McGovern lives to hear the pre-funeral eulogies

April 11, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- At the National Archives the other day the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern, sat in a front row for nearly seven hours as a series of academics and political figures reviewed his long public career.

''It's like advancing your own funeral service,'' he said with a wry grin during daylong symposium commemorating his 75th birthday in July.

But unlike a real funeral service, full of excessive praise and exaggeration of virtues, this retrospective of a man still going strong painted a George McGovern of shortcomings as well as achievements.

The man who rode to his party's presidential nomination as an early and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War heard one speaker, Robert Mann, writing a book on the impact of the Vietnam War on the Senate, say Mr. McGovern was ''a work in progress'' who started out as ambivalent on the war, at one stage was guilty of ''complicity'' with President Lyndon B. Johnson and only gradually became a ''prophet'' of the disaster to come.

Mr. Mann said the South Dakota senator's ''greatest failure'' may have been his refusal to challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination in 1968, when he might have been a more effective challenger than Eugene McCarthy proved to be. Such a candidacy, he speculated, might have dissuaded Sen. Robert F. Kennedy from entering the race and splitting the anti-war vote with McCarthy, and he might have gone on to win the nomination himself. That fanciful notion did not consider that LBJ, who feared the Kennedy political magic, might not have withdrawn had he faced the little-known McGovern, not RFK.

Mr. McGovern remarked only that he thought the word ''complicity'' to describe his early caution on openly opposing the president of his own party on Vietnam might have been ''a bit strong.''

His 1964 vote for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution giving LBJ a free hand on Vietnam, he said, came in the context of the challenge by Vietnam hawk Barry Goldwater to Johnson's re-election, and he certainly did not want to see Goldwater taking over American conduct of the war. Mr. McGovern has said his Tonkin vote was his greatest regret.

"Reeks of blood"

Mr. Mann did credit Mr. McGovern with eventually leading the critical effort in the Senate to cut off funds for the conduct of the war, chastising his fellow senators by telling them in 1970 that ''this chamber reeks of blood'' of the thousands killed in Vietnam.

Another panelist, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, playing his erratic self to the hilt, chided Mr. McGovern for having gone to the funeral of President Richard M. Nixon, whom Mr. Thompson described as ''a lying dog.'' But he also thanked Mr. McGovern for providing him his most interesting times on the campaign trail in 1972.

Mr. McGovern's former speech writer Bob Shrum and former press secretary and political adviser Frank Mankiewicz reflected that had Mr. McGovern been able to win 10 or so states in 1972 (he won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) he might well have remained viable for the Democratic nomination in 1976, and might have been elected.

Another look back came from Daniel Ellsberg, the Defense Department official who leaked the Pentagon Papers and blew the lid off official dissembling on the war. He said that, unlike Mr. McGovern in 1964, he knew that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was built on a deception and that Johnson was planning to escalate the war after his re-election. ''And the reason [Mr. McGovern] didn't know,'' Mr. Ellsberg said, ''was because I didn't tell him.''

Mr. McGovern confirmed in a brief interview that he didn't know, and had been convinced that LBJ wanted the war over because it was a diversion and an impediment to the ambitious domestic agenda that was closest to his heart.

The day's retrospective was like George McGovern himself -- candid and without vindictiveness about a man who, as was said about RFK at his funeral service, ''saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.''

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/11/97

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