University at Albany
(From Left) Professor Bruce Miroff, Senator George S. McGovern, former Rockefeller College Dean Jeffrey D. Straussman, and UAlbany President George M. Philip

Rockefeller Remembers Senator George McGovern

On September 30, 2009, Rockefeller College had the privilege of hosting Liberal icon and former Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern for a campus wide conversation with the UAlbany community. Sadly we lost Senator McGovern yesterday (October 21, 2012). He passed away at the age of 90 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, surrounded by his family and dearest friends. Today we mourn the loss of a gentleman and statesman, but we celebrate his life, leadership, and legacy of courageous public service. During his visit to Rockefeller, the senator spoke at length about another American giant -- Abraham Lincoln. As we reflect on the contributions of Senator McGovern, only weeks away from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, it seems particularly fitting to share that interview conducted by Professor Bruce Miroff.

George McGovern

A Q & A with Senator George McGovern
(from September 30, 2009)

In Abraham Lincoln, George McGovern offers a unique insight into the 16th president, and shows how Lincoln sometimes went astray, particularly in his restrictions on civil liberties, and how he adjusted and transformed the Civil War from a political dispute to a moral crusade. Before a standing room only crowd in University Hall, Professor Miroff asked Senator McGovern to share insights about his hero.

Q: I think our audience will want to hear not only your perspective on Lincoln’s life, and especially his presidency, but also how your own political life might have shaped your views of him. Lincoln was a product of the American prairies as are you. Do you view him as having distinctive qualities, character, or virtues that reflect particular facets of a prairie upbringing?

A: As an educator, which I was for a while, I’m tremendously impressed with what he did with very meager tools to educate himself. I had known before I started this book that he only had a couple of years of formal education, but in that two years, maybe a year and a half, he learned how to read and he learned how to write and he never quit. He read everything he could get his hands on. I feel a little bit guilty. I live in a rather modest house back in Mitchell, South Dakota, but I must have 2000 books, at the very least, in that house. Lincoln had to content himself for a while with the King James Version of the Bible, which he mastered. His father was a hardworking farmer and Lincoln didn’t like farming. I don’t know whether in his speeches he made as many references to farming as I do -- you know running for office in South Dakota -- but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like farming. So his father would give him an assignment. His father would become highly irritated when he found Lincoln leaning against a tree reading a book in the middle of the afternoon. He kept that up all of his life. So I admire that quality in him a great deal. I’ve also prided myself on trying to write as well I can. Lincoln worked on that very hard. When he had a speech to give, sometimes he’d work on it for two or three weeks, reading and then polishing, and adding and taking away. When he became president, he’d call in one or more members of his cabinet and he would have that person read his speech draft and then he’d take notes on something that jarred his ear. Then he would get up and deliver the speech and ask Secretary Seward or whoever was the critic for that particular speech to comment on it. That great phrase from the first inaugural, where Lincoln ends a dramatic buildup by appealing, telling the American people, he “appeals to the better angels of their nature.” Great phrase! I wish I’d have thought of that. Seward thought of that line, not Lincoln. He said to Lincoln, “I think that particular phrase that you have is a little flat, a little dull.” And so Lincoln said, “What would you suggest?” He said, “I’d end that by an appeal to the better angels of our natures.” So you see, it shows you can learn from subordinates.

Q: In your book, you emphasize Lincoln was an ambitious man and a career politician. What do we miss if we regard Lincoln only as an idealist or as a humanitarian figure?

A: I think for one thing you would miss the fact that he was a very shrewd politician. We all know that he was a statesman. We all know that he had a vision of the kind of America he wanted us to be. But he was also a very clever politician. The way he handled the slavery issue was not the way that a completely dedicated 100% idealist would handle it. When he was trying to convince the South that they should stay in the Union, he said that if he could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves, he would do that, but the Union had to prevail. Or, if he could save the Union by freeing some of the slaves and holding others, which is what he eventually did, he would do that, but the Union must prevail. Now the Abolitionists thought that was a copout. If you’re against slavery they thought, for God’s sake, say it and join with us. Let’s free these slaves today. Not Lincoln, the politician who was desperately eager to keep the South in the United States. That’s just one example. He lifted the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the war -- not the work of an idealist -- as a violation of the law and of the Constitution. He closed down several prominent newspapers because he thought they were excessively critical of the administration -- not the work of an idealist. But he was a great humanitarian. He was a great statesman as well as an adroit politician.

Q: During the Vietnam War, you eloquently spoke of the terrible suffering on both the American and Vietnamese sides. You wrote the following in your book: “Lincoln sought to embrace the suffering of others rather than distance himself from it. He mourned those men who lost their lives, and as the death tolls reached unimaginable numbers, his grief became nearly unbearable.” How did Lincoln cope with the horrors of the war in which he was the Commander-in-Chief on the Union side?

A: Some biographers scarcely mention that fact that Lincoln suffered from what we would call clinical depression. He called it melancholy. The doctors in those days didn’t even know what depression was, but Lincoln did. He suffered from it from early manhood until the day he died. And it was a frightful affliction. It was so bad, that many times he seriously considered suicide. When he was in the Illinois State Senate, he told one of his colleagues that he no longer carried a jackknife for fear that at one of these moments in deep despondency, he would use the jackknife to slit his throat. When he was 35 years old, he told his law partner, Bill Herndon, “I think I may be the most miserable man on this planet.” And so, that’s the way it was. No medical help. They had none of the drugs that we have today, no Paxil, no Lithium, no electric shock therapy. None of that. And so he was a very sad, and sometimes deeply depressed, human being. It’s hard to find a photograph of Lincoln where he’s smiling. He thought he had a very ugly face. I didn’t think so. I always thought Lincoln had a noble face but it was a face that wasn’t brimming with smiles. So, I think his own suffering gave him identification with people who were suffering for various reasons. He lost two of his sons while they were just young boys in the White House and those things put him into deep, deep despondency. I think that is one of the things that enabled him to identify with the soldiers. That was a terrible war, just an awful war. Six hundred thousand young guys killed and at least that many who lost legs, or arms, or who were crippled in one way or another. It was the bloodiest war in American history. That 600,000 dead is just about the same as the number of Americans who died in WWI and WWII combined. And, of course, the figure was so high because everyone who was killed on both sides was an American. So, it was awful. Lincoln spent a lot of time in the battle areas visiting troops and he frequently slept in the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, DC. I think he spent 42 nights there in one year and he enjoyed being around soldiers and he empathized with their suffering, whether they were Southerners or Northerners. He said several times about the South, “Well, when this war is over, let’s let ‘em up easy,” meaning the South. It’s too bad he didn’t live to direct the Reconstruction after the war.

Q:President Obama has clearly shown a great interest in his fellow Illinoisan, President Abraham Lincoln. Do you see in Obama some of the promise of some of the things that we see realized in Abraham Lincoln as President?

A: Well, I think so. You know the fact that the American people elected a black man as president of the United States, that’s a tremendous victory for Americans, that after all these years we’re willing to elect a black president. We came very close to nominating for the first time a woman for the Democratic nominee for president, and possibly the next president if that had happened. In 2008 two big barriers, I think, were broken, the barrier on race and the barrier on gender. Hillary in effect broke that barrier by coming within an inch of becoming the nominee. Those were great victories Lincoln would have applauded.

George McGovern, the son of a South Dakota Presbyterian-Methodist minister, was appointed by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as director of the Food for Peace program. After two terms in the House, he was elected United States Senator from South Dakota. During his time in the Senate, he launched two presidential bids, including his first run in 1968, which ended in a primary loss to Hubert Humphrey, and the subsequent loss to Richard Nixon in 1972. President Gerald Ford named McGovern to the United Nations General Assembly in 1976, and two years later President Jimmy Carter named him a United Nations delegate for the Special Session on Disarmament. He left the Senate in 1980. In 2001, McGovern became the UN Ambassador on World Hunger and, in 2008, he and Senator Bob Dole became World Food Prize Laureates for their campaigns to end global hunger. Senator McGovern, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lives in Mitchell, South Dakota.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 Rockefeller College News Magazine.