WASHINGTON - George McGovern, the liberal Democrat who ran against President Richard Nixon in 1972 and lost every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, is a quiet man not given to invectives or I-told-you-sos.
For the nearly 31 years since he went down to dismal defeat trying to convince American voters that the Vietnam War was a wrongheaded effort and that Mr. Nixon was involved in the Watergate scandal of the same year, Mr. McGovern has pretty much held his tongue about those two correct assessments.
But the other day he was stirred by a newspaper opinion piece by Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, hailing what the author saw as the Democratic Party "moving way from McGovernism and back to its international roots."
Mr. Marshall claimed that the support for the Iraq war by four of the leading Democratic presidential aspirants - dubbed by him "Blair Democrats" for agreeing with British Prime Minister Tony Blair - showed "they reject the left's attempts to cast Democrats as a reflexively anti-war party."
Casting Mr. McGovern, at least by implication, as "reflexively anti-war" got the old World War II fighter pilot's back up. Replying in an opinion piece of his own, he asked why Mr. Marshall "concluded that I'm opposed to internationalism and the use of force in the national interest."
Citing his 35 combat missions in Europe, Mr. McGovern noted World War II "was clearly in our national interest, and that's why I volunteered at the age of 19 to be part of it." He opposed the Vietnam War, he wrote, "not because I had ceased to be an internationalist" but because it was "a disastrous folly" in which "we were never more isolated from the international community."
He went on: "A close second in isolating us from the international community was the invasion of Iraq, a largely defenseless little desert state that posed no threat to us and had taken no action against us. The best way to support our troops is to keep them out of needless wars such as Iraq and Vietnam."
While he was at it, Mr. McGovern took a shot at "the Bush doctrine of `pre-emptive war' - what heretofore has been known as aggression or invasion. We don't measure a nation's internationalism by the number of troops it sends to other countries. By that test, Adolf Hitler would be the greatest internationalist of the 20th century."
This was strong stuff from an old politician known for his benign and courteous demeanor, to the point of being criticized in his heyday for accepting his 1972 shellacking without a whimper. But being called an isolationist was too much for him.
"I might add for Marshall's edification," he wrote, "that I would not have won the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 - winning 11 primaries, including the two largest states, New York and California - if I had been perceived as an isolationist. I also believe that if the disgraceful conduct of President Richard Nixon during that campaign had been known before the election, I would have been elected. If so, I would have led as an internationalist unafraid to use force in the national interest."
I tracked Mr. McGovern down in Montana and he told me that this may have been the first time in print he had ever said "I told you so" about Mr. Nixon. Others may disagree that he could have won in 1972 had voters known about Mr. Nixon's involvement in Watergate. To Mr. McGovern's credit, he did his best to tell them during that campaign, but he says now the label of "radical" that the Nixon campaign hung on him seemed to have worked.
Thirty-one years later, however, he wasn't about to turn the other cheek about a charge that "McGovernism" was an abandonment of the Democratic Party's "international roots." As he also noted, he directed the International Food for Peace program under President John F. Kennedy and was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome under President Bill Clinton.
At 80, George McGovern remains soft-spoken, uncomplaining - and liberal. It takes a lot to get him riled up, but he's not going to sit still at being called an isolationist.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.