George McGovern may be the forgotten man of Watergate. He was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, but despite warning voters that the break-in at the Watergate signified deeper transgressions inside Richard Nixon's White House, McGovern was relegated to history as an overwhelming loser. He challenges that notion in a 1997 interview with Political Reporter Chuck Raasch of Gannett News Service.
GNS: Does (the break-in) seem like 25 years?
McGOVERN: You know, in some respects it does. So many things have happened since then, but still it is hard for me to believe that a whole quarter of a century has passed since that event. That came just about a month before I was nominated at the Democratic National Convention.
GNS: What do you hold with you most about Watergate?
McGOVERN: I have always thought that the most shabby aspects of Watergate and the most disturbing came after the break-in, in the form of the cover-up activities that the president himself directed. It is hard for me yet to believe that a sitting president could actually use the majesty and power of that office to try to manipulate government agencies and intimidate people and buy them off. This wasn't some hastily thought-up thing. This was a carefully orchestrated cover-up running over several months, involving the president himself.
GNS: Have you listened to any of the Nixon tapes at the National Archives?
McGOVERN: I have never heard one of those tapes. I have read releases on them, including some of the recent ones, which are also unbelievable.
GNS: You haven't listened on purpose or haven't had the time?
McGOVERN: I just haven't had the time, really. Someday I will go out and do that. I know my name comes up from time to time.
GNS: Was Watergate predestined, regardless of Richard Nixon?
McGOVERN: I think Nixon had the mentality to bring that about. It isn't that he was the first flawed president we have had. But Nixon had this sense of being put upon by the press and by the establishment, even though he was certainly a part of the establishment. He always, I thought, from the beginning of his career, saw himself as a kind of a loner knocking on the gates. I would say this: I think Vietnam predestined Watergate. There was something about that war and the credibility problems associated with it that set the stage for Watergate. I am convinced there never would have been a Watergate scandal had it not been for the Vietnam War.
GNS: But were the events of Watergate itself, at its core, all Nixon?
McGOVERN: I think so. I think that this was an outgrowth of a career in which he had cut corners and felt that anything goes in terms of achieving his objective.
GNS: The well-worn psychological profile of Richard Nixon was that he was in his heart a very insecure and a bitter man, stemming from the fact that he was not a child of privilege, nor the Ivy League. Yet, you came from a similar background. What was the difference?
McGOVERN: Nixon had every reason actually to be confident and grateful for the openings that came to him. It has never been quite clear to me why he felt so persecuted and unappreciated. But I think it is true that that's what he felt. I thought that that Oliver Stone film ("Nixon") was right on the mark. Maybe exaggerated for dramatic purposes. But I can't explain the differences. You know, Hubert Humphrey came out of a tough background, too ... and struggling in a small business. A lot of people haven't shown the same kind of paranoia that Nixon did.
GNS: But an insecure figure would not have reached out to China. There was a side of Nixon that a lot of people have chosen to embrace in retrospect, including President Clinton. Do you see value in that side of him?
McGOVERN: I did after he left office. I began to see that the same kind of pragmatism that in his mind justified bending the Constitution and bending federal law to cover up Watergate on the grounds that this was the way to protect his presidency, that same kind of pragmatism meant that he could do things by going to China. It didn't fit his past ideology at all. It didn't fit what he had said for 30 years in American politics, but it did serve what he thought was the historical moment. And so he was willing to turn 180 degrees. It was a laudable move, but it probably would have been more difficult for someone who really believed and felt the importance of staying with his core belief.
GNS: When you were campaigning against Nixon in 1972, did you have any sense of the lasting effect that Watergate would have on the body politic?
McGOVERN: I didn't. I don't think I fully measured myself the long-term impact of it, the fact that it contributed so enormously to the cynicism in the country about the trustworthiness of our leaders. I was surprised the other day to hear my friend Joe Califano say that he had tried to get me to speak about Watergate during the campaign but couldn't get me alarmed about it. Any reporter who was with me during that campaign knows that I never made a speech after the Watergate break-in without trying to alarm the country about the seriousness of it. But I have to concede that I didn't see the historic dimension about.
GNS: You made up with Richard Nixon, didn't you?
McGOVERN: In '84, 10 years after he resigned, I went to see him in New York. It was in January. Just about exactly 10 years from the time he resigned the office.
GNS: Why did you do that?
McGOVERN: I went up there to see if he would join with me in urging (President Ronald) Reagan to go to the summit with the Russians. Reagan had been in the White House for four years. I knew that Nixon's private view was that the president of the United States should never let a year go by without a summit meeting directly with the Soviet leader. He felt that was in our national security interest. That is one thing he felt deeply about, that the two superpowers had to talk to each other. And so after four years had gone by ... without any summit conference, I went to see if Nixon would join with me. It was not so much a heal-the-wounds type of thing as it was just a move on my part that I thought would capture a lot of attention. Here you had two former contenders joining, and I thought it might do some good. He thought seriously about it for awhile and decided he just couldn't do it in terms of his relationship to Reagan. And from that point on he would send me copies of his books. I went to Mrs. Nixon's funeral and I went to Nixon's funeral. There weren't a lot of sessions with him.
GNS: Do you remember anything about that first meeting in 1984?
McGOVERN: I remember he was much more relaxed than I had ever seen him, to the point where I wondered if he had even been through some kind of therapy. He seemed to be more at peace with himself, more candid and open with his comments. I had always found him rather nervous and uptight in previous contacts. But this time he seemed to be relaxed and glad to see me and pleased that I had consulted with him. It turns out it was his 70th birthday and Reagan had just gotten off the telephone congratulating him when I walked in. So that was one reason why it was difficult for him to join in implicit criticism of the commander in chief.
GNS: Had Watergate not occurred, would we have had the cynicism we now have about the political system?
McGOVERN: We probably would have had some, but not as much. But Watergate was a shattering blow. Keep in mind that Nixon won that election with 60 percent of the vote. A lot of Americans had a lot of confidence in him, and they just couldn't believe ... I think it added greatly to the cynicism.
GNS: From what you have read and heard about the Whitewater controversy and the campaign finance allegations around the Clinton White House, do you believe is it fair to compare it to Watergate, as some have?
McGOVERN: I don't. I think it is an entirely different dimension. I am not aware of any systematic effort to evade federal law or to annihilate constitutional guidelines or intimidate or browbeat people. I do think that fund-raising, campaign fund-raising, has become a serious national problem. Clinton didn't originate that. He is a master at raising funds, as is Al Gore, and they certainly used the prestige of the White House to do that. But I am sure that Bill Clinton didn't invent that technique.
GNS: At Nixon's funeral, Bob Dole got very emotional and cried. What can you say about that relationship?
McGOVERN: I am somewhat puzzled by it for this reason: Nixon eased Dole out as national (Republican) chairman after the '72 election, notwithstanding the fact that from everything I can see, Dole did everything in his power to help Nixon in '72 and to diminish me. This is before Dole and I became personal friends and working colleagues in the Senate. But that election was scarcely over before Nixon fired him, so I never quite understood the comeback in terms of the relationship between Dole and Nixon, unless Nixon went out of his way after that, himself, to try to pacify Dole. He might have done a lot of things we were not aware of, particularly after Dole became majority leader of the Senate.
GNS: What should children be taught about Watergate.
McGOVERN: They should be taught that a president takes one oath when he is sworn in as the president of the United States and that is to uphold the Constitution. And that includes Article Two, which calls for the president to faithfully enforce the laws of the land. That any time that that pledge is broken, that it is a major transgression on the part of the president. And that the punishment that Nixon received by being forced to resign is not too harsh. I think that they should be told that the presidents ... are human, that they sometime wander off the track. That is why we have a checks-and-balances system. That is why we have courts, that is why we have all the safeguards we do. He might have gotten away with it had it not been for the tapes.
GNS: Does it concern you that as history gets boiled down, you will be twinned with Richard Nixon?
McGOVERN: No not really. What has bothered me over the years is when people sometimes refer to the `McGovern debacle' in '72. It was based entirely on the fact that I lost so heavily. I thought the real debacle was on the other side, that you had a powerful, entrenched president who handled his campaign in such a way that he was out of office a year later.
GNS: Is there any reason to draw an optimistic message from Waterate?
McGOVERN: Only in the sense that when the Congress and the public were finally confronted with the whole dimensions of it, Nixon had no option except to resign or face prosecution. It is shaky, but at least it worked in this instance. It didn't save us from Irangate, but it is a dramatic lesson that there is a limit to what you can get away with in terms of violating the law.