Few people come as quickly to the defense of George McGovern as McGovern himself. The antiwar senator from South Dakota lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide in the 1972 presidential election, only to see Nixon, caught up in the Watergate scandal, resign in disgrace. For McGovern, though—along with many Democrats who followed him—the damage was done, and the now retired politician has spent decades defending the electability of antiwar liberals, insisting his campaign was undone by dirty tricks and bad luck. In recent years, McGovern, 86, hasn't relinquished the spotlight, condemning the war in Iraq and declaring Barack Obama, whom he endorsed after initially supporting Hillary Clinton, a "second Abraham Lincoln." McGovern, author of Abraham Lincoln, a short biography of the Civil War president published this week, talked with U.S. News about political history, corruption, and his expectations for Obama. Excerpts:
You've written a biography of Lincoln at the same time the next president is modeling his inauguration after Honest Abe. Coincidence?
It is a coincidence, but a happy one. Lincoln was not only our greatest president but one of our continuing great treasures. He has not only inspired Barack Obama but multitudes of other Americans.
You've called Obama "a second Lincoln," but you originally supported Hillary Clinton for president. What made you change your mind?
I didn't know Senator Obama when he announced for president. I hadn't even met him. I knew Hillary going back to my '72 campaign. But as I saw that campaign unwind, I realized that Barack Obama may well be the man of the hour. It also became clear before I left Hillary that she couldn't win the nomination even if she won all the remaining primaries.
Why do you consider Obama another Lincoln?
I think he is a healing figure and yet hasn't surrendered his convictions. I think he is very careful not to come across as a radical. He tries to appeal to common sense, and he is willing to make compromises. I also think that both Lincoln and Barack have a deep and abiding faith in our founding ideals.
It's clear in your book that you admire Lincoln not just for his speeches but for his ability to play political hardball. Do you see that in Obama?
Yes, I do. I think he had the best organized, most brilliantly conceived presidential campaign we may ever have had. If I do say it, mine was in that same category. I don't think we made a mistake in the year and a half leading up to winning that nomination. After that, we ran into all kinds of difficulty.
Your vice presidential pick in 1972, Thomas Eagleton, admitted he had been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion and had undergone electro-shock therapy.
Yes, the Eagleton matter took the momentum out of our campaign. It would have been an uphill fight all the way, but to have a blow like that come on the first thing I did after I was nominated, which was to pick a running mate, we never recovered from that.
Did you see shades of Eagleton in John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin as a running mate?
No, because I think John McCain knew what he was getting when he picked Sarah Palin.
You mean you think she was thoroughly vetted?
No, I don't think she was thoroughly vetted, but I think they pretty well knew that she wasn't concealing any scandals or any sicknesses or anything like that. I do think in the long run the selection of Sarah Palin hurt John McCain. At first, it was kind of a novelty, and she's an attractive woman and carried off her acceptance speech at the convention with certain fanfare. Then, it began to settle in on the country, her lack of experience and knowledge, and she just wasn't ready to take over the White House.
Do you think Obama really will change the tone in Washington ?
American political figures need to quit talking about red states and blue states, as though we're in foreign countries. Since Reagan, it has seemed like the solid South and much of the Midwest was locked up by the Republicans. Barack won Virginia, he won Florida, he won North Carolina, and he also won the states out West. I think he has erased the red state-blue state way of judging American politics.
What do you make of Obama's "team of rivals"' approach to creating his cabinet?
I think it's wise. Franklin Roosevelt did that, too. His secretary of war and his secretary of the Navy in World War II were both Republicans. George Washington kept both Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in his cabinet. Lincoln didn't invent the team of rivals, but he probably did it as well as any president we've had.
Have you spent much time with Obama?
Oh, yes. After I came out for him, he met with me in Sioux Falls, S.D., and I had dinner with him. I've talked with him on the telephone, and I've gotten to know him. He's a strong man. He's an intelligent man, but he's also very adroit, as was Lincoln. I think he'll get along fine with the kind of people we've seen so far in the cabinet.
Antiwar liberals haven't had much success running for president since you lost in 1972. Does the election of Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, feel like vindication?
Yes, people who opposed these unnecessary wars do feel somewhat vindicated. Of course, I opposed the Iraq war, too. I was on television two or three times warning against it. I've seen one poll as high as 80 percent of Americans think we made a mistake going into Iraq. I suppose we'd get similar poll results on whether Vietnam was a sound policy.
Do you believe Obama will keep his campaign promise to pull American troops out of Iraq ?
Bush thinks it's a big concession that we'll have them out by 2012. I don't think any president can keep those troops in there until 2012. Obama has said we've got to get out of Iraq, but the real problem is Afghanistan. Well, you go from Iraq into Afghanistan, you're moving from the frying pan into the fire.
Your campaign in 1972 was the victim of the Watergate break-in, the pre - eminent example of political corruption at the highest level. Do you think the era of 'dirty tricks' is over, or does the Illinois corruption scandal show politics is as seedy as ever?
It's not over, but it's losing its effectiveness. I think people are getting tired of it. I just think that's another thing that Barack sensed—that people were fed up with the low level of politics, the intense partisanship, and the continuous warfare in the Senate and elsewhere. I think there is certain weariness about that.
How will you feel when President Bush steps down in January?
I don't have any personal malice toward Bush. I wish him well. I've talked to him on a couple of occasions. He's a congenial, likable guy. I always admired his father, and I hope things will go well for him. I don't think Bush is a bad man. I just think he was mistaken in so many of the judgments he made as president. But I wouldn't throw a shoe at him.