Call me a McGovern wimp, but it was refreshing to run into the man himself and to be reminded by this genuine patriot and war hero just how thoughtless is the current rush to war with Iraq.
The macho mouths whose combat experience most often consists of battles for talk-show ratings would have you believe that it takes great courage to bang the drums of war, whereas it is cowardly to speak the language of peace and diplomacy.
George McGovern is living proof that just the opposite is true.
Recall his losing 1972 contest against President Nixon, who successfully branded McGovern a subversive peacenik for calling for an end to the war in Vietnam. The result was a further, futile escalation of carpet-bombing into Cambodia, which paved the way for the genocidal Khmer Rouge to take over a devastated country.
At the time, McGovern thought it unseemly to defend himself against Nixon's attacks by trading on his own heroic war record, and he still speaks with suspicion of those who "wear their patriotism or their religion on their sleeves."
McGovern, 80, who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his 35 B-24 combat missions against Nazi Germany, takes particular umbrage with those who now talk of Saddam Hussein as a modern-day Hitler.
"Hitler, in possession of the world's then-greatest military force, had the power to destroy Western civilization," McGovern observed, while Hussein, his military eviscerated in the Gulf War and afterward, can easily be contained.
McGovern was speaking on a cruise ship in Boston Harbor to a group of Nation magazine subscribers. Many men in the audience were veterans of what has come to be viewed as the good war, and like McGovern, they expressed contempt for the so-called chicken hawks who dominate the Bush war camp: men eager to send others into combat, which they themselves have not experienced.
"I'm sick and tired of those old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in," McGovern said in an interview. "You know that [Vice President] Dick Cheney, [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld and [Deputy Defense Secretary] Paul Wolfowitz have not been in a war and will not fight in this one they are planning."
McGovern says the administration is committed to a jingoistic unilateralism that will only encourage more hostility and attacks on the United States. President Bush "claims that people around the world hate us for our freedom, but it is our freedom they love and our arrogance that they hate," McGovern said. He cited a recent statement by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the administration's main accomplishment was "the hardening of America."
The biggest problem he has with Bush's White House is a pattern of lying that McGovern believes rivals that of Nixon's. For example, "Bush has said repeatedly that Saddam Hussein threw the international arms inspectors out of Iraq, but that's not true. We withdrew our inspectors."
The president, McGovern said, also too often relies on the language of the religious right. "I'm troubled by a president who has used the word 'evil' so many times that he doesn't seem to understand that there has always been evil and always will be, unless God intervenes directly."
The former senator is critical as well of Democrats in Congress for failing to challenge the president's hyperaggressive foreign policy.
Mourning Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the few bold congressional critics of the White House's call for war, McGovern said, "Whoever replaces him owes it to his memory to respect his opposition to the war."
In a time when bravery is all too easily confused with bravado, George McGovern stands as a compelling reminder that it takes real courage to fight for peace.