Asked his thoughts on his 90th birthday, Sen. George McGovern replied without hesitation, “On to 100.” He stopped for a few minutes Thursday evening to take a few questions on his way up to a reception in his honor at the Newseum. “I think I’ll make it [to 100],” he said, proud that a recent checkup found nothing wrong with him, and gave the OK to party organizers to book the same room for 10 years from now.
It’s been 40 years since McGovern ran on an antiwar platform against Richard Nixon. It was the Vietnam era, passions were high, and people were protesting in the streets. “There’s not as big a kickback [from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan],” he told The Daily Beast. “But those wars are just as silly as the war in Vietnam. We shouldn’t be in countries we don’t know anything about.”
McGovern lost in a landslide after a campaign in which the opposition defined him as the candidate of amnesty, abortion, and acid. “Those are issues that shouldn’t have been in politics,” he says. Asked about today’s presidential contest, he says, “There’s too much negative in today’s politics and too much harsh criticism. I won’t say which party is doing the most of that. Everybody in power thinks they’re a good person, or they wouldn’t go into politics. Politics is the profession where you can do the most good, and the most harm.”
The friends gathered at the Newseum Thursday evening were there not so much to talk politics, but to commemorate McGovern’s long history with the issue of combating world hunger. He and then–majority leader Bob Dole had worked together as senators on issues relating to hunger, championing the food-stamp program and various food assistance efforts at home and abroad. Richard Leach, the president and CEO of World Food Program USA, which hosted the reception, said that “no one on the planet” had more of a profound impact on hunger. Dole had been expected to attend the festivities, but called that afternoon to say he couldn’t be there. He turns 89 in three days and has health challenges.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was the first to take the podium for a series of toasts to McGovern. “Thank you for being born,” she exclaimed. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin recalled McGovern campaigning against the Vietnam War, saying he was “fed up with all these old men dreaming up ways for young men to die in war.”
“Everybody in power thinks they’re a good person, or they wouldn’t go into politics. Politics is the profession where you can do the most good and the most harm.”
Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank held up a framed campaign poster from 1971 of himself with McGovern. It was his first House race. “With all the crap that was thrown at him and all the distortions, the purity of George McGovern did break through to the young people, and I was able to win on his coattails,” Frank said. “People should be envious of you, George. It must be a very great feeling to have lived the life you are living.”
Among the other lawmakers raising a glass to McGovern were Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin and Patrick Leahy and Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Late Senator Ted Kennedy’s widow, Vicki Kennedy, was there. On the Republican side, there was South Dakota Sen. John Thune, reportedly on Mitt Romney’s shortlist for vice president, showing bipartisan solidarity with his former home-state colleague.
Taking the podium last, McGovern recalled that walking Washington’s broad avenues and gazing at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials never failed to lift his spirits. “At my age, it’s better to look back at people who knew me on the way through who still say nice things about me,” he said. Marveling at the physical he just had from a doctor back home “who’s of good standing—he couldn’t find a thing wrong with me, not with my heart, not with my head. I fell on the sidewalk some months ago and hit my head very hard, and I was out of it for some time. But I think I’ve now bounced back, and I think as clearly as I always have—so let’s do this again in about 10 years.”