. That was his major contribution in terms of his contributions on the international scene, and American policy. I thought he was a serious, thoughtful man, but probably not very effective as a political spokesman.

SM: Ralph Nader,

GM: Very serious, constructive reformer, genuinely committed to improving the conditions of life for Americans. I always had a high regard for him, I think history will treat him very kindly.

SM: Two African American leaders of the time, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.

GM: Well, Malcolm X was an important figure he spoke to the angrier, more disillusioned, more troubled the members of the black community. I think he tended to frighten whites. I think that the ̶ did not from that standpoint, broaden the civil rights movement, he may have narrowed it and focused a bit more on the understandable anger of blacks. Dr. Martin Luther King was a leader who spoke not only for blacks, but he spoke to the whole conscience of the nation. He probably had a bigger impact on whites than we realized at the time. I think he was the central inspiration for the civil rights of the civil rights movement for both blacks and whites.

SM: John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

GM: John Kennedy was a cool calculating politician who is not marked by personal passion for public issues as much by a desire to lead and to achieve power. And who had a sense of history, a knowledge of history. A more cautious, less passionate figure than Robert Kennedy. Perhaps the time that something to do with it. Robert Kennedy was more of a product of the late (19)60s and early (19)70s. John Kennedy really came out of the (19)50s and emerged in the (19)60s when he was elected that that year but he there was even there was a rather marked difference in the personal passion and commitment that they brought to public issues. I think the civil rights movement and the war on poverty and Vietnam, those three things all engage Robert Kennedy in a way that John Kennedy never experienced.

SM: Eugene McCarthy.

GM: McCarthy was an important figure in that he had the wit and imagination to seize on the antiwar leadership by coming up to the presidency in 1968. I thought that was his central contribution and that he was willing to challenge a sitting president in his own party in the primaries, and was willing to do that before anybody else.

SM: Lyndon Johnson

GM: Probably one of the most talented and able domestic political leaders we ever had. I think he was on the level with Franklin Roosevelt and others in terms of domestic politics. I think he was remarkably effective, and strong senate majority leader and he knew how to marshal political support for domestic political objectives. I thought he was lost in international affairs. I think Vietnam, almost destroyed the Johnson presidency.

SM: Get into Richard Nixon and his vice president Spiro Agnew.

GM: Well, Nixon was, was a tragedy. He was a pretty good president in terms of domestic issues. He had a pretty good knowledge of Foreign Affairs, but he demagogue’d the Cold War and its domestic side fights from the very beginning. He just simply showed no standard for decency and fair play, in the way he handled the anti-communist mood of the country and the way he exploited that for his own political ends. Which explains his whole difficulty later on his willingness to use politics without any ethical underpinning at all. Agnew is cut from pretty much the same cloth, not as clever as Nixon but equally lacking and moral guidance.

SM: Well, he certainly created a lot of enemies within the boomer generation. They are going on the college campuses.

GM: Agnew you mean.

SM: Yes, Agnew.

GM: Effective in the role he played.

SM: I hear Pat Buchanan wrote a lot of his speeches too I heard.

GM: Yes, I heard.

SM: George Wallace.

GM: Wallace got better with the passage of time he got religion on race relations and he really did have a concern about the poor the disadvantaged. He was a demagogue on race issues and the first years of his career, he was terrible on the Vietnam issue. But I will say for Wallace that he had a genuine popular streak, which some other races in the south had, that he used to advance the well-being of poor people, whites and blacks. And in the last years of his political career, he was pretty good even on race relations,

SM: How about the Berrigan brothers, the Catholic priests,

GM: They were two interesting and dynamic figures. I think they brought clean hands to everything they did. I rather admired them.

SM: The Black Power Advocates Bobby Seale, Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, that group.

GM: Well, I put them sort of in the Malcolm X category, they really angry young man of the black movement and I think they played a certain role in advancing civil rights and that they send a signal to the United States and to the American people of what was in store if they rejected the more moderate appeals of a person like Martin Luther King.

SM: Guess we get into also some of the women of the time, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug. Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm.

GM: Betty Freidan was very important. She was a pioneer in the women's movement and very intelligent and a somewhat pragmatic one. Bella was more the political activist. More of a front for women's activities. Gloria Steinem is a unique figure I always admired Gloria in that she obviously brought high intelligence to everything she did. And I think she thoroughly understood the women's movement. I think she also understood some of the hazards of the movement, in terms of the political fallout. I found her quite pragmatic as I did Shirley MacLaine during the (19)72 campaign, in understanding that you had to move on women's issues with some measure of respect to the difficulties that we had to overcome that you couldn't accomplish everything in one sweep. If I had any criticism of Gloria, it would be that I think she did not always fully understand as well as one would have hoped the somewhat differing perspectives that housewives and young mothers had about women's issues. Gloria have seemed to speak more to the emancipated career woman

SM: How about Gerald Ford.

GM: I always thought Ford a congenial, decent, somewhat nonpartisan man who played a useful role in helping the country heal its wounds. An unfortunate person to have to come in at that time. I had rather pleasant feelings towards Ford then, as I do now.

SM: How about out Hubert Humphrey?

GM: Well, Hubert was a great enthusiast of liberalism. I greatly admired his total commitment on civil rights and the welfare of working people and farmers and small business, he understood those issues as well as anyone in American politics. Really a great champion of the American worker, the American farmer, as he was for minorities all over the country. He was in 1948. He was the bugle calls in the Democratic Party on civil rights. And I think he deserves very high marks. He was very good on international affairs with the exception of Vietnam. He overdid the Cold War. That came to unfortunate fruition in his support for Vietnam that was a great blemish on his career.

SM: You know, some people say that if he had gone against Johnson, he may have been he may have been elected.

GM: I think he might have even if he'd spent a little more. I think he might have made it.

SM: Okay. Okay, two more and that is Muhammad Ali.

GM: Well, Muhammad Ali was a very talented, brilliant, man. I am sorry, I am getting carried away in my mind is jumping back to Malcolm X. Muhammad Ali was not a political figure, in my judgment. I think he had no impact on American politics. But personally I found him one of the most lovable and endearing athletes that we have produced in this country. I think it is a tragedy what has happened to him physically.

SM: I guess the last one then would be how you look at the musicians of the year of and how the impact that they have had on boomers, the musicians like Bob Dylan, and then Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix and music of that era seem to have a tremendous impact on Boomer lives because there was clear cut messages in the music.

GM: Yeah, I think on balance that was very positive. A guy like Bob Dylan and it says great songs. He wrote to were sung by Peter, Paul and Mary, I loved it. And I think Joan Baez, I love her music and the messages that she brought. They definitely had an impact on the anti-war movement and civil rights.

SM: Okay, are there any other comments you would like to say about the boomers themselves? How you have looked at them over the last twenty-five years when you were running for president, obviously, many of them, millions of them supported you. But you are just last question your overall analysis of the boomers over the past twenty-five years. The ones that work for your campaign and where they are today.

GM: The one things that pleases me is that most of the ones who were involved in my campaign stayed involved. I mean, it is not an accident that that effort produced two presidential contenders Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. It is not an accident that over 100 of them went to the congress. And that as many as twenty to twenty-five went to the United States Senate, dozens of governors and state legislators, city councilmen and all across this country. To me the most personally gratifying thing is that the McGovern boomers stayed involved in politics. Lot of them became disillusioned with the process but a lot of them stayed.

SM: When you look at the lasting legacy of boomers was still has to be written. It is ̶ we look at the voting. Boomers do not vote. Their kids do not vote. And that amazes me, especially when there was so much passion at that time. And of course, certainly boomers wanted to vote, they fought for the right to vote.

GM: I think. I think there is still a pretty good turnout among the boomers, I am more concerned about their children and the lethargy, they seem to break to voting.

SM: Senator McGovern, thank you very much.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


George S. (George Stanley) McGovern, 1922-2012

Biographical Text

George McGovern (1922 - 2012) was a professor, author, U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in the 1972 presidential election. McGovern earned a Ph.D. in History from Northwestern University and taught at Dakota Wesleyan University.





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Binghamton University Libraries

Digital Format


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1 Microcassette

Interview Format


Subject LCSH

College teachers; Authors; Legislators—United States; Presidential candidates—United States; McGovern, George S. (George Stanley), 1922-2012--Interviews

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Baby Boomer; Gary Hart; Bill Clinton; Richard Nixon; Dwight Eisenhower; Robert Kennedy; Henry Ford; Henry Kissinger; Robert McNamara; Depression Era; New Deal; Vietnam; Viet Cong; J. William Fulbright; Mike Mansfield; Frank Church; John Sherman Cooper; Dissolution ; Mistrust; Paul Zhan; Jerry Rubin; Benjamin Spock; Tom Hayden; Ralph Nader; Martin Luther King Jr.; Eugene McCarthy; Lyndon Johnson; Spiro Agnew; George Wallace; Bobby Seale; Eldridge Cleaver; Huey Newton; Betty Friedan; Bella Abzug; Gloria Steinem; Shirley Chisholm; Shirley MacLaine; Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Jimi Hendrix.
Civil Rights Movement; Great Depression; WWII; Women's movement; Vietnam War; Abbie Hoffman; Jane Fonda; Malcolm X; John F. Kennedy; Berrigan Brother; Black Power Movement; Hubert Humphrey; Muhammad Ali.



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About this Collection

Collection Description

Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Interview with Dr. George McGovern,” Digital Collections, accessed July 13, 2024,