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War and Peacenik: Memorial Day Thoughts with George McGovern
American flags are streaming off SUVs on Disney Drive, bonfires are blazing on the shoreline at Big Corona, and Ralph Lauren solid briefs are on sale at the South Coast Plaza Macy’s. Memorial Day weekend in Orange County, California is abundant with commemoration for those who gave their lives in service to this country. Yet, in spite of our 21st century patriotic fervor, the words “peacenik George McGovern” keep playing in my head. Yes, peacenik.

In a recent World War II Memorial dedication fluff piece, Los Angeles Times staff writer Johanna Neuman called George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic candidate for president, a “peacenik.” You may remember McGovern. A World War II bomber pilot, congressman and senator from South Dakota, his presidential platform promised to end the Vietnam War. After presiding over the burglary of McGovern's campaign headquarters Watergate co-conspirator and Orange County native son Richard Nixon won that election in a landslide. So much for peace, love and understanding.

But “peacenik”? Can a man who dropped explosives on enemy targets really be purely peaceable? And isn’t the word “peacenik,” in this day and age, quaintly pre-Reagan — check that, pre-Ford. But then again, maybe Neuman is on to something and she’s just too old to say it right. She’s a smart chick. She taught at Georgetown University and was Foreign Editor of USA Today before she moved to the Times Washington Bureau. Maybe she's got a scoop. I should check this out. So, I call McGovern on Weekly Signals, a KUCI radio show I co-host with Mike Kaspar and ask him if he has any "peacenik leanings."

“I’m not a pacifist,” McGovern says. “I was a bomber pilot in World War II against Hitler and his legions. I’ve never had one day of regret about that.”

No regrets? It sounds like McGovern is trying to hide something. He may be a crafty peacenik after all — the kind who flew bombing raids over Germany in the 1940s in anticipation of covering his anti-Vietnam War activities in the 1960s.

“What I don’t believe in are unnecessary wars like the kind we’re involved in Iraq,” McGovern says.

That "unnecessary war" talk sounds suspicious. It’s the kind of tactic you’d expect from a peacenik — especially one, like McGovern, who spent this Memorial Day weekend exchanging war stories with Bob Dole at the Smithsonian-sponsored World War II reunion on Washington DC’s Mall. Hoping for a break, I ask him what a McGovern administration would do if it were magically transported into the White House today.

“Well, you know there’s an old joke,” McGovern says. “I‘m sure you’ve heard some version of it. There’s a traveler who stops in a little village in Illinois one night. He sees a man standing along the curb and he says, ‘Sir, could you give me directions to Peoria?’ And the man says, ‘If I was ever going to Peoria, I sure as hell wouldn’t start from here.’ That’s the way I feel about the question you just asked.”

And just the kind of evasive answer you’d expect from somebody with something to hide.

“Seriously,” McGovern says. “We have to work very hard to make a transition government successful in Iraq, with the United Nations playing a key role. Then, we need to disengage our troops as quickly as possible. No matter what, it’s not going to be a happy situation. We’ve pretty well smashed their country.

“The best exit strategy is to not go into an area where you’re unwelcome," McGovern continues. "We had Iraq contained behind its own borders. I would have maintained the aerial over flights. I would have asked the UN inspectors to remain. I would have made clear that any move made by Iraq over its borders would be resisted militarily.”

“Resisted militarily?” Neuman was right! A non-peacenik leader would have said, “Smoke ‘em out.” But McGovern is 81 — which, I think, makes him a member of the peace and love generation — and he shows it by dropping Wendell Wilkie's name.

“The United States, through most of its history, has been one of the most admired countries on the face of the earth,” McGovern says. “In 1940, the Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie wrote the book, One World, after he traveled around the globe. In it he said that the defining signs of American power and influence were the confidence and admiration that people everywhere had towards the United States. The Bush administration has dissipated much of that by going into this war.”

Did I mention that McGovern has a new book coming out this summer called The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition. Listen to this liberal peacenik go:

“I was in Paris on 911 to enlist the support of the French in a UN food mission to Africa,” McGovern says. “We were interrupted at lunch with the news report. Let me tell you, the French people I met over the next couple of days were in tears with sympathy for the United States.

“Where did all that good will go?” McGovern asks. “It went down the tubes in this unfortunate and tragic war in Iraq that no country in the world supported. A few heads of state supported it, but the people in those countries — Britain and Spain, for example — were overwhelmingly against it. Our power and influence in the world has dissipated because of the arrogance of our public officials in Washington saying that you’re either with us or against us. We need to revive Jefferson’s old dictum, ‘A decent respect to the opinions of mankind.’”

There he goes again dropping names. Why should we, or this Jefferson guy, respect the opinions of other countries when our power and influence is much better served by starting preemptive wars?

“A policy of preemptive war would have had us going to war with Russia and China 50 years ago” McGovern says. “God knows where the planet would be today if that had happened. Instead, today we get along with Russia and China.”

Johanna Neuman, you are right and then some. Not only is George McGovern a peacenik; he’s a communist sympathizer to boot.

“America is the greatest country on the face of the earth, McGovern says, “but we’ve got to quit making these tragic mistakes.”

Yeah, right. Tell it to Johanna, George. We've got you pegged, "Peacenik" McGovern. So while you're off at some World War II memorial prattling on about combat missions, the rest of us will be honoring our fallen war heroes this weekend in true American style — barbecuing, flying flags and taking advantage of savings of up to 50% off at Macy’s Memorial Day sale.

— Nathan Callahan, May 30, 2004


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