Big Government George
George McGovern was still a Big Government liberal — and still proud of it – when I got him on the phone in the 2004.
Then 82, he was still anti-war, still trying to dethrone a Republican president and still pushing retro-New Deal programs such as “free” Medicare for all ages.
The 2004 election was only months away and the Democrats were preparing to nominate John Kerry in Boston. I talked to him about the coming election, the war in Iraq, the role of government and his new book, “The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition.”
Thirty-two years after being obliterated by Richard Nixon, 49 states to 1, the World War II war hero, ex-college professor and former U.S. senator of South Dakota had not moved one moderate inch off his spot on the left end of the political spectrum.
There was only one time when McGovern didn’t sound like a textbook George McGovern liberal.
When he complained about the difficulties he had had dealing with government regulations when he tried to run his own hotel business, he sounded more like Steve Forbes — or me.
Here’s a shortened version of my Q&A with McGovern, who talked to me from his summer house near Missoula.
Q: What’s your new book, “The Essential America,” about?
A: It’s a plea for us to revisit the Founding Fathers and look at their wisdom, both on domestic government and foreign policy. I’m saying that Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Hamilton all have much to give us in guiding us today, just as they did 225 years ago.
Q: What is your definition of the liberal tradition that the Founders gave us?
A: They didn’t use words like “liberal” and “conservative.” That came in much later. But they believed that government should be dedicated to the public interest, to the ordinary citizen. One of the things they feared was government dominated by special interests, especially by the rich and powerful. And that’s what liberalism seeks to do: It seeks to put the government at the service of ordinary people.
Q: How does your definition square with the Founders’ belief in a small, limited government?
A: Whether government is small or big is not the key question. The key question is, “Who does that government serve? Does it serve the rank-and-file citizenry or does it serve only the most powerful and wealthy?” The actual size of the government is secondary, in my opinion.
Q: You are very critical of the Bush administration in your book. What is its most grievous sin?
A: From the beginning until today, it has placed the power of the United States government at the service of the people who least need favors from the government without moving ahead on health insurance for (those) who don’t have it, without doing anything significant to provide jobs for the unemployed, without a strong environmental or energy policy.
In short, it neglects those things that would help the greatest number of Americans, and it pushes hard for those things that would favor the people at the top of the income scale. I’m not against people being rich. I’m not even against the government helping them. But when that becomes the exclusive concern of the government and these other problems are neglected, that’s when I go into action.
Q: How have your personal politics shifted or changed since 1972?
A: I suppose that I haven’t changed in a fundamental way since ’72, but I do have greater tolerance for honest-to-goodness conservatives than I might have had at an earlier time in my life. For example, Bob Dole and I have become very good friends since both of us left politics. I’m not sure that would have been as easy to happen 35 years ago as it is today.
Q: Someone mentioned to me that you tried to open up a bed-and-breakfast, and you ran into a lot of rules and regulations that made being a small businessman difficult. Can you talk about that?
A: I had a 140-room hotel in Stamford, Connecticut, for about three years, and it just didn’t work. You know, the hotel business may be the most difficult place in the world to make a living unless you happen to own the Waldorf-Astoria. It was not a success.
I got sued a couple times by people who had accidents, one out in the parking lot of the hotel and one leaving the restaurant. I saw all the difficulties — record-keeping, keeping track of the tax applications, paying the help. It gave me a new appreciation for the problems of small businesses.
Q: Someone like me would argue that many of those problems are a result of too many government rules, regulations, mandates.
A: It’s possible that small business should be exempted from some of those things. Who can be against anything called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration? But maybe some of the requirements should be eased off a little bit.