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McGovern Still on the Antiwar Path

The retired senator and former ambassador to the United Nations is stumping for a book he co-wrote with foreign policy analyst William R. Polk called Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now while buttonholing dozens of members of Congress and urging our immediate withdrawal from Iraq

BY Laura S. Washington

'When Cheney endorses a war, he exempts himself from participation. But maybe it's wise--he might end up shooting his comrades.'

The old antiwar horse is still kicking.

In 1972, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern (once a World War II bomber pilot) won the Democratic presidential nomination on an antiwar platform. In 2007, he’s still got game.

In March 2007, McGovern called on Vice President Dick Cheney to resign. A month later, opining in the Los Angeles Times, he revisited the trauma of the Vietnam War era and excoriated George W. Bush and Cheney for blithely sacrificing American lives once again. “We, of course, already know that when Cheney endorses a war, he exempts himself from participation,” he wrote. “On second thought, maybe it’s wise to keep Cheney off the battlefield – he might end up shooting his comrades rather than the enemy.”

For more than a year, the retired senator and former ambassador to the United Nations has been stumping for a book he co-wrote with foreign policy analyst William R. Polk called Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now. He has buttonholed dozens of members of Congress, urging our immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

McGovern lost the presidential election in 1972 because of his conviction that the Vietnam War was wrong. To this day, conservatives blast him for being a liberal anti-American. He’s still not backing down.

“I’m very proud of the things that I stood for in ‘72 and I make no apologies for anything,” McGovern told me in a Nov. 28 phone interview. “I said what I thought was right. And I am proud of what we stood for in that campaign. We didn’t win, but lots of people in history have proposed ideas that were good for the society of their time but weren’t accepted until years later.”

McGovern, 85, was in Chicago in late November to accept an award from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law for his efforts to fight hunger, a cherished cause since he led John F. Kennedy’s Food for Peace Program in the ’60s.

McGovern bemoaned America’s feeble memory. He recalled often comforting his young daughters. “And I said, ‘Look, maybe something good will come from this Vietnam tragedy. It’s such an obvious blunder, we’ll never go down that road again. So maybe it will save us from repeating this on an even more costly scale.’ And of course, now I don’t know what to tell my daughters.”

Why, I asked him, don’t Americans learn from their history?

“One disturbing thing is that they don’t study it. It’s not even pressed in the schools as a high priority, as it used to be. … People are more interested in learning how to do e-mail, do a computer or whatever, than studying the history of humanity,” McGovern said.

How does his hatred of needless war square with his recent endorsement of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who voted to send us to Iraq?

“Obviously, I wish she hadn’t voted for that war resolution,” he replied, then added, “I have no doubt that if she is elected, she won’t lose any time ending that war.”

While he would be “perfectly happy” with any of the Democratic frontrunners, “2008 is Hillary’s year,” he said. “She’s highly intelligent, she’s got the grit to stand firm … she knows the heads of state, people all around the world … she was in on all the decisions.”

No doubt it helps that they go way back. Thirty-five years ago, two fresh-faced political activists named Bill and Hillary Clinton helped coordinate McGovern’s Texas operation.

“I don’t forget that. I’ve got a long memory,” he recalled. “To try to sell George McGovern in Texas in 1972–that was a tall order. And they went down there and did it cheerfully and did a good job.”

Did he spot their talent then? He laughed. “What I remember was, keep in mind, this was ‘72, Bill had a hairdo that made him look pretty much like a buffalo. A huge mass of hair. I was always kind of jealous of him because mine was pretty thin even then.”

Ironically, Bill and Hill later eschewed McGovern’s liberal politics and won the White House from the center.

While McGovern is backing Clinton, he eagerly lays on the superlatives for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). “Brilliant.” “Promising.” “Another Lincoln.”

The Democratic Party’s elder statesman showed his age a bit when he ventured into Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) territory. “He’s got a mastery of English diction, he’s grounded morally.” Clean and articulate, too?

Still, you gotta love an octogenarian who can still give it as good as he gets. As he wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Instead of listening to the foolishness of the neoconservative ideologues, the Cheney-Bush team might better heed the words of a real conservative, Edmund Burke: ‘A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood.’”

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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