By Karl Grossman
George McGovern, who died last week, came to Suffolk to campaign when he ran for president 40 years ago and I got a chance to question him closely on issues involving Long Island as well as the nation and world. For a half an hour, I threw questions at him as a reporter for the daily Long Island Press, riding in his limousine, with only his press secretary, a Secret Service bodyguard and the driver otherwise in the car.
Through the years, I’ve interviewed a huge number of people, and Senator McGovern was highly special. He was prescient about America. He well-understood what the federal government of the United States had become, among other national dysfunctions. It’s a shame he wasn’t given an opportunity to, as president, change things.
He was up against Richard Nixon, seeking a second term. “This administration,” Mr. McGovern said of the Nixon presidency, “is dominated by big business and big oil and big utilities. It’s really a big business operation. They give them anything they want: tax concessions, wage-price controls that have no restraints on big business.”
The Nixon administration had just quashed a Department of Justice anti-trust action against International Telephone & Telegraph, emerging then as the model of a modern monopoly. The Nixon administration “let ITT buy their way out of” this anti-trust action, Mr. McGovern charged. ITT had provided major contributions to the Nixon campaign organization.
As to the situation if Mr. Nixon were re-elected president, “I really have a grim view of another four years of this kind of trickery and manipulation and credibility problems and secret deals and power politics and special interest politics. Letting the ITTs of the country run the government instead of the other way around,” said Mr. McGovern. “I really believe this present administration is dominated by the greediest interests in the country.”
The Washington Post was hitting away at the Watergate scandal — the epitome of the corruption of the administration — but it would be a year before it took down Nixon.
Development was changing Suffolk County, and I talked to Mr. McGovern about how so much of Long Island — and other areas of the nation — were being “consumed in sprawl.” He said: “I think that what we’re going to have to do is to develop a new land use policy in this country. We really haven’t looked at that. We’ve just let everything move ahead without any real sense of planning and direction, and I’m convinced that the next administration is going to have to develop a new land use policy to protect some of the green areas against too much population density and do various other things necessary to save these remaining areas.”
Mr. McGovern was a leading opponent of the Vietnam War. He spoke about how it “has virtually destroyed the unity of the nation…But I think a new coalition of peace and change priorities here at home is now forming around my candidacy. I believe I now stand in the mainstream of the American people.”
The oil industry was pushing to drill in Atlantic offshore waters — including off Long Island — and Mr. McGovern spoke against this declaring that “the technology is not sufficiently advanced to protect us against oil spills.” He described offshore Atlantic drilling as “a threat to the beaches, the fishing interests, to the purity of the water.” The Shoreham nuclear plant project was undergoing licensing hearings by a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission panel, and of nuclear power he said “we have to delay further nuclear plant construction” because of the thermal impacts of nuclear plants on water bodies. As to sources of energy, he emphasized “solar power and other cleaner sources of energy.”
Of the then infamous and huge generation gap, he said: “My candidacy could bridge the gap because there are certain interests that young people and older people share in common…Everybody would welcome a return to trust and confidence in a president.”
He stressed his consistency on issues. “I’ve not gone back on my word. I’ve consistently followed through. I’ve not switched around. I’ve stuck to my principles.” Indeed, he was a man of principle.
Sadly, Mr. McGovern lost the 1972 election to the unprincipled Mr. Nixon. And 40 years later, the United States has suffered through much that could have been avoided if George McGovern had become president back then.