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George McGovern Dies at 90: Remembering Democratic Senator, Antiwar Candidate’s Life and Legacy

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The former South Dakota senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern has died at the age of 90. McGovern is best known for running against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election on a platform of withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, reducing defense spending and providing amnesty to those who evaded the draft. We’re joined by Stephen Vittoria, director of the documentary, “One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman at the Community Media Center of Marin in San Rafael, California.

Memorial services are scheduled to begin Thursday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for former Democratic senator and presidential candidate George McGovern. He died Sunday at the age of 90. Senator McGovern is best known for running against Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election on a platform of withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, reducing defense spending, providing amnesty to those who evaded the draft. On Election Day, McGovern won only one state, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Within two years, Nixon would become the first U.S. president to resign. McGovern served in the Senate from 1963 to 1981.

On Friday, we aired extended excerpts of the 2005 documentary, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. In a moment, we’ll be joined by the film’s director, Stephen Vittoria, but first we go back to George McGovern’s 1972 speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.

SEN. GEORGE McGOVERN: And this is also a time, not for death, but for life. In 1968, many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins. I have no secret plan for peace; I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past 10 years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on inaugural day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and back home in America where they belong. Then—and then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

AMY GOODMAN: The late George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. With us here in San Rafael, California, Stephen Vittoria, director of the 2005 documentary, One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern.

Steve Vittoria, in addition to doing the documentary, you came close to Senator McGovern. Give us a thumbnail sketch of George McGovern’s life.

STEPHEN VITTORIA: Well, first, Amy, I want to thank you and Democracy Now! for embracing George McGovern’s life and legacy. For 40 or 50 years, the right wing in this country, along with the so-called “liberal” corporate media has stomped all over his character. And the man spent his life fighting for peace, fighting for justice, fighting to feed people. So this is a great example of independent media speaking truth to power. So thank you.

I became very close with George McGovern. I didn’t want to make the film unless he was behind making the film. It would have been very difficult to do the film without him. We’re going to talk about my Mumia film. That was very difficult to do the film without Mumia.

But George was—he was an—just an amazing politician, in that he came from a state, South Dakota, that was incredibly conservative. In the 1950s, it was a one-party state: Republican. And he and his wife Eleanor, for years, crisscrossed that state together and literally brought back a moribund Democratic Party and created two-party politics in South Dakota. I know we want three- and four-party politics, but he had to get two-party politics first. And he became a congressman in 1956.

And right from the very beginning, he was—he was somebody that just bucked the system constantly. He bucked the system when John F. Kennedy was president, with Fidel Castro—he thought America had a Castro fixation. And as we know, George McGovern was also the earliest and probably most trenchant voice against the Vietnam War.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he opposed to the embargo against Cuba?

STEPHEN VITTORIA: I do not know. I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: The Vietnam War, talk about his growing activism against it. Was he against the war from the beginning?

STEPHEN VITTORIA: He was very much against the war from the beginning. He did in fact vote for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and it’s a vote that George, to his dying day, regretted making. There are only two senators that voted against that Gulf of Tonkin Resolution: Morse and Gruening. And George told us in the film, and he told me on many occasions, that he should have never believed what he was being told by both the Kennedy and the Johnson White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Which was?

STEPHEN VITTORIA: Which was that this was going to be a kind of a humanitarian effort, it was going to be quick, and that the Gulf of Tonkin was just to make sure that the soldiers had what they needed.

AMY GOODMAN: His speeches, some of the most powerful against the war, saying another American boy should not die for a foreign dictator.

STEPHEN VITTORIA: That’s right. And one of George’s most famous quotes was “I’m sick and tired of old men dreaming up new wars for young men to die in.” And, you know, I think he was—that was something that he held very, very tight his whole life.

AMY GOODMAN: You spent a lot of time talking to Senator McGovern.


AMY GOODMAN: What did you learn about him that maybe others don’t know?

STEPHEN VITTORIA: In World War II, George McGovern was a decorated bomber pilot. He flew 35 missions over Nazi-occupied Germany, when the average lifespan of a crew was about 17 or 18 bombing missions. Very much like Howard Zinn, after the war he had incredible nightmares and guilt about, from the wild blue yonder, what his bombs were doing to the people on the ground. And George lived with that. And I think, obviously, that was one of the main reasons that he had this antiwar stance throughout his entire career.

He told me—we were in a car on the way to breakfast in Montauk on Long Island at the Hamptons Film Festival, and I felt like he wanted to share something with me. It was almost like a mea culpa. And he told me that he honestly believed that he was a pacifist and that, for an American politician, that’s not the kind of thing that you want to roll out in front of the American public. At that time, George was 83, 84, 85 years old. And I said to him, “George, what—what the hell’s the difference right now? You’re not running for anything. This would be a remarkable—a remarkable statement for you to make, and to kind of, you know, just go that extra few yards.” But he wanted to hold on, I think, to the valor and the glory of what he considered to be the good war. And—but I know, stealing the title from David Swanson’s book, War Is a Lie, that George completely believed that war is a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. Why do you say “forgotten”? And what do you think are the lessons that Democratic candidates of the future took from George McGovern, since he won only one state plus the District of Columbia? He won Massachusetts.

STEPHEN VITTORIA: Yeah. It truly felt to me like it was the forgotten summer of George McGovern. I was a teenager at the time, and I worked very hard on the campaign—couldn’t vote for him, but I worked for him. And, you know, there were—I believe the 1960s, the social revolutions of the 1960s, absolutely came to an end in 1972. The people that cut their teeth on the antiwar movement and civil rights movement, the women’s movement, they came together on George McGovern’s campaign.

And I’ll give you two examples, kind of a tale of two cities, people that came out of that—those campaigns, and you can see why it was the forgotten summer. On the negative side, you had Bill and Hillary Clinton, who both worked tirelessly for George McGovern. And here we are all these years later, and it seems like Bill and Hillary Clinton are kind of hit men for the Mob. It doesn’t seem like they learned anything from the George McGovern campaign or from the 1960s. Michael Moore, on the other hand, worked tirelessly for George McGovern, and we see what he did with that campaign and what he learned in that campaign, and he took the ideas of fighting war, fighting hatred, fighting poverty, and he’s put it to work in his career, he’s put it to work in his films. So, there were an awful lot of people who kind of sold out from the George McGovern campaign, and it truly was a forgotten summer. A few people held on to it.

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