George McGovern on Daschle’s Defeat in South Dakota and the Politics of War

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As all eyes focus on the presidential election, we take a look at what many consider the second most important contest of 2004: South Dakota and the Senate race between Democratic Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Republican John Thune. We speak with an American political legend: former Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern. [includes rush transcript]

As things stand now, Ohio has become ground zero in the battle for the White House. While most of the focus of the nation zeroes in on yet another contested presidential election, the Republicans dealt a serious blow to the Democrats in a race many considered the second most important contest of 2004. And that is the South Dakota Senate race between the Senate’s most powerful Democrat, Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

He faced fierce opposition from his Republican challenger John Thune, who campaigned heavily on his fierce opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Very early this morning the networks began to call the race in Thune’s favor, bringing down the Senate’s most powerful Democrat. We go now to South Dakota where we are joined by a veteran of presidential and Senate politics.

  • George McGovern, senator from South Dakota for 18 years (1962-1980) and Democratic candidate for President in 1972. He is the author of “The Essential America : Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to South Dakota where we’re joined by a veteran of presidential and senate politics, George McGovern, the senator from South Dakota for 18 years, from 1962 to 1980, and the democratic candidate for president in 1972. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Senator McGovern.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Thank you very much. It’s nice to be on your program.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us. I know you hardly slept as you followed two races, the presidential race, and your own in South Dakota, and the defeat of Tom Daschle. Your response.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I feel especially sad about the defeat of Tom Daschle. We have never had a senator from this state who has worked any harder than Tom Daschle has to serve the people of South Dakota and who stayed in close contact with the people of the state. He had a practice of visiting all 67 counties in the state every year. Whether it was an election year or not. So, it’s a particularly bitter disappointment to see him expelled from office. It was done largely with the so-called social, or what you might call personal issues, the question of abortion, and the same sex marriage issues. I don’t think that either of those issues even ought to be in politics. They’re basically personal and moral and medical questions. But it’s essentially the same appeal that was used against me 24 years ago when, like Tom Daschle, I was coming up for my fourth term in the United States Senate. Tom, this time, and I, 24 years ago, had reached the apex of our power and influence and capacity to get things done in the Senate. So it’s a great loss to us to lose not only a South Dakota senior senator, but also the democratic leader in the United States Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Once again, the final vote count, as we went into the early hours this morning, coming from Native Americans in South Dakota and finally from the Pine Ridge reservation. Senator Daschle sued John Thune over the issue of suppressing the Native American vote in the midst of this race in the last few days.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Yes. That’s true. I don’t know what the details are there. I don’t think anybody else does other than maybe some of the observers who were right at the top of the Daschle campaign. I have no idea what the legal questions are there. But that’s probably not going to change the results. I think the Daschle campaign was right when they had suspicions of that kind to pursue it in the courts. And obviously there’s still a slight hope that something might happen on that front, but I’m afraid that race has been lost.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern, the issue of the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, the most powerful democrat in the Senate now losing his seat as the republicans retain both the House and the Senate, control over that, and we’ll see what happens with the presidential race, but clearly George Bush is ahead, at least according to the counts by some 4 million votes in this country. What does this mean? Put the two together.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I’m concerned about that, and I would think if President Bush is finally affirmed as the leader, the provisional ballots in Ohio and the absentee ballots of our service men and others, if in the end, it comes out that the president has been re-elected, I would think that he would be deeply concerned about how divided this country is on the war, on his leadership. It’s almost a repeat of his first election in 2000. In that case, the Supreme Court of the United States stopped the recount in Florida, and as Justice Stevens, an appointee of the court from a republican president, said, we may never know who really won the presidential election of 2000, but we know who the loser was, it was the court of the United States. And I think that’s true. It’s left a very bad taste not only in the mouths of democrats and in the hearts of democrats, but a great many people across the country that both parties who have to be tormented somewhat to this day about what really happened four years ago. I hope we don’t go through that again this year. It’s the nightmare that I think people in both parties have feared that we would end up with another disputed result. So, I’m with Dennis Kucinich. Let’s let the process play itself out. Let’s make sure that we have counted the provisional votes fairly and the absentee ballots fairly. Ohio still has not been officially determined.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern, you were a U.S. Congress member and you were a democratic presidential candidate, most noted for your opposition to the Vietnam War. Whatever happens here, do you think that John Kerry made a mistake in not appealing more to his natural base, to the anti-war movement in this country, in the same way that George Bush vigorously went after his own base?

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I hate to make an analysis of a situation right now with the outcome still debatable. You know, I was opposed to the war before we went in there. Of course, I wish that the whole democratic group in the Senate had voted against that war resolution, including Senator Kerry, but he did what he thought was the right thing. He made very clear his doubts about the way the war was being conducted. He never said that the war was a total mistake, but he recognized that we’re in a mess in Iraq. I think both the leaders of both parties know that. We, of course, never should have put our army into that Arabian desert. It’s as big a mistake as the war in Vietnam was, but Senator Kerry was trying to appeal to the whole Democratic Party. He was trying to make clear his doubts about the war, about — especially about the way it was being conducted, and who knows whether he would have done better had he come out solidly against it.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern, you ran in 1972, it was right about the time that Senator Kerry came back from serving in Vietnam, and fiercely opposed it, and testified before the Senate and talked about his opposition. The time you ran, you lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, despite the fact that there was gaining momentum and criticism of the Vietnam War. But two years later, Richard Nixon was forced to resign. Can you comment on that time, and if you see any parallels to today.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I don’t see the parallel. The Nixon administration which was clearly in violation of federal law, in violation of the Constitution, they were engaged in illegal wiretapping. They were engaged in using the federal Internal Revenue Service to get even with people that they opposed. They broke into a doctor’s office. They did various flagrant legal and Constitutional violations. I don’t see that in the Bush administration, but I do see a war going forward supposedly in the name of fighting terrorism, which we never should have entered. And we never should have entered the Vietnam conflict, so I think just about every American now knows that Vietnam was a disaster. Who is any longer going it defend that war knowing what we know about it now? I think we will come to that conclusion eventually on Iraq. Iraq was no threat whatsoever to the United States. They had nothing to do with the 9/11 tragedy, so what are we doing over there? But apparently now we’re trying to superimpose a government on Iraq that may or may not be able to stand the test of time, but in any event, we’re losing young American soldiers over there every day in a war that can’t be won, and shouldn’t be won. We never should have been there in the first place. I thought one of the ironies of the 2004 presidential campaign is that the vice president especially led the assault on John Kerry’s war record. Here is a young man who volunteered and fought bravely in Vietnam. He believed what we were doing at that time and today, Cheney is one of the few people in the country that still thinks the Vietnam War was a good idea, but he never participated. He didn’t volunteer. He says that he had other priorities than going off to war in that period or in Korea or any other conflict, and yet he was willing to question the integrity of John Kerry. Now, John Kerry came back from the war, began to read about it, began to study it as a very young man. He was just a youngster. Even after he came back from the war and had the same courage when he reached a conclusion that the war was wrong to come out against it publicly and said this war is a mistake. And he was right, I think, to show his convictions in both instances, and to have a man like that attacked as he was for his war record and then for deciding the war was a mistake, I think is a political outrage.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Senator McGovern, if George Bush wins, where do we go from here? If John Kerry wins, same question.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, we have got to try to get the country back together regardless of whether in the last result it’s Kerry or Bush. No matter which one is finally designated our president for the next four years, an effort has to be made to bring the country back. It’s obviously that we’re divided as we have not been in my memory on this issue, on the issue of the war, on the issue of this huge tax cut. This is the first time in American history that we have gone to war and accompanied it with a great big tax cut for the people that least need it — usually we have to raise taxes to keep from going hopelessly into debt during a war. So, we have got serious, serious problems before the country. It’s going to be difficult to get the country united again, but of course, I love this country above all others. There’s never been a day in my life that I wouldn’t sacrifice that life in the interest of this country. So, we want America to be strong. We want it to be united. We certainly want it to — want it to retain its freedoms, and I hope that’s going to be possible despite this overheated and divisive election.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator George McGovern, I want to thank you for being with us. Senator from South Dakota for 18 years, 1962 to 1980, democratic candidate for president in 1972. From the state now where Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle, has been defeated by John Thune. Thanks for being with us.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Thanks to you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!

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