TOM PUTNAM: Good afternoon. I’m Tom Putnam, the director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of John Shattuck, CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, and all my Library colleagues, I welcome you to this afternoon’s very special Forum. Let me begin by thanking our sponsors, including our lead sponsor, Bank of America, and our other forum supporters including the Lowell Institute, Boston Capital, the Corcoran-Jennison Companies, the Boston Foundation, and our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, NECN, and WBUR, which broadcasts Kennedy Library Forums on Sunday evenings at eight P.M.
This afternoon we honor- and are honored by- the presence of two men who sought our country’s highest office and who made immeasurable contributions to the common good through their careers in public service. Rather than my reminding you of their many accomplishments in this introduction, I thought it might be more interesting to pause and relive two moments in history, the first July 21, 1988, the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Let’s listen:
As governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis was credited with digging the Commonwealth out of one of its worst financial crisis, with a reformer’s eye, an entrepreneurial spirit and, as he once famously put it, “a meat cleaver to cut wasteful government spending.” Governor Dukakis’ reputation as a fiscal conservative is well known. As Governor his daily commute on the T to the State House endeared him to many voters, like my own father, who since he is with us today I will politely describe as parsimonious—who recognized a kindred spirit in Michael Dukakis, the type of man David Nyhan once wrote who, when told by the car salesman that the new model has air conditioning immediately asked, “Air conditioning? What for? Don’t the windows work?”
Michael Dukakis was the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee in a race that many cite as the beginning of the slash and burn campaigns that have come to dominate our national politics. These days he is as dedicated to his students at Northeastern and UCLA as he has always been to his lifelong political advocacy, promoting universal healthcare and public transportation. He currently divides his time between Boston and Los Angeles where he and his wife Kitty can be closer to their children and his six grandchildren.
Kitty Dukakis is here with us today with their oldest grandchild, Allie, a student at Bates College. And I ask them to stand to receive our warm welcome.
Michael Dukakis sums up his life this way, “I’m just a guy who loves his country. Lots of us have dreams. I have lived mine.”
Our moderator this afternoon is Tom Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and columnist for The Boston Globe, who often frequents the stage of the Kennedy Library, bringing out the best of our guest speakers from Robert McNamara to Sharon Robinson—who spoke here last year to mark the 50th anniversary of her father, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of major league baseball’s color barrier. This gave us an opportunity to see another side of Tom Oliphant, the young boy who grew up in Brooklyn rooting for the Dodgers, which he writes movingly about in his memoir, Praying for Gil Hodges.
Baseball is often a metaphor for life. And one of today’s themes concerns how we as citizens best support good people in the public spotlight as they face difficult times. So perhaps there’s a lesson for us from the title of Tom Oliphant’s memoir. Gil Hodges was the Dodger’s first baseman who suffered through one of the most famous slumps in baseball history. One steaming Sunday on a morning after Hodges had gone hitless again, a Brooklyn priest famously told his congregation, “It’s far too hot for a homily. Go home. Keep the commandments and pray for Gil Hodges.” The slump ended soon afterwards.
Lastly with us this afternoon and tying us directly to the man we honor in this Library, is Senator George McGovern. After two terms representing South Dakota in Congress, George McGovern served as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy and the first director of the US Food for Peace Program until 1962, before being elected to the Senate where he served for three terms. In 1972 he was the Democrat Party’s nominee for president.
When John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin in 1963, he opened his speech by saying, “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today in the world of freedom the proudest boast is, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’” Given what we later learned about George McGovern’s presidential opponent, and with the more, broader understanding of the war in Vietnam, perhaps for some in today’s audience one of their proudest boast would be that in the 1972 presidential election, “I voted in Massachusetts.”
Senator, I have one confession to make: 1972 marked the year when my family moved from the Boston area to Maine. I served as your campaign manager in the Mock Election that was held in my 5th grade classroom. [Laughter] Yet new to the more Republican leanings of my hometown I was astounded in counting the votes to see that there was a chance that you might not win. So in a moment of panic I stuffed the ballot box [Laughter] adding three extra McGovern-Schriver votes to secure your victory. Yet I didn’t realize quick enough that in doing so I needed to remove three of the Nixon votes [Laughter] to cover my tracks and I was caught red handed.
Continuing work begun in the Kennedy years, George McGovern served as the ambassador to the United Nations agencies on food and agriculture in Rome during the Clinton Administration. And in recognition of his lifetime commitment to those issues, he received our nation’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom for humanitarian service.
For many the name of George McGovern invokes the image of a good and decent man who tried throughout his long career to heal suffering, confront injustice and promote peace. Yet for others, the term McGovern liberal has become a pejorative label to bandy about. Asked once how he felt about that, Senator McGovern quipped that he was proud to be a politician whose name is in the dictionary, quote, “even is it is as a swear word.” [Laughter]
So let’s go back once more in history to the 1972 Democratic Convention in the wee hours of the morning when the son of a minister, a decorated war hero, an international crusader for justice and a grass roots reformer, facing an unpopular war overseas and unrest in our land, appealed to the nation and to the better angels of our nature, calling us all to come home. And at the conclusion of the film clip, please join me in welcoming Tom Oliphant, Michael Dukakis and George McGovern to the Kennedy Library. Let’s watch now together.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you, Tom. One thing I’m especially grateful for is that you didn’t show any pictures of me in those. [Laughter] In the Senator’s case my hair went halfway down my back. I wore high-top Converse tennis shoes on his presidential campaign start to finish. I was a little cleaner when the Governor ran, not much though. So I’m grateful the change that has occurred in me is not shown. Though I must say as a professional observer, the first thing that amazes me about those clips is how similar these two people look today, which must be--
I don't know if that’s vitamin pills, clean living or whatever. But I thought it might be fun to start by meeting these two people as human beings instead of stick figures. We will do the serious stuff in a minute. Politics is a great game. There are a million stories. And in the case of these two, a couple of great ones. And to sort of introduce them as presidential nominees, I thought we might begin on the human side.
Senator McGovern, it was about two weeks out from the election. We were in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The dimension of what was about to happen was becoming apparent. You were working the rope line at the airport in Grand Rapids and there was a particularly obnoxious heckler that afternoon. And you took it for a while and for a second I thought you were going to (I was right on your shoulder.) I thought you were going to walk away from the guy.
But Senator McGovern stopped, turned around, slowly walked back to this heckler, beckoned him close and said, “I got a little secret for you.”
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, before I tell you that secret—
TOM OLIPHANT: It could be off the record.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Before I get into that I just want say what a privilege it is, always, to meet with the wisest voters in the United States--
--And to share this moment with Governor Michael Dukakis. When he bore that title there was a survey, which indicated that he was the most respected of all the 50 governors in the country, even the one in Alaska. [Laughter] I think that had he been elected in 1988, he would have become one of the great presidents in American history.
And Tom Oliphant already is one of the most respected and honored journalists in the country. Now, for the secret. [Laughter] It was near the end of the campaign in ’72. I was exhausted and so was Eleanor, my wonderful wife of 63 years, who is now gone, unfortunately. We were working our way down a woven wire fence at this Grand Rapids, Michigan airport. And there was one of the most obnoxious creatures I think I encountered in that campaign that somehow managed to squeeze himself between the crowd and that fence. I don't know how he did it because they were just jammed in there. Maybe 20,000 people, you think?
TOM OLIPHANT: Easily. Easily.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: And he kept—as we went down the fence, he just kept up a steady drum beat, “McGovern, you’re going to get your come-uppance on Election Day. Nixon is going to drive you right into the ground.” I didn’t know he was telling the truth. [Laughter] But I did know that it was a really unpleasant experience. I won’t go into all the four-letter words and everything else. But it particularly ticked me off because Eleanor was there. She was a tiny, beautiful little person. And he was just saying the ugliest things you can imagine.
So I finally, as Tom said, I said, “Come here.” I said this almost in a whisper. Nobody would hear what I said. But I leaned over to him and I said, “You little SOB, why don’t you just kiss my ass.” [Laughter] [Applause] No one heard that but him. But unfortunately, there was a CBS camera there and probably Tom Oliphant.
TOM OLIPHANT: It is in the pool report.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: And they could either hear it or when they asked him, “What did Senator McGovern say to you?” He said, “He said a profanity.” It’s the first time I’ve ever heard the—that was a three-letter word, called a profanity. They said, “Well, what did he say?” So he repeated it loud and clear. It hit all the networks that night, all the front pages of the metropolitan papers. If I can just say one word about it, Tom.
TOM OLIPHANT: Anything.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Five years later I was sitting on the floor of the Senate one day. I think I was the only one out in the Senate. Somebody else was making a speech. And Jim Eastland, the old Senator from Mississippi came in. He stood way across over there and I’m here. And he started chuckling, looking at me. And I looked down to see if my fly was unzipped and if I had spilled any gravy or something. Then he sauntered over.
He said, “George, did you really tell the guy out there that?” And I said, “Well, Jim, I’m afraid I did. That was not one of my better days.” He said, “That’s the only thing you said in that campaign I agreed with.” So that’s my story. [Laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, the Senator is right in one respect. It was a relatively innocent time, 1972, still. And there were deep and profound discussions in media boardrooms all over America that night, “What do we do with this quote?” And it got printed and broadcast virtually everywhere.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I think so.
TOM OLIPHANT: And I always thought it had something to do with—there was an aura of respect in those last ten days. And I think the Democratic vote sort of solidified. And I date it from that incident.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Is that right?
TOM OLIPHANT: I’m not going to take any more. Governor, you can proceed any way you want to but my humanizing question is based on the assumption that the events we think we know something about often turn out to be the events we know nothing about. And I wanted you to talk a little bit about that day in Michigan when you got into an Army vehicle, sometimes referred to as a tank. And what you think happened, it’s a better story than it was at the time. But I was going to also—Did you work for this guy or did you work with Muskie?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Actually, I was with Muskie.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah, that’s what I thought.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I mean, after all, Bates College. Where, by the way, my mother, the woman you heard about in the film clip, arrived in 1921 as the first Greek-American young woman, George, ever to go away to college in the history of the United States. And when Allie arrived at Bates last year, she called us very excitedly soon after she got there. She had apparently gone to library and she looked up and there was a picture of my mother, her great-grandmother, on the wall.
She called us and she said, “I was in the library studying and there was a picture of Yiayia on the wall.” So there was this long tide and Muskie had been a great debater at Bates and all that kind of stuff, George. But obviously, once you won the nomination, I was an enthusiastic supporter. And apart from Kitty’s and my enormous respect and admiration for this man, think about how different things would have been had George McGovern, not Richard Nixon been elected in 1972. We’d have never heard of Watergate. We wouldn’t have had the spectacle of a president having to resign before he was impeached. I could go on and on. So it’s great to have him with us and back again. It’s true. The only state in the country that exercised its God-given intelligence in a way that made sense.
Actually, Tom, the tank ride, until the Bush people decided to use it in an ad was just another day on the campaign trail. What I had been trying to do was to try to make the point that we were under-investing in conventional weapons and over-investing in a lot of exotic, high technology stuff. And as a result our military base in the best sense of the word was being eroded by these huge expenditures for exotic weaponry at a time when our troops didn’t have the kind of stuff they needed. And that included tanks and, you know, since you’ve got to wear a helmet if you are in one of those things…
The other thing is this. I think, Tom, when I think in retrospect, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about this. You’ve got to understand, folks, when you run for the presidency you are out there for a year and a half, day after day after day. And I don't know how you felt about this, George but I was beginning to get bored out of my mind. Now, part of that, I think, may have something to do with the way we ran the campaign. And I think there are ways to try to break into that boredom.
But particularly in those closing weeks, it’s up in the plane, down, up in the plane, down, up in the plane, down. I’m sorry we didn’t do some of the bus tours that Clinton and Gore did where at least you are on the ground, and you are seeing real people and interacting with them. But I didn’t consider at the time anything other than this was another day on the campaign trail.
These days, folks, when I speak and every once in a while my introducer will say, “You didn’t happen to come here in a tank, did you?” [Laughter] My standard response is, “No. And I’ve never thrown up all over the Japanese Prime Minister.” [Laughter] Can I tell one more story?
TOM OLIPHANT: Any number.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Notice, I haven’t—I’m not doing a Palin here. I did answer the question, right? [Laughter] [Applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: It’s a quaint habit that used to be practiced in presidential politics. It’s considered passé today, guys and gals.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: You’ve all heard of the new button, three parts? The top third says, “Attention, Sarah Palin.” The middle third says, “Jesus was a community organizer.” The bottom third says, “Pontius Pilate was a governor.” [Laughter] Actually, the story—there are great moments, as you know, George, I mean good ones as well as not so good ones. But when you saw me referring to my mother, who was 85 and campaigned all over the country for me, and effectively and well—Sitting next to her was a guy named John Grennell, a distinguished graduate of Tufts University, one of the great athletes and my basketball coach.
Johnny Grennell was the first person that ever seriously suggested to me that I run for political office. On a drive home from the gym at Brookline High School out to South Brookline, he lived in Newton, he’d drop me off and I’d hitchhike to the house. And he hated Joe McCarthy. And, by the way, McCarthyism is back folks: William Ayers. We’ve seen this before, George, haven’t we? Here we go again. Hated McCarthy.
And he was the first adult and mentor of mine, who first, Tom, put the idea in my head, that I ought to think seriously about running for political office. What he didn’t tell me is that there was that there was this terrific looking freshman in his homeroom class named Kitty Dixon. And it took me about nine years to find her, and I always—but he loved Kitty and he loved me. And he was next to my mother in the box in Atlanta when I was nominated.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, I brought up the tank thing because I thought it was such an interesting window on your, actually, your thirst for information, that he had taken a spin along that test track or whatever they call those things out in Michigan. And you couldn’t hear the people in the command center telling you how the tank worked, why it was cheaper than whatever the fancier, high tech version of it was. And so as you began a second spin around the test track, somebody gave you the hat because it had an ear piece in it so you could actually listen to the guy back in the command center explaining to you how the thing worked. And so the picture--
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: You remember that more than I do.
TOM OLIPHANT: An Oliphant never forgets. [Laughter] So that the picture, ironically, is almost a penalty for the kind of curiosity for which the Governor has always been famous. Now to get a little bit more serious, Senator, when you ran, there was this war. And it tended to blot out everything. And trying to figure out a way to either end it or stop it or, in some people’s minds win it, was one of the more vexing questions Americans wrestled with in the last 50 years.
And it seems to me that we’re at it again. And I was wondering in you could talk a little bit about what you learned from being in the thick of the disputes in this country over the war in Vietnam that is relevant to trying to figure out a path forward in Iraq and Afghanistan and who knows where else.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, I came to the Senate in January of 1963. I had a huge landslide, 597 votes. And there was a month-long recount. We had paper ballots in South Dakota in those days. And it didn’t change anything. So I was sworn in and already, before I arrived in the Senate I had come to the conclusion that the war in Iraq[sic] was a dreadful mistake. President Kennedy was then President, a man I loved. And I was deeply worried about that war. I was hesitant to say anything critical at a time when my friend John Kennedy was in the White House.
But finally, in September of that first year, nine months after I arrived, I took the Senate floor to warn against this deepening military involvement in Vietnam, a condition I said that would haunt us in every corner of the globe if we continued on that course, trying to determine the outcome of these upheavals that were going on in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
I had read a book while I was still a graduate student at Northwestern University, shortly after World War II, called The Situation in Asia by Professor Owen Lattimore. And that book opens with these lines, which I just give a rough approximate to, “Everywhere across Asia, matters are out of control. The colonial countries are revolting against the masters, the Indians in India, the Philippinos in the Philippines, the Dutch in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Laos, in revolt.
“And the more sophisticated outside powers intervene in these internal struggles to crush revolts against the imperial power, in the case of Vietnam, France that had held it as colonies for 100 years—the more they attempted that, the more deeply they would sink in the quagmire and be swallowed up by these forces that were convulsing countries all across Asia.”
I read that book three times while I was still a graduate student. And I came to the conclusion that we had to make good on our pledge to get out of the Philippines in 1946, which to our credit, we did. The British pulled out of India, eventually, without major bloodshed, the Dutch out of Indonesia. And that the same thing would happen no matter what we did in Vietnam.
You know, as you think back on it, one has to be careful about this, I think many of the people in this room, if you had been living as young people in Vietnam in the 1950s, 1960s, would have been on the side of the revolutionary leaders as we would have been is we had lived in Massachusetts in 1776, to get the British out of here. So, I used to tell my daughters when they got discouraged about Vietnam—I remember one night there were three of them around me and they said, “Nothing good can possibly come out of this.”And I said, “One thing, it’s such an obvious blunder, we never again will go down that road.” And I see Iraq in the same vein.
One of the things Iraq and Vietnam have in common is that neither one of them was the slightest threat to the United States. We call our, we used to be the War Department. We now call it the Defense Department. Nobody was challenging our defense in Vietnam or in Iraq. It’s a good thing to stay out of these quarrels where our defense and our security is not on the line. Doesn’t everyone now agree that that long, endless war in Vietnam that killed 58,000 wonderful, young, brave Americans, that that weakened our national defense? And that we are weakening our national defense in Iraq. We’re increasing the terrorism in that part of the world. And, incidentally, it costs a few bucks.
So you have the situation of the president who, for the first time in American history takes us to war at the same time he gives us a tax cut, at least the wealthy, a tax cut. You remember—some of you are old enough to remember in World War II, we had an excess profits tax. So that these war industries wouldn’t send the young men off to bleed and die while they stayed home and made millions. We had an excess profits tax in the Korean War and World War I.
This time the people best able to pay were given a big tax cut, just at the time we are sending our young men off to Vietnam [sic]. It is not only unfair, it runs the national debt through the sky. You reduce your revenues and increase your expenditures and you are going to have a heck of a big national debt. Ours is now approaching $10 trillion dollars.
TOM OLIPHANT: If I could just follow up for a second, sir, before I bother the Governor with a domestic question. Do you worry at all that the Democratic Party may lack the kind of clarity that you brought to the Vietnam debate 36 years ago and that there is some fudge in Senator Obama’s position. And that we could end up thinking we are voting for change next month but still be stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to varying degrees four or five years from now?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Tom, with the election only about three weeks off, I’m not going to accuse--
TOM OLIPHANT: I tried.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: --My campaign of fudging. But I would say this; the Congress laid an egg on this subject back in, what was it, 2003, when the president asked for authority to go to war. He really asked for authority to deal with the problem of Iraq. And some Senators thought that meant diplomatic efforts. Others thought economic sanctions or various things. Yes, I think the issue was not spelled out as clearly as it should have been.
Now, the House was better than the Senate. I think over 100 of them voted “no” and about 22 Senators voted “no.” Senator Obama was not in the Senate at that time but he spoke publicly against our going into Iraq. And I think it is fair to say the issue is not as clear cut as it was ’72. Now maybe that’s why I lost 49 states. I was too clear on how we should get out of there.
Can I say one thing about [simultaneous conversation]
TOM OLIPHANT: You can say anything you want to.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: It’s a little bit funny. If you can have a little more humor here. I, some years ago, fell into a pattern of debating William F. Buckley, usually on television, but not always. We were at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. People chide me about Mitchell, South Dakota, my home town having a Corn Palace. “Isn’t that kind of corny?” Well, here is sophisticated San Francisco has a Cow Palace.
So Bill and I are getting ready to debate. There must have been 10,000 people out there. And when they introduced me I got a thunderous applause. When they introduced Bill it was respectable, but not exactly thunderous. So when he came to the podium he said, “I caught that thunderous applause for George McGovern. I think you folks ought to know that it’s true he ran for president. But he only carried one state, Massachusetts.” So not to be outdone, I came to the podium and said, “Would everybody here who thinks that if Will Buckley were running for president of the United States he would carry Massachusetts, would you please stand up.” [Laughter] Even the local county chairman for the Republicans did not stand up. [Laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, Governor, you came to public attention in this frantic period in the 1960s when we were all arguing so intently about things like civil rights and Vietnam. Looking back and looking at the campaign today, do you think we learned any lesson from Vietnam that we’ve been able to apply when it really counted or are we just making the same mistake all over again?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, let me say two things, Tom. First, because you mentioned civil rights, did we imagine in the 1970s that we would have a presidential nominee that was an African-American, who just barely beat a woman to get that nomination? I don’t think so.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did you see that coming, Senator?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I saw the trend there. But I think it is a historic breakthrough that we, for the first time in our history had a woman who came within an inch of being nominated for president and a black man who was nominated. Those are two, historic breakthroughs.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did you ever think as a young person getting started in politics that you’d see that something like this would happen?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Hey, look, Tom, when I ran the legislature in ’62, it was inconceivable in this state that a Greek American could be elected governor. [Laughter] I’m serious. Not only because people didn’t like us. We were too small to threaten anybody as a group. But I remember Greek Americans saying to me, “Good luck, pal, but don’t have any further ambitions.” And 20 years later we had a Greek in the governor’s office. That was me. We had a Greek in the United States Senate. That was Paul Tsongas. We had a Greek in Congress. That was Nick Mavroules. All sons of immigrants, by the way.
So I think that this is a country that is growing in its openness and its acceptance of diversity. Although it is pretty clear in this election that some people are going to vote against Obama because he happens to be a black guy. But I think that says something about our progress on the civil rights front. Not, Tom, that race is not still an issue in this country, it is and it will continue to be and we’ve got to keep working at it. That says something.
I’m just baffled by Iraq. I mean apart, George, from the lessons of Vietnam—Look, you were a history professor. I am a great believer in studying history because of what it teaches. Any Greek speakers in the room? Anybody?
TOM OLIPHANT: Your granddaughter.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, we have an old saying [Greek phrase], even rhymes. Things happen and you’re supposed to learn from them.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Anybody who knew anything about the history of the Middle East and Iraq, folks, should have known that if you invaded that place that it would set off a religious war, guaranteed. Forget about weapons of mass destruction, all this kind of stuff. I mean apart from the fact that it was the other guy, not Saddam Hussein, that we were supposed to be after. And the other guy hated Saddam Hussein and all this kind of stuff.
And if there is anything to this notion, and I’m not sure that there is, that the United States has some kind of God-given mission to bring democracy to places—and I’m a believer in encouraging that. But, in particular, bringing democracy to the Middle East, why would you ever begin with Iraq? I mean maybe Jordan, maybe Turkey, but why Iraq? I mean it just—it’s never made any sense to me. The whole thing didn’t make any sense.
And one of the things that was the most painful about that vote, George, was that a lot of Democrats were part of the “Yes” vote. Now, maybe they decided that they were simply authorizing the president to deal with the thing diplomatically. But they knew that the potentially it might involve military action. This war didn’t make any sense to me from the beginning. It still doesn’t make any sense to me. We’re not here to make partisan speeches but the Republican nominee keeps talking about earmarks. But $10 billion dollars a year in earmarks, $10 billion dollars a month earmarked for Iraq doesn’t seem to bother him.
And I just thought this thing was doomed from the beginning. We hear about how we are winning. Over 4,000 young Americans dead, thousands more back here will never live normal lives again. A million innocent Iraqis, two million Iraqi refugees, and this is victory. And in the meantime, as Senator McGovern said, it’s done a terrible job on our international prestige and our ability to lead or at least be part of the leadership in the future. So it just never made any sense to me, Tom.
And I do think that living through the Vietnam War has had a powerful influence on me in terms of what it says about the use of military force, generally, and particularly by the United States.
Now, I think Afghanistan is different. There may well be a case to be made for international- and internationally sanctioned- military action in Afghanistan, which of course we never had in Iraq. And we will see. I mean Afghanistan has defeated a lot more people than just us, for that matter.
TOM OLIPHANT: Do you agree Senator?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I think before we get any deeper into Afghanistan, it would be well to take another look at history. The British floundered around in there in the 19th century for a long time and got nowhere. The Russians floundered around in the 1980s. That’s sometimes described as their Vietnam. They lost a big part of an army of 100,000 young men that they sent in there. And I hope that the next president will take a very critical look at Afghanistan before we start moving the soldiers from Iraq into Afghanistan.
It is different. Certainly the topography is different. But those old warlords are entrenched in the mountains of Afghanistan, scattered across the country. They are hard to get at and when you defeat them, I don't know what you have. Maybe that opens the way for the Taliban to come back. But I think Afghanistan could be another can of worms for us. It would be wonderful if we could capture Osama bin Laden. I don't know where in the devil he’s hiding.
TOM OLIPHANT: Neither do I.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I don't know whether anybody else does. Let me just say one thing, if I can speak for the Republicans here for a moment. I’m writing, just finished a book on Abraham Lincoln. I think it is appropriate that George McGovern be asked a write a book on the Lincoln presidency, the founder of the Republican Party, and probably our greatest president.
But, George Bush, Sr., President Bush #1, his Secretary of State, Jim Baker, his National Security Advisor, General Scowcroft argued against our going into Baghdad after Saddam Hussein. All of them opposed this war. Now, those are three pretty recognizable, solid Republicans. They’d had some experience in the Middle East. They knew something about the cross currents working there. And it seems to me, if I had been president and my father came to me, as a former president, and told me that would be a mistake, I would at least listen carefully. And the same with his Secretary of State, Jim Baker was no slouch as a Secretary of State. He probably did more to advance our interests in the Middle East than most Secretaries of State, and the same with General Scowcroft, a very able scholarly man.
So it isn’t just a partisan matter here. I believe there are almost as many Republicans and Democrats who now recognize this war in Iraq as a big mistake. And we’ve got to get out of there.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And, George, the president then created a special commission to study the subject- asked Baker and Lee Hamilton to head it up. It was thoroughly bipartisan. Gates was one of them. They unanimously recommended that we get out and, believe, it or not, start talking to the Syrians and the Iranians. Isn’t that amazing? And the President seemed to have completely ignored the recommendations of this study commission.
So, when it comes to Afghanistan—I mean the one thing I think we can agree is that, whatever role was appropriate for us in Afghanistan it was badly compromised by the decision to invade Iraq, even when it came to providing economic and other kinds of assistance. I mean there was just no question that whatever we’ve done there was short changed as a result of diverting all of these resources to this foolish war.
TOM OLIPHANT: If I could, let’s get domestic for a second because I think there is an eerie parallel this week with something that was going on much more behind the scenes when you were running at this very moment twenty years ago, as I’m sure you recall shortly after the election. President-elect Bush suddenly told the country we had to face a gigantic financial problem caused by the massive failure of hundreds, maybe a thousand, savings and loans institutions all over the country.
Eventually he made a proposal after taking office to sell something like a half trillion dollars in bonds to buy the toxic assets of these institutions. It was an issue that never came up in the campaign. It was in the background. This time around, it’s been on the front pages. Take me back. Why wasn’t more said about the S&L mess 20 years ago? But in retrospect, was it a good idea that less was said because it meant that politics didn’t pollute the discussion of what to do about it. What was going on?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, Tom, I said a lot about it.
TOM OLIPHANT: You did.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I had press conferences—
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes, you did.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: --As you recall. Couldn’t get the national media. I mean short of disrobing in front of a savings and loan--
TOM OLIPHANT: I know people who would have paid.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Is this the Keating Five?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yes.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I mean the fact of the matter is I tried to focus in on it, said a lot, had press events and so on and so forth, just never got any traction on it. Now, I think the other side did a pretty good job of doing everything it could to suppress information coming out about it. So it wasn’t until afterwards, Tom, that we finally had full disclosure. And I don’t think there was any question that they were doing so because they didn’t want to see this thing explode.
I don’t think we were well served by that deliberate attempt to withhold information. I have my doubts about this bailout package, I can tell you. But I think it would have been a terrible disservice to the public interest to sit on this thing if it was possible to do so in the face of what’s happened here. So the short answer is, couldn’t get traction on the issue despite the fact that I tried to talk about it a number of times. And the fact that we’ve had a debate, are having a debate and now have central registration, however flawed, I think is probably better than not having it at all. And it is certainly having a profound affect on the campaign.
TOM OLIPHANT: I was just wondering what it felt like. I mean, you have to admit, it must feel quite different for McCain and Obama today, with everybody knowing we are in the middle of an obviously high profile, extremely serious crisis. Twenty years ago, here is this Democratic nominee who was doing everything he can to focus attention on this, then, historic mess, having no success at all because his opponent and the press are essentially doing the same thing.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I don’t want to blame—my opponent was a vice president. I don't know whether or not that gave him some kind of special cachet to keep it under wraps. There is no question that every effort was made—I mean you didn’t have—I can’t even remember who the head of Federal Reserve was. Was it Volcker?
TOM OLIPHANT: Greenspan had just been appointed in ’87.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Just taken over. But you certainly didn’t have a Bernanke type character who was out there saying, “Hey! This is serious. We’ve got to do something about it.” And somebody ought to ask Greenspan really what was going on there. But there was never any question in my mind that Bush and the people around him were doing everything they could not to disclose it.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: There was one thing about that savings and loan tangle that did get out as a public scandal, the so-called Keating Five. Remember the Keating Five?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: But that came—
TOM OLIPHANT: But that was after the election.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, that was before. That was before.
TOM OLIPHANT: They were known. And, in fact, one of the five, it had something to do with his consideration as a possible running mate for you.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Right. Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: But the other reason I brought this up is so often in presidential campaign, you have what appears to be stark differences between candidates that get wiped away within minutes of the end of the election. I think you’ve got an amazing story to tell here because “read my lips” was about as stark a pledge as has ever been made on the subject, right—
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah. Yeah.
TOM OLIPHANT: --Of taxation and revenues in the history of this game. The guy who is not going to say “never” when he hasn’t seen the books yet, is immediately painted as a chronic tax increaser. The political benefit to Vice President Bush is obvious. Within days of the election, you have your kiss and make up meeting.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: A month.
TOM OLIPHANT: A month.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: A month later.
TOM OLIPHANT: Was it at the vice presidential residence?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yes, it was.
TOM OLIPHANT: Would you please share with the audience what Bush told you?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I haven’t talked very much about this. But I was invited by the president-elect to come down and kind of chat and so forth. And I had, during the campaign, tried very hard to point out that the first thing you do when you have a deficit is go out and collect taxes that are owed that haven’t been paid. In those days it was $110 billion. Any idea what it is today on an annual basis? Three hundred billion dollars, taxes owed that aren’t being paid, largely, I think because of lack of enforcement and dramatic decline on the number of audits that are being done and all this stuff.
So I had been pushing that and Bush’s response during the campaign was that this guy wants to put an IRS guy under the bed in every house in America, kind of getting into our personal lives and stuff. Well, a month after the election I was down there with him. And I said, “You know, the campaign is over, and I’m not giving a campaign speech here.” And I said, “You really ought to take a look at this.” The so-called bi-partisan commission that Bob Strauss and others were on had just released a report about how to deal with the deficit. This was after the election.
And I said, “You really ought to take a look at that.” And just the two of us. And the vice president and the president-elect said to me, he said, “Yeah, we probably ought to do that.” He said, “You know, if I raise taxes in my first year, I’ll get killed.” [Laughter] So I’m sitting there, George, having listened to this, “Read my lips,” stuff. And I’m saying to myself, “This guy basically only intends to keep his commitment in his first year in office.” And, in point of fact, in his second, or was it early in the third year in office?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: No. No, earlier--
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: His second?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Mid—
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: He raised taxes. Well, hey, the election was all over. And that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it when I was sitting there.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s a unique way.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: That’s a new one to me. I have heard that President Nixon who told us in 1968, when he was running against Hubert Humphrey, that he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. I didn’t know that he meant five years later. [Laughter] Ten days before the ’72 election.
Michael, the reason I mention the Keating Five, just one reason I mention is that I couldn’t resist the temptation was that one of those five people is now running for president on the Republican ticket. And I thought it was kind of a sordid mixture, the Keating Five. They were all taking money from this big savings and loan king out in Arizona, Mr. Keating. And some of them actually faced jail sentences, some of the five.
So while I don’t wish any ill luck to McCain, he’s got enough burdens without me adding that to them. I really do think we ought to remember that one of the things in his experience he talks so much about is the advantages of experience. That’s part of it.
TOM OLIPHANT: Perhaps on a less pleasant note I want to get you two to talk about the vice presidency a little bit. But sort of as--
GEORGE MCGOVERN: You mean how to pick one?
TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly. [Laughter] Three simple steps that anyone can follow that result in an error-free, sylvan walk through the woods of a general election campaign. And as we wind down on this topic, I want to begin to encourage anybody who wants to ask about then or now to please go to one of the microphones in about five minutes or so and we will begin wrestling with your questions. Please, if you’d be so kind when you go to the microphone to remember that you are doing so to ask a question and not to make a speech, which these gentlemen can do in your stead.
In a few minutes, if you want to begin fighting for space at the microphone, we encourage you to do so and look forward to answering your questions. Let me put it on Dukakis first. How frustrating, or was it frustrating for you, as 1988 the general election campaign wore on and somewhere in your heart or your head you had an unflattering thought or two about Dan Quayle and the country didn’t seem to care at all.
And you had just gone through this elaborate exercise resulting in the nomination of one of the senior figures in the National Democratic Party, who had been such for a generation, for which the credit seemed minimal. What was it like then and how does that affect the way you look at whatever it is that is going on now?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I don't know that there is a lot of frustration, Tom. I mean I was determined, as best I could—and remember, picking a running mate is the first real presidential decision you make because if you win that person is going to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. And George had his own problems with a terrific guy, by the way, who I admired enormously. And who had the misfortune like a lot of people, including my dear wife, to suffer from severe depression and have electro-convulsive therapy, which in his case and in Kitty’s case proved to be extremely beneficial. And yet he was pilloried for it and finally had to leave the campaign, as we all know.
In any event, as you know Tom, we put together a pretty serious process. Now remember, one of the things, running for the presidency is not like running for governor. But if you’ve been governor for ten years, you’ve picked a lot of people. And it was one of the great things about—I mean there is nothing like putting a great team together and assembling a terrific bunch of people. And I think for the most part I had them working for me as governor.
So I had gone through this process of picking people for key positions. And I welcomed it. So we did put a process in place. It narrowed the field down, as you know to four finalists, in effect, Benson, Glenn, Gore, Gephardt, all four I think, any one of which would have been a fine pick. And for a variety of reasons I concluded that Lloyd Benson was the guy for the pick and I picked him. And we all know what happened in terms of Quayle and so forth.
And I can tell you this, folks, and I’m not being textbook-y about this. As you go into this process, if you are serious as a presidential nominee, the single, most important criterion beyond anything else is the answer to a very simple question, “If, God forbid, something happens to me, can this person be a first rate president?” Everything else pales by comparison--
--Gender, geography and so on. And I’m not saying that for effect. It has to be, if you are serious, Tom. Well, it was pretty obvious that Dan Quayle was not picked based on that criterion. And, point of fact, I think I’m correct in saying, George, that Jim Baker strongly argued against the selection of Quayle.
TOM OLIPHANT: In fact, 20 years have passed and he is the one who leaked the story.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Leaked the story in The New York Times, saying there was great unhappiness. But George Bush the 1st picked him anyway. And there was a lot of discussion, I think, and certainly that famous moment in the debate kind of dramatically set the difference. But it is not one of those things that you dwell on. I mean you hope the fact that you’ve picked somebody who is solid and credible and meets that criterion will draw the contrast.
And we had polling information that indicated, that had I run a better campaign in the final and had it been closer, the selection of Benson might well have made the difference. It might have been two or three points but it would have made the difference. It would have made the difference. But you’ve got to get close. I mean, folks, with all due respect to all the Palin stuff, people on Election Day are going to be voting for president, not vice president. And I think we know that and I think you know it, Tom.
So I didn’t find it frustrating. I hoped that that contrast was there and it would have an effect on some people. And in any event, you’ve got to live with your conscience folks. I mean, you know, if you want to be President of the United States, then you’ve got to demonstrate, at least to yourself, as well as you hope to the broad public that in this first, really critical, presidential decision that you’re doing it the way it ought to be done.
TOM OLIPHANT: But isn’t the lesson that the only restraining influence on a nominee, like McCain and Obama, today is his own self-conception? There is no objective evidence that except in a tiny sense at the margin, you get any political credit for—
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Picking well.
TOM OLIPHANT: --Making it on a governance basis?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, you may get hurt if you pick poorly. Time will tell. My own sense, folks, and who knows when it comes to running for the presidency, I’m the last guy in the world to ask—but I believe, Tom, on Election Day, the Palin selection, with the possible exception of the fact that it may have so-called energized the base, will not have been a plus for John McCain. Do you agree with that George?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I agree. I think that New York writer and artist, and I never can think of his name—but he said that all of us are famous for 15 minutes.
TOM OLIPHANT: Oh, Andy Warhol.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Andy Warhol. I think there is probably some truth in that. I’m beginning to think that maybe Governor Palin has had her 15 minutes.
TOM OLIPHANT: Though, after what you went through for those horrible days in South Dakota all those years ago, how does it affect your perspective the way you view a controversial selection like this one today? You, after all, did select somebody with indisputable qualifications.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Let me just say one thing. We had no time in ’72 to do the kind of checking and investigating and vetting. I didn’t know that I was going to be the nominee until about midnight the day before. I had thought after we won the California primary that the election was over and that everybody would recognize that I was going to be the nominee. That wasn’t to be. My friend, and he was my friend and still is in death, Hubert Humphrey, and his people organized a drive to stop the nomination by taking away half of the California delegates.
So instead of having a month of comparative relaxed time before the convention to pick a running mate and to organize that agenda of the convention, I spent that last six weeks before the convention working around the clock, calling delegates all over the country, “Do not change the rules after the election is over.” And that did us a lot of harm. It really hurt it.
Before I started that ’72 campaign I ran into Barry Goldwater down in the Senate gym one afternoon. And I said, “Barry, what advice do you have to a Democrat who is getting ready to run for president?” He said, “One thing. Don’t get fatigued. Don’t get fatigued. That’s when you make mistakes. That’s when I went to St. Petersburg, Florida and told them I thought we ought to overhaul the Social Security system.” He said I did that just to get even with my damn staff who scheduled that late night meeting when I was already worn out.”
Well, anyway, we were exhausted, all of my people and myself included. And we’d been going for a year and a half, seven days a week, night and day. And so we limped into that convention in that physical condition and mental condition. And after we won that roll call that preserved the California delegates, then I knew I was going to be the nominee and I had to pick somebody before four o’clock the next day.
I went through seven people before I could get anybody to say yes. Senator Kennedy, and I understood. I mean two of his brothers had been assassinated. I was almost apologetic in asking him. I did and he thought about it for several hours and turned it down. The governor of Florida, Senator Mondale of Minnesota, Ed Muskie—We tried to get Sargent Shriver and he was in Russia. Neither his office nor we could locate him. He was on a business trip. Anyway, we went through seven people.
TOM OLIPHANT: I should add, the mayor of Boston, too, by the way.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: The mayor of Boston. Yes the mayor of Boston was strongly favored by Gary Hart, my campaign manager, and a good man. Anyway, he didn’t turn it down but others advised me not to do it. Anyway, to make a—Three of these people, Senator Kennedy, Senator Mondale, Senator Nelson all urged me to pick Tom Eagleton. I hadn’t served on a committee with him. I barely knew him. I knew Stu Symington, the senior senator from there but I didn’t know much about Tom. Senator Mansfield weighed in.
And so based on that kind of recommendations, we didn’t have time to vet him if I can use that word, anyway. I called him up late in the afternoon. It was 15 minutes to four. The deadline was four o’clock. I said, “Tom, what would you think of serving with me as my running mate?” He said, “George, I’m going to say yes before you change you mind.” And the clock started to tick from that time. At four o’clock the next morning, after I had given my acceptance speech, I started picking up the rumors that Tom had had history of 14 or 15 years of depression.
At that time I didn’t know much about depression. Neither did anybody around me. So I talked to three or four psychiatrists. They were in disagreement. I finally thought the most famous psychiatrist is the man from Topeka, Kansas, Dr. Menninger. I got him at one o’clock in the morning. He was clear up in upstate New York. And when he came on the phone I said, “Doctor I apologize for calling you in the middle of then night.” He said, “Oh, Senator, I know why you are calling and just feel brokenhearted. Mrs. Menninger and I are Republicans. But we so wanted you to win this election.”
I said, “Well, Doctor, I guess the way you are starting off here you think I’m in trouble.” “Yes,” he said, “I do, for two reasons. Number one, the American public is scared to death of mental illness. When somebody has a problem mentally, they don’t even tell their neighbors or their good friends, sometimes even members of the family. And those people are not going to support you if you keep Senator Eagleton on the ticket.”
He said, “I’m not the politician. I’m the doctor. You’re the politician. But I’ve been lecturing American audiences for 40 years on mental illness. On the other hand, almost every family has somebody who’s had some degree of mental illness, either a son, husband, a daughter, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin, somebody. And if you ask Senator Eagleton to step down from that ticket now, millions of people are going to turn away from you.”
“So,” I said, “Well, Dr. Menninger, I guess what you are telling me, I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” He said, “That’s the way I see it.” It’s the only time in the campaign after I hung up that I broke down and wept. I had a vision of all those hands reaching out just to touch me, people who wanted to shake hands, people with tears in their eyes, people glowing with joy about the hopes of a change in our leadership. And the campaign never recovered from that.
After the storm broke in the press and a week went by I asked Tom to step down. I think it was always an uphill fight and I never gave up even then. But it was always uphill. I think that foreclosed the possibility of us overtaking President Nixon.
TOM OLIPHANT: How does that affect the way you look at a controversy like the one about Governor Palin’s bona fides today? I mean you may not have vetted with the kind of lawyers and operation Governor Dukakis had but you got statements of support from some of the most serious people who were in the Senate.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: I did. I did. And there’s a drastic difference between Governor Palin and Tom Eagleton, who is a brilliant, capable Senator and would have made a good vice president and a good president. I later turned to Sargent Shriver, a wonderful human being who would have made a great running mate and did become a good running mate although we gave him an impossible job at that point. But these are two men, either one of whom would have been fine.
Now later in life I came in touch with depression in my own family. And after my daughter Terry died I had a bout of genuine depression myself. So I know what it is. It’s a really painful, paralyzing malady to hit anybody. We now know how to treat it better. We were just beginning to use lithium in ’72. I didn’t even know what it was. And let me tell you, when you are in a bind like this, and you start asking people what they think they should do, they end up where Dr. Menninger did. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Of course, we may have made some progress on this because Lawton Chiles as you recall--
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yes, that’s right.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: George, 20 years later, United States Senator suffered from depression and was on Prozac. And ran for governor of Florida and told people that. And was elected and re-elected, which I think probably suggests that we are becoming much more understanding. But maybe it’s an indication that there is a very large percentage of people in the state of Florida who are also on Prozac.
TOM OLIPHANT: [Laughter] It wouldn’t surprise anybody. I’m going to call in just a second and there is another microphone there for other people. I want to draw on your sense of history and I will ask the professional historian here second.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: He’s setting me up.
TOM OLIPHANT: Governor, the period when you ran, you’re the last election I’m talking about, 1968 to 1988, 20 years, six elections, five won by the Republicans, the coming to the fore of so-called social and cultural issues. It’s been sort of even since the, two Democrat, two Republican. Tell me about that period. It was a period of intense activism and accomplishment in America. It was also a period of largely conservative governance. How would you explain it to somebody from Mars [pause] or Alaska? [Laughter]
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, quite frankly, I’m a lot more interested in our professional historian’s take on that because I suspect—
TOM OLIPHANT: Senator McGovern’s election was the second of those. Yours was the last.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, but it’s always been there. I mean what was 2004 about? Even though you had a genuine war hero running against a guy who had been reading magazines in Alabama—with a running mate who, quite frankly, was probably the most notorious draft dodger in American history. I think it is always there, Tom. But remember, we were coming out of the worst catastrophe. And that lingered for a long time.
And quite frankly, I think Senator McGovern will agree with me, we ran against Herbert Hoover for years--
TOM OLIPHANT: Into the sixties.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: --Effectively, into the sixties until finally that memory began fading. One of the interesting questions, quite frankly, as a result of what we are going through now, Tom, is whether or not our economic difficulties, the failure to regulate the tax cut for the wealthy, trickle down economics, the market is God and all that kind of stuff may, in fact, may be an eclipse for a long period of time after going through this. We will see.
But Senator McGovern will remember the billboards in the fifties, “Get the UN out of the US and the US out of the UN,” and “Impeach Earl Warren.” Do you remember those?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Yeah, I sure do.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It’s always been there, maybe more so during that 20 year period. And quite frankly, I don’t think we Democrats including yours truly, dealt with that effectively. Bill Clinton in ’92, when faced with the same kind of thing did so. More power to him. And it’s clear now with this last month kicking up that we are going to see a ton of this stuff coming out of the McCain side and it will be a test for the Obama campaign and those of us on the other side as to whether or not we can deal with those issues.
TOM OLIPHANT: It basically started yesterday, didn’t it?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah. Well, it’s been around for—Look, running an ad with a couple of black guys named Obama and Frank Raines, who only met each other for five minutes with an older white woman, who presumably they’ve done a number on in some unexplained way isn’t subtle. I mean if that isn’t racist, I don't know what is. So, it’s with us. And there we are.
TOM OLIPHANT: You’ve been very patient. And I thank you in advance for your brevity.
__: I just wanted to make a quick remark and a question. First of all, it’s an honor to be in the room with two, such honorable politicians as well as some wonderful policy. One of my first campaigns was yours, Senator McGovern, in regard to the whole issue of Vietnam and how you took the courage of peace. And Governor Dukakis, I was on one of your task forces when you were so courageous in making homelessness the number one priority in Massachusetts. I just wanted to thank both of you.
I guess I wanted to follow up on the question about Republican tactics, which is, it often times seems like the Democrats are on the defensive, and certainly we saw that in regard to the Perot kinds of ads that we saw as well as—and we are very familiar with Nixon’s dirty tricks. And I was wondering, how would you, if you were an advisor to Obama at this point, talk about dealing with some of those tactics?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I don’t think he needs any advice. I think he knew it was coming right from the beginning. If you read his speech after the North Carolina primary that night, which was when he clinched, he laid out exactly what was coming. And I think, on the whole, his campaign has done a remarkable job of dealing with it. Now, unfortunately, here in Massachusetts, we don’t see any of this because there is no television.
TOM OLIPHANT: Come on down to Virginia.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: But believe me, where those attack ads are being run from the McCain side, there is response within 24 hours. And on the whole I think they’ve done a pretty good job. Now they are going to have a very rough last month. I just don’t think there is any question about it. They are going to throw the kitchen sink at him. But I think they’ve done a pretty good job.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you for your patience. We will get through these and then I think somebody is going to kill me if I let it go much beyond 3:30.
__: Running for the presidency has become virtually a full time job for like two years now. And I’m wondering in your perspective, what one thing, from the time when you ran for president might be missing today—and what one thing that is happening now that you would like to withdraw from presidential politics to improve the process by which we elect presidents?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Well, I think this negative attack that goes on in politics has to be reckoned with. I, frankly though, perhaps somewhat naively in ’72 that some of the charges were so ridiculous they didn’t require an answer. For example, calling me the Triple-A Candidate, Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion. I didn’t have radical positions on any of those three things. On Amnesty I said, “Not while the war is still in progress. But if I’m elected I will end the war. And I will grant amnesty both to those who planned the war [Laughter] [Applause] and to those who refused to participate.”
On abortion I took a very conservative position, similar to Sam Nunn’s of Georgia. I would leave the abortion issue up to the state. Not the most radical position that anyone could take at that time. And on the acid thing I got that label because when asked if I was for the legalization of drugs, I said, “No. But I would make one minor suggestion that we change a first possession of marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor.” That had the advantage of keeping our prisons and jails from being filled up with teenagers.
Anyway, I think what I’ve learned from the campaign that you can’t assume attacks like that are ridiculous. You have to answer them and do it quickly before the rumor gets strength. I thought that’s one thing that Bill Clinton did very well. Any time there was the slightest criticism of him in 1992, he had an answer on the wires that same day.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you. And let me just preface by saying I’ve gotten a note that the great man needs to go to catch a plane in about five or six minutes. So a nice, clipped question means we can get through everybody.
__: Okay. Senator McGovern mentioned that almost nobody would still doubt the lack of wisdom on the Vietnam War. But it seems to me and might to you, gentlemen, that Senator McCain, as the papers are saying, his mindset is still in Vietnam and the winning of Vietnam. I wanted a comment on that.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did you hear that right? There is still the argument.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It’s hard to say. I don’t want to psychoanalyze McCain. And we all know what he went through and nobody should ever have to go through that as he did. But I question his judgment on the Iraq War. I mean forget the Vietnam War. It seems to me the case against getting involved militarily in Iraq, if anything George, was much more powerful. At least we were in the middle of the Cold War at the time and people were concerned about the expansion of the communist empire and all that kind of stuff. I don’t think you ever bought it and I never bought it.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: Michael, I don’t question his patriotism but I do question his judgment. The Vietnam War has been over for many years. He still thinks it’s a good idea. And he suffered considerably, I guess, as a prisoner of war. I don't know just how much of the war he saw but he was in prison up there in what we called the Hanoi Hilton for what, five and a half years, something like that. And there may have been something in that experience that led him to think he has to support all wars. I would think the lesson you learn there is to try to avoid wars unless they are absolutely--
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: --Critical.
GEORGE MCGOVERN: --Necessary. Another thing, I want to be careful about this. I don't know whether it necessarily makes you the number one hero in the country, to sit out a war in jail, in a prison camp. We feel sorry for prisoners, at least I do. I read about the prison camps in the Civil War and it almost makes me weep, the way prisoners were mistreated. But I don't know whether the ones that were captured are more heroic than the ones that aren’t captured but still are in the fight. So I think we ought to be—
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: And you speak from some experience, given your own military--
GEORGE MCGOVERN: We ought to be careful thinking we have only one hero in the country.
TOM OLIPHANT: I got the hook and we can’t let this great man miss his plane. I’m sorry. And you’re the last question.
__: Governor, on election night of 1988 I was a teary-eyed high school student who took some comfort in your concession speak, in which you reminded us of the nobility of public service. And I’m curious, especially after your comments on how much more negative the process has become in the last 20 years, what is it we need to do as a nation to ensure that good men and women still seek not only the office that both of you did but engage in the political process at all levels.
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: It’s a great question. Let me be as brief as I can so George can get his plane and end this on a hopeful note. I’ve been teaching now at Northeastern now for 17 years except for January, February and March when Kitty and I drag ourselves out of New England. And I teach at UCLA. It’s a terrible burden but somebody has got to do it.
And I want to tell you, we are producing some fabulous young people, many of whom are strongly imbued with a sense of public spirit and public involvement. And it is just—it is a terrific experience where I can share my experience with them and open up doors for them and help them, as I know Senator McGovern has done countless numbers of times. I spend a lot of time on college campuses- I know he does- talking about this. Don’t worry. We are producing a terrific generation of young people with a very strong sense of public service.
Now, I do say this to them, “If you do decide to run for the presidency, come and see me first.”
TOM OLIPHANT: They keep coming, don’t they?
GEORGE MCGOVERN: They do. They do.
TOM OLIPHANT: They just keep coming. I apologize that there were more questions than we had time for. But on the other hand we are very grateful for all of you who came out today to help us talk a little bit about then and about now. Thanks again.
END OF FORUM