In town to promote the final book he would ever write, George McGovern, who died Sunday at 90, visited Books & Books bookstore in Coral Gables only five months ago, on May 11. It was his last visit to Miami and among the last public appearances he would ever make.
The 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and former South Dakota senator, frail and speaking in a faint yet coherent voice, was on a national tour to promote his book, What It Means to Be a Democrat.
McGovern had returned to the same metropolis where, forty summers before at the Miami Beach Convention Center, he was anointed the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer, the ill-fated contender chosen to enter the ring and attempt to KO an incumbent president, Richard Nixon, for the nation’s leadership. That November, he won just one state – Massachusetts. “For many years, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way,” he admitted self-deprecatingly. “And last year I sure did.”
Told by a woman in the audience at his Coral Gables appearance that “you are the first presidential candidate I ever voted for and I was stunned when you didn’t win,” McGovern, without missing a beat, drew laughter, replying, “Me, too.”
The SunPost’s Charles Branham-Bailey was the only local journalist present for McGovern’s talk to the roomful of admirers, book lovers, and even some ’72 supporters. Here are some of McGovern’s remarks that evening –
On the role of the federal government:
“The federal government is really kind of sad, in recent months, especially [given what has been said] by the extreme right wing. They talk about the federal government as if somehow it’s just a great cesspool in Washington D.C. that does nothing worthwhile. This is a totally false view of the federal government. For one thing, it provides for the national defense. Other things that it does: it enforces the laws of the land, it provides for the needs of the poor and the sick and the hungry.
“The government does a lot of worthwhile things. In fact, every day we’re drawing on some aspect of the federal government that serves our needs. If you abolish the federal government, as some of these extreme right-wing people seem to suggest, life would be paralyzed; we couldn’t function without the federal government and the order that it brings to our society. Who’s going to enforce the laws?
“Most everything we do involves some aspect of the federal government. It may be the role the government plays in education or in health care. So I think that the notion that somehow the federal government is more of a nuisance than it is a blessing is totally false. The federal government is essential to our functioning as a free people.”
On income tax:
“I remember one day there was a parishioner of my dad’s – he was a Methodist clergyman – and this parishioner was complaining about the income tax. I was probably 12 or 13, but I remember how proud I was of my dad. He said, ‘Well, Mr. Smith, you think you’re paying a lot of income taxes? You realize what that means? It means you’re earning more of an income.’ (Audience laughter.) Then he had to say, ‘Praise the Lord!’
“It’s a privilege to pay taxes. I think I get more in my life from the federal taxes I pay than I do from any other money I spend. I think the things that I get from the federal government that are financed by my taxes, and yours, and yours – I think those things benefit us all.
“So, as my dad said, ‘Praise the Lord’.”
On one thing he learned from his grandfather Thomas McGovern, an Irish immigrant:
“He said to me and my brothers and sisters, ‘I pay taxes to the federal government, but let me tell you what I get back.’ And he’d tick off all these things, all these various benefits that come back from the federal government. He’d say it’s my job to try to make sure that I use those benefits as intelligently as I can and if I think the federal government is wasting some of those funds that it may invest, then I have the right to point that out, too. But I shouldn’t just assume that everything the federal government collects in taxes is lost. It’s not lost. It’s invested in things that enrich our lives.
“And once that was explained to me I never forgot it.”
On government waste:
“I know there are some people that think that everything the federal government takes from us is wasted. I don’t see the evidence of that. [And] I think the people that work for the United States government are people of integrity and devotion.”
On compassion in public policy:
“It’s hard to describe the differences between the two major parties with a single word or single phrase, but I think the typical Democrat is more compassionate than is true of the typical Republican. That doesn’t mean that all Republicans are bad, it just means they’re not as compassionate. (Audience laughter.)
“By and large, a certain amount of compassion is essential in our society. If you’re a person that can’t earn enough to sustain your family, then I think that we ought to have a system under the federal government that helps make up the difference in various other ways.”
Reflecting on his 1972 race:
“I tried to grapple with why would a majority – a big majority – of the American people think that Richard Nixon would serve their interests.
“I think somehow many people had the idea that this young guy, a greenhorn, was not as experienced as Nixon. I think they just felt a little safer, to go with Nixon. They knew him, he’d been around, he’d held all kinds of offices, some of them very high up, and they didn’t know much about me. That can be very difficult and I think that’s what happened.
“I don’t think it’s that they disliked me or didn’t trust me or anything like that. I just think they felt I was an unknown quantity and that Nixon would be more predictable and reliable. That’s my own view. (Chuckling) I find it hard to believe they found him a nicer guy than me. (Audience laughter.)”
On the campaign’s big issue, the Vietnam War:
“The Vietnam War was a big thing. I think a lot of people thought, How can McGovern be criticizing our boys in battle? Well, I wasn’t criticizing our boys. I was trying to get them the hell out of there.
“I think when you criticize an American military operation, a lot of people think that’s almost the same as criticizing the flag and the troops and the American way of life. I think that’s what makes it difficult.
“I think the more people got to know about me the better I did. But it took some doing to achieve that.”
On the summer of 1972, when he was nominated at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach:
“It was almost overwhelming to actually be nominated for president of the United States. To have a major political party, the oldest of the two parties, nominate me was just overwhelming. I thought it was a great honor but it was also really an almost overwhelming experience. And I gave it the best I had. I did everything I could, but it didn’t work out.”
His thoughts on President Obama:
“I’ve met him and his wife and was quite impressed with both of them.
“I thought there were two things that he should have done when he was first elected and I’m still puzzled to this day why he didn’t.
“Number 1, he should have terminated that war [in Afghanistan]. Almost nobody, conservative or liberal, knows what the heck we’re doing in that war. I’ve had people who’ve been around for a long time say, how do we know when we’ve won?
“What are we trying to accomplish there? I wish he had pulled us out of there right away.
“And the other: I think that he needed to be more positive in putting people back to work. When Roosevelt came in in the 1930s there were a lot of people unemployed, an even higher percentage than is unemployed today. And what Roosevelt did, he started a number of public service jobs. He had programs going where people that couldn’t get a job in the private sector could work for the government.
“They accomplished a lot of things. For example, the courthouse in my hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota, was built during that period. It put a lot of people to work and is still there. And [similar Depression recovery work] got done all over the country.”