Presidents Past, Present, Never-were

“I would have made it a practice to tell the truth.”

What was so wrong with acid, abortion, and amnesty again?

What was so wrong with acid, abortion, and amnesty again?

That’s how George McGovern thinks his presidency would have been different from the administration we elected in 1972, when McGovern suffered one of the worst presidential defeats in history. Of course, he was doomed before he left the gate: He has a divinity degree and a Ph.D. in history. Since when do Americans elect someone with both a moral grounding and intellectual tendencies? (We’ll see how Obama does on the former…)

McGovern’s comment came at the end of a presentation he made last week at the McCormick Freedom Museum. The event was basically a plug for his new bio of Abraham Lincoln, part of a series on the presidents written by different historians, reporters, and public figures. (Clinton was approached first to do the Lincoln book, but he begged off; I’m sure the small word count would have been too limiting for the loquacious one.) But along the way, McGovern also gave some insights into his own life in politics. And, being in Chicago just before Inauguration Day, the former senator also made some observations about another Illinois president.

The subject of more books than any other American - and just wait till this year

The subject of more books than any other American - and just wait till this year

First, his thoughts on Lincoln: McGovern thinks Abe had a lot of self-confidence, perhaps more than most people realize (except when it came to women). His lack of book learning did not dissuade Lincoln from seeing himself as an intellectual and a legal scholar. Lincoln was also highly ambitious. Of course, those two observations raise the obvious question: Don’t all people who run for president have big egos and a lot of ambition? And almost as soon as I thought it, McGovern said yes, of course they do. (Which doesn’t explain his run, since McGovern does not exude that love of self and burning drive most pols have.) Perhaps Lincoln especially needed those traits, to help him combat the depression that plagued him throughout his life. Imagine what an Abe on SSRI’s would have been like!

Despite Lincoln’s deserved reputation for greatness, McGovern said he made mistakes. The biggest were suspending habeas corpus and shutting down opposition newspapers during the Civil War. But in his defense, McGovern says, DC was surrounded by hostile elements, with Confederate Virginia on one side and slave-owning, pro-Reb Maryland on the other. As far as faults, I would add Lincoln’s pandering to pro-slavery elements in Illinois during his 1858 debates (which I talked about here), and not making the Emancipation Proclamation universal, though I can excuse the latter a bit, given the realities of the war at the time.

Looking at today’s politicians, McGovern sees the new president as the most like #16. They share calmness, eloquence, and high self-esteem. They also share an awareness of the importance of knowing and respecting history. McGovern says all presidents should have it; amen to that, and why stop at presidents? All Americans would benefit from it, and then maybe they wouldn’t elect such bad politicians so often.

On important issues of the day, McGovern of course noted the economy and suggested Paul Krugman would have been a good choice for an Obama advisor. He also worries about nuclear proliferation. But one issue particularly close to his heart is food. He serves on the board of directors of the World Food Program and back in the day chaired a Senate committee on nutrition. He shared some of his views in a recent Tribune op-ed article, talking about sustainable and organic agriculture. But, he also stressed large-scale commercial farming even more, which left me a little cold. Still, from a practical view of trying to feed 7 billion people, he probably sees no other choice. I guess I don’t either, but the piece left me feeling that agribusiness will continue to dominate the food agenda when even the McGoverns of the world don’t speak out against its baser aspects.

At the presentation, McGovern made the food issue a little more personal. He mentioned enjoying a steak dinner the night before, but then feeling a little guilty. “I like to eat, but I’d enjoy it a lot more if I knew everybody else had enough to eat.” Which, I guess, sums up the difference between a liberal and conservative. Does Dick Cheney worry about the world’s starving as he wolfs down his daily ration of raw meat or freshly shot quail or whatever the hell it is that sustains a hellhound? As far as solutions to global hunger, McGovern would like to see a universal school lunch program or an international WIC program.

How many more years?

How many more years?

So, that about sums it up. At 86, he still seemed sharp and – excuse me? You were expecting something else? His thoughts on another former president? Yeah, I guess we have to talk about Tricky Dick. McGovern does not seem capable of bitterness, and he certainly didn’t reveal any about the ’72 election. He did offer this opinion on Nixon, probably not revolutionary: Unlike most presidents, he suffered from low self-esteem. Which led me to think, so he tried to make up for it in other ways  and geez, couldn’t he just buy a ginormous pick-up truck, like most guys with, uh, inadequacies do?

He also recounted contact he had with Nixon after Watergate. It was during the Reagan Administration, right after Gorbachev came to power. McGovern called RN and said maybe they should issue a joint statement explaining to Ronnie the importance of meeting Gorby. Until that point, Reagan had not met any of the leaders that passed through the revolving door of the Soviet government during the early 80s. Nixon thought it was a good idea, but he wasn’t so sure they should do it together; Reagan might not be as receptive if McGovern were involved. Nixon did it on his own, and Reagan did meet Gorbachev. Nice anecdote, though I don’t know if that’s exactly how it happened.

All in all, an interesting discussion. Americans rejected a wise and intelligent man in 1972. But given the tenor of the times (and dirty tricks), he never stood a chance.


Ah, Raoul, you are missed

PS-A plug: For the funniest, and perhaps most insightful, look at a presidential campaign as it unfolds, check out Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. God, I love that book…


~ by mburgan on January 22, 2009.

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