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Fmr. Presidential Candidate George McGovern on the 2008 Race and How He Helped Transform the Democratic Nominating Process

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Former senator and 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern joins us in our firehouse studio to talk about the 2008 presidential race, superdelegates and the commission he chaired in 1968 that helped transform how the Democratic Party chooses its presidential nominee. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: Voters head to the polls today in Mississippi for another closely watched primary between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It’s the last primary before Pennsylvania votes on April 22nd.

Senator Obama is expected to win in Mississippi and slightly increase his delegate lead. But the Associated Press reports neither Obama nor Clinton will be able to win enough pledge delegates to win the nomination prior to the convention, even if Florida and Michigan hold a new round of voting. This means the nomination will rest in the hands of the party’s nearly 800 superdelegates.

Today, we’re going to be joined by former senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. Four years prior to his 1972 run for the White House, McGovern chaired the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection. The McGovern Commission helped transform how the party chose its presidential nominee.

In 1982, the Democratic National Committee approved a new series of reforms, including the establishment of superdelegates to give the party more direct control over the selection of presidential candidates.

To talk more about the presidential race and selection process, George McGovern joins us in the firehouse studio. He is a former US senator from South Dakota. In ’72 he lost to Richard Nixon in the presidential election. He has endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton.

We are also joined by Jim Hightower, the syndicated columnist, author, radio commentator. His latest book is Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow. He served two terms as Texas agriculture commissioner and served as a superdelegate at the 1992 Democratic Convention. He has endorsed Senator Barack Obama for president.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! But I want to go back first to that 1968 commission that, Senator McGovern, you chaired before you ran for president that really transformed the way the Democratic presidential candidate was chosen. How did it happen? What did you decide then?

GEORGE McGOVERN: The basic change that that reform commission recommended, which was adopted by the party and is still in place thirty-five years later, was that those delegate slates that pick the nominee of the party for president had to have some reasonable relationship to the population of the state. In other words, if half the state were women and half were men, the delegates should be roughly the same. We didn’t set up percentage quotas, but we said a reasonable relationship. If a state had 20 percent black people, then the delegation from that state should be roughly 20 percent black.

What we found when we started our work is that some of the states — many of them — had the delegates picked by one person, usually — or a little group of white middle-class, middle-aged males. I’m not against people like that. I was one myself at that time. But we have a much better balance now.

The ’72 convention, which was the first one to come under the new McGovern reforms, was pretty evenly balanced between men and women. You looked out over that convention floor. We also said that there should be some consideration given to age groups. Some of the biggest delegations to the ’68 convention didn’t have a single person thirty years of age or under, even though the transcendent issue of that time was the war in Vietnam, where everybody was under thirty. So we corrected some serious imbalances in the way the delegations were put together.

AMY GOODMAN: This followed 1964, Atlantic City convention, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, wanting to seat a new delegation to represent Mississippi.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Yes, that’s correct. The commission was mandated by the ’68 convention, and all of the candidates at that convention supported it, including Hubert Humphrey, who was our nominee that year, Gene McCarthy. I had taken over Bobby Kennedy’s delegation after he died. It was a bold thing to do, since I was running for reelection to the United States Senate in South Dakota, but I survived it and survived the reform commission. And I’m very proud of what that commission did.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, compare it to what we have today and the situation now with delegates and superdelegates, which you didn’t decide on in 1968.

GEORGE McGOVERN: No, the superdelegates were not part of the McGovern reforms, but they were a concession some years later to the party regulars who thought that certain people should automatically be delegates. If you were the governor of a state, if you were a United States senator, if you were the state chairperson, you should automatically be a delegate, up to a percentage of one-fourth of the total number of delegates. There always had to be three-fourths of the delegates going to the national convention who were elected according to our reform rules, but we made that one concession.

I think one of the things that produced it — we discovered in ’72, for example, that a nineteen-year-old McGovern young woman defeated Tip O’Neill in his home district of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well, Tip O’Neill should have been at the Democratic National Convention. Averell Harriman, running in New York, was defeated by another young person, a McGovern delegate.

AMY GOODMAN: And what’s wrong with this?

GEORGE McGOVERN: Nothing wrong with it, but we thought maybe as a concession to age and wisdom and stature and all of that business, that we should make a one-fourth concession. So we said one-fourth of the concession can be what we now call superdelegates.

AMY GOODMAN: Some say perhaps the superdelegates were chosen in reaction to 1972, your bid, and Carter’s bid, as well, that maybe the establishment did not favor you and wanted more of a say, sort of like the House of Commons versus the House of Lords.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Not only some say that, that’s absolutely the truth. It was a reaction to what they thought were candidates picked by young people, antiwar people, crusaders, and that the people that work at politics 365 days out of the year, like a senator or a congressman or a governor, were not making it to the conventions. So I want to confess that I supported that concession. I thought it was something we could live with. And so far, it hasn’t done any damage.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it hurt you in 1972? You were the first, really, election, presidential election, since your presidential — since the commission changed the voting system, that you had to race all the way to the convention, as we’re seeing right now, it looks like.

GEORGE McGOVERN: I think it probably did hurt us some in ’72, and it added to the image of me as an outsider. I never saw myself as an outsider. I organized the Democratic Party in South Dakota. I worked my tail off to do that. I was an organizational man. I’m not boasting about that, I’m just stating a fact, that I was not an outsider. They wouldn’t have asked me to chair that commission if they had seen me as an outsider. I did that under the urging of the late Hubert Humphrey and Fred Harris, who was our national Democratic chairman at that time. Neither one of those were outsiders, either.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Senator George McGovern. We’re going to go to a brief break. Then, when we come back, he will be joined by a former superdelegate himself. I don’t know if that’s how he defines himself these days, though it seems to become increasingly relevant. His new book is called Swim Against the Current, and he’s the former agricultural commissioner of Texas, Jim Hightower.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests in studio are George McGovern, the former senator, Democratic presidential candidate of 1972 — he has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president; Jim Hightower is also with us, the syndicated columnist, rabble-rouser, national radio commentator, bestselling author. He has just gone on the road with his new book Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow.

Jim, you are — you were a superdelegate, and you have been stumping for Barack Obama; why?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, a superdelegate — I’m going to have to freshen up my resume, I think. I don’t have that listed on there. But I felt really super about it in 1992. It didn’t mean anything back then.

AMY GOODMAN: Who chose you?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Just as Senator McGovern was indicating, you’re chosen by the party officials. I had just been the agriculture commission and so was allowed. I didn’t want to take a slot of a real delegate, so it was possible to slip me in there into that. And as I say, it didn’t mean a damn thing. You were still the same sort of delegate. You had the same level of vote and everything. But this time it’s different.

And yeah, I support Barack Obama. To me, the significant thing about the Obama phenomena is not him, it’s the phenomena, the fact that we have millions of new voters, excited voters, people who have not been voting in the past, but who feel that this time they matter and that they have a potential not just to send Obama to the White House, but for them to go into the White House, not just the party operatives, not just the usual special interests, but for the people themselves to be able to go in. I don’t think anybody thinks that Obama — and I don’t even think he thinks that there’s any sainthood here, there’s any magic going to come, just by him being president. But with him, I think we’ve got a potential to have a real progressive government, because the people themselves would be a force in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator George McGovern, you’ve made a different decision; you’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I endorsed Hillary last October. And I have to say that friendship had a lot to do with it. She and her then-boyfriend, a guy by the name of Bill Clinton, were the coordinators of the McGovern campaign in Texas in 1972. That was a brave undertaking. As Jim Hightower can testify, trying to sell George McGovern in Texas in 1972 was a daunting task. They worked their fannies off for me in ’72 all across that state. And so, when she decided to run for president, in a sense, it was kind of a “It’s my turn now.”

I have to tell you this, Jim, that I have ten grandchildren. All ten of them are working for Barack Obama. That’s an indication of the influence I have in my own family. I’ve got three daughters and one son. They’re all working for Barack. So I’m the old fogey in the McGovern family this year, unlike ’72, when I was way out in front.

But I agree with everything Jim Hightower said here, that Barack Obama has touched on a theme and a style and a content to his program that has brought millions of new people into the fold. That’s precisely what I did in 1972. We ran into all kinds of trouble once I was nominated, but we steered many of the same currents that are moving now. So I’ll be happy to support either Hillary or Barack, depending on which one wins the nomination. And whichever one wins, we’ll have a candidate that’s a country mile ahead of the opposition.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McGovern, if you were endorsing today, who would you endorse?

GEORGE McGOVERN: I would stay with Hillary. I don’t change my mind on things like this in the middle of the battle. I made the decision to back her, and I’ll stay with her. I don’t want to be jumping around from one candidate to another. And as I said, we’ve got two excellent candidates here, both well qualified. And I’ll be out campaigning for whichever one wins. Am I ducking your question? Yes.


GEORGE McGOVERN: Because I want to stay with the person I chose six months ago.

AMY GOODMAN: There was an interesting piece in the New York Times about how your whole group in 1972, they’re coming together around Hillary Clinton — “’72 McGovern Team Rallies for One of Its Own.” It says, “Frank Herrera, a prominent lawyer in Texas, was sitting at home two Saturdays ago when he received a [telephone] call. The voice at the end of the line was that of an old friend from Senator George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, who had since become the godfather, at least to some, of the Democratic Party. ‘We’ve been with you all these years,’ former President Bill Clinton said, according to Mr. Herrera. ‘Now the time has come for you to be with us,’” talking about Herrera, going back to your 1972 campaign.

“Garry Mauro, a veteran Texas Democrat who ran the Youth for McGovern operation, [is] now Mrs. Clinton’s state director. Roy Spence, an Austin advertising executive who created advertisements for the McGovern campaign, [is] deeply involved in [Mrs.] Clinton’s media strategy in Texas. Even a receptionist from the McGovern campaign, Nancy Williams, has been called back to lend a hand to the Clinton operation, conducting delegate training sessions from the campaign’s headquarters” in Austin.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, that makes me feel good, because I’ve noticed over the years that while we took a terrific beating at the hands of Richard Nixon in the fall, those so-called McGovern people are still in there battling for better government, for stronger candidates. I think they’ll be there the rest of their lives. And it’s one of the reasons, frankly, that I stand with Hillary in this effort, because I’ve got a long memory, and I know who stood for me thirty-five years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Barack Obama would have?

GEORGE McGOVERN: I think he’s a marvelous figure on the political scene. I had never met him at the time I endorsed Hillary, hadn’t even shaken hands with him at that time. But I’ve been very impressed with him. I see some of the same things in him that Jim Hightower does, and I’m glad he’s a candidate this year. I think he has shaken things up, and whether we win or lose with that particular candidacy, he’s already contributed a lot to the enrichment of American politics.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your quick comment, Senator McGovern, on something that is playing out right now in the state you’re visiting in New York, and of course it’s about the Governor, Governor Eliot Spitzer. I actually was in Albany yesterday as news of the allegations that he was caught in a federal sting calling an escort service. I was in Albany, interestingly enough, to give a keynote along with Governor Spitzer on the issue of reproductive rights and politics. A thousand people were there, and he canceled. It was yesterday morning. David Paterson, who could become the next governor of New York, was also there speaking, the Lieutenant Governor. But do you see a danger of a kind of explosion within the Democratic Party?

GEORGE McGOVERN: I don’t think it’s going to explode the Democratic Party. What we’re talking about here is a sin that’s as old as human beings. The two people I feel the sorriest for are the Governor and his wife. This is going to be a tough thing for them. I hope they can survive it. But Governor Spitzer has had an almost flawless public record over the years. I don’t know of any scandal that has touched this man. It seems like that in politics, when the Republicans get into trouble with sin, it’s over money. Somebody misplaced a billion dollars or $300 million or whatever it is. When the Democrats get in trouble, it’s sex. And —-

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you have Senator Vetter from Louisiana, got in trouble with an escort. He’s still senator from Louisiana, just introduced legislation that Native American women can’t have abortions with federal funding. And then, of course, you have the scandal around Larry Craig, which was very different, but he remained senator, though he -—

GEORGE McGOVERN: Look, one of the most-honored figures in the Bible was King David, the man that wrote those wonderful psalms and who — you go to Israel today, and you stay in the King David Hotel in Israel. He had — he fell in — got a crush on the wife of one of his lieutenants, and he sent the poor guy up to the battlefront and got him killed so he could have his wife. Eliot Spitzer hasn’t done anything like that. I’m not trying to minimize this —-

AMY GOODMAN: Are you comparing Eliot Spitzer to King David?

GEORGE McGOVERN: Yeah, in a way. King David asked God to forgive him, and I believe he did. He asked the people to forgive him, and I believe they did. And he went on to become a great religious and political leader of the Israelis. So we have to take these things in some kind of perspective. Should the Governor have thought more carefully about what he was doing before he got mixed up with this woman? Of course, he should. So should King David have thought more carefully about his actions. But this is a sin, not a crime, as I understand it. I don’t think he’s accused of any crimes. I think it’s obviously a sin and something that’s very embarrassing and horrendous for his wife and his family. But I’m going to leave it in their judgment. I’m not going to try to pass judgment on somebody else’s sin.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Hightower?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Maybe the greatest sin here was that it was not just a street prostitute, but a $5,000-an-hour prostitute. You know, I mean, people can’t make their house payments, and here this guy is laying down $5,000. I don’t know about you, George, but I would be worried. What if you ran over a couple of minutes? I mean, is it another $5,000?

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of sin, perhaps it’s something you considered a sin decades ago -— the Vietnam War. I wanted to ask, bringing it to the 2008 presidential race, Henry Kissinger has endorsed John McCain. Your thoughts on that?

GEORGE McGOVERN: Well, I worry about John McCain. He’s one of the few people in public life that still thinks the war in Vietnam was a good idea. It was an utter, unmitigated disaster. And anyone who can’t see that after all these years, I have some questions about, in terms of where they may lead us in the future. He voted for the war in Iraq and not only thinks that was a good idea, he wants more troops over there. I think it was a disastrous idea and that we ought to be bringing our troops home, not talking about surges and sending more troops over there to be shot at.

The paper today has a story that five soldiers were in a market in Baghdad yesterday, got blown up by one of these hand bombs. We’re never going to have peace and stability in Iraq until we get our troops out of there. Part of the trouble is a revolt on the part of the people of Iraq against the presence of a foreign army in their country. You can always find a few people who are glad they’re there, but they’re a small minority, according to the polls. So, rather than have Senator McCain still basking in the glories of Vietnam and still supporting this unfortunate war in Iraq, I think we need somebody like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who say, if they’re elected, they’re going to get the troops out of there.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you think they are?


AMY GOODMAN: They have not talked about immediate withdrawal.

GEORGE McGOVERN: No, they haven’t, and I wish they would. I wish — I’d like to have a time certain. I wrote a book with one of our best Middle East experts, Bill Polk, in which we called a year-and-a-half ago for a six-month withdrawal period. There’s no reason why it should take more than six months. People ask how we’re going to do it. One way to do it is to put them in trucks and head for the border. That’s how we got in there.

AMY GOODMAN: Jim Hightower, your book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish Can Go with the Flow, is about going against the current. Talk about.

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, there’s all this excitement about change in this political election year, but what Senator McGovern was indicating earlier was a lot of the people who were involved in his campaign have been a part of change all of those years and will continue to be. And we have a whole new generation, as well, of people who didn’t just start with the Obama campaign, didn’t just start this year, but have been developing change at a grassroots level for some time in the political sphere, in business, in healthcare, in religion, even in banking, in a lot of different ways. And Susan DeMarco and I have — we’ve come across these people in our many travels as we go around the country, and we realize these are the mutts and mavericks that really make up America and the very best spirit of people who buck the system. And we thought, well, why not tell their stories?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, tell us some of their stories. You talk about escaping the corporate tentacles.

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, take business. We write about a fellow, Chris Johnson, who’s a pharmacist making $100,000 a year with a chain drugstore down in Texas, and he said, “It just made me sick to my stomach.” And what made him sick was, people would come up with their prescriptions, he would fill them, present them to them and present the bill, and they would back away and walk out without their money — without their prescription. They couldn’t afford them. Yet, as a corporate functionary, he had no ability to say, “Well, wait a minute. We’ll work something out here.”

And so, he spun off and created MedSavers, a little company that is a single pharmacy, a barebones operation, serving people who have no insurance at all or whose policies don’t include prescriptions, primarily generic drugs. And he’s able to provide medicine — for example, a pill that sells for $59 for ninety capsules, he can sell for $16. He knew the obscene profits that were built into those medicines, and he’s able to cut that down to a manageable level for families.

He feels better about himself. He’s got his hours set now, so he can be at home with his children in the morning for breakfast, take them to school, be at home, put them to bed. His whole life has improved. He has a relationship with the people who come in; they shoot the breeze. It’s a more personal thing, and he says it’s a matter of setting your work according to your values. And people are doing that all across the country, people are, in business, in politics and across the board.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the conscience of an evangelical.

JIM HIGHTOWER: Well, this is one of the more remarkable things that the progressive side has not figured out yet. There’s a profound change taking place among evangelical Christians, really a generational change. They speak of young people, by which they mean younger than fifty. But the older leaders, primarily political leaders of the evangelical movement — James Dobson, Pat Robertson, these folks — are so out of touch with their own movement that the movement is now going around them.

And we write about a fellow, Rich Cizik. He’s the chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C. This is the main line. These are not the liberals. This is the main line, thirty million people, 45,000 churches. He had what he calls a second altar call, when he went to a scientific meeting in London on global warming. He was overwhelmed by the science, and then he realized: I have to go talk about this; I can’t just be quiet, because the Bible is very clear, you must be the steward, you have to take care of the garden. And obviously, we’re not taking care of the garden. And so, it became a biblical awakening. That’s how it reached them.

But however it reached them, it doesn’t much matter, because the result is that evangelical leaders, particularly some of the younger ones, are now teaming up with Nobel Prize-winning scientists to present a very bold agenda on — not just that we must personally take responsibility, but they talk of a structural sin, by which they mean corporations. We’ve got to reel in these corporate powers and governments that are sanctioning these corporate actions to be better stewards of our world.

AMY GOODMAN: Clean elections?

JIM HIGHTOWER: Oh, this is the most wonderful story in America, I think, and underreported, except on great shows like Democracy Now! People say, oh, well, you can’t get the corrupt money out of politics; they find loopholes around them. Well, you’ve got to tell that to the people of Maine and North Carolina, New Mexico and Arizona, Connecticut and other states and cities that have passed public financing of their elections. And it just has remarkable results.

In Maine, for example, they’ve now had four election cycles with public financing, meaning if you take — if you don’t take private money, you get an equivalent sum of money that makes you competitive from public funds. The result in Maine has been that now 83 percent of their senate, 84 percent of their house, had been elected without taking a dime in corporate money. And it’s totally changed the politics of that state.

North Carolina has done it just for their judicial elections, and the result of that — by the way, they had a real fun thing to win it. The Republicans in the legislature had opposed it as a bloc. And one of their strategies of the coalition that was pushing the clean election alternative was to get school teachers to call their former students who were in the legislature and say, “Johnny, don’t make me have to come to Raleigh. Did you learn anything that I taught you?” But one more point, that now in North Carolina, they’ve had two election cycles. Of the six seats up in 2004 on the Supreme Court and Appeals Court down there, five were elected without corporate money. And in the last election, six of the five were elected again, including four women — now have a woman chief justice of the Supreme Court. She says, “Clearly, without public financing, I could not have done it.”

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Senator McGovern, two big stories of this year, not counting how many votes Barack Obama has, how many votes Hillary Clinton has, in each caucus and primary, and even John McCain, but adding them all together, this phenomenal explosion of new voters coming in or voters returning, that’s one part. The other part, what Jim is referring to right now, is also the money, the hundreds of millions of dollars, tens of millions so far, well over, that is being spent. Do you ever think we’ll see clean campaign funding, public campaign financing?

GEORGE McGOVERN: I think that’s the trend. It is almost mind-boggling, the amount of money that has been raised already by these candidates. I read where — I think it was Barack had raised $50 million in one month. If you go back to ’72 —

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll see a billion-dollar election.

GEORGE McGOVERN: Yeah, I think so. But back in ’72, I won eleven primaries, won the nomination, went to the national convention, found out the Democratic National Committee was broke. My campaign paid for the national convention. Then we had the general election against Nixon. The whole thing, from the day I announced for the nomination until I conceded to Nixon, $32 million. Each candidate is spending that much every month in this race. So I’m all with Jim Hightower on the need for public financing. We could then put some limitation on how much money went to each of the candidates, the challenger and the incumbent. And it’s the only way to really ensure honest elections, the public financing of campaigns.

JIM HIGHTOWER: And by the way, Senator Dick Durbin has legislation in the Congress right now for national public financing of congressional races.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jim Hightower and Senator George McGovern, I want to thank you both for being with us. I know, Jim, you’ll be tonight at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York tonight at 7:00. Senator McGovern, thanks for being here. Good to have you in New York.

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