MISSOULA – The first time Arthur Schlesinger Jr. asked former presidential candidate George McGovern to take part in a series of books about American presidents, McGovern said no.
He was simply too busy with a little project — feeding every impoverished child in the world a decent meal each day.
Later, though, Schlesinger called back and asked again. By this time, the program McGovern helped establish with former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., was well under way. Today, 22 million children are being fed by the program.
So McGovern said yes, but only if he could write about his presidential hero, Abraham Lincoln.
Alas, Schlesinger said, the story of Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president, was already claimed by the country’s 42nd president, Bill Clinton, who worked on McGovern’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1972.
A year later, though, Clinton decided he had too much to do. So the former South Dakota senator got his president.
Recently, McGovern was in Missoula at Fact & Fiction to sign the new Lincoln book, and a crowd of nearly 30 queued up for copies.
Drawing quickly on his political wits, McGovern sensed an audience and launched into an entertaining, thought-provoking speech of 20 minutes.
It was great to be in Missoula, McGovern said, but at nearly 87, “it’s great to be anywhere.”
Of his still-pending retirement, he said: “I’m going to retire when I get old.”
With the jokes out of the way, McGovern moved on to Lincoln.
“I think he was our greatest president,” the former senator from South Dakota said.
McGovern shared a story about how Lincoln saw slave families being torn apart on the auction block, a father going to one owner, the mother to another.
A second story involved a group of women who’d come to meet with the president during the Civil War. As they waited, they heard Lincoln laughing. When they finally met him, the women mentioned the laughter, which troubled them at such a harrowing time in the nation’s history.
Lincoln, McGovern said, told the women that without an occasional laugh, his sadness over the war “would break his heart.”
In fact, McGovern wondered aloud whether Lincoln would have undertaken the Civil War had he known that 600,000 Americans would die.
“I guess we’ll never know, but I wonder,” he said.
The Lincoln book turned out to be McGovern’s most enjoyable to write, and that’s saying something, given his 11 previous efforts.
On the other hand, finding something to say about Lincoln that hadn’t been said was a challenge; Lincoln is the most-written-about of American presidents.
In the book, which is part of Times Books’ American Presidents Series, McGovern focuses heavily on Lincoln’s legislative successes, which included the Homestead Act, a law that paved the way for state university systems, and creation of the federal Department of Agriculture.
“He’s just a beloved figure, for so many reasons,” McGovern said.
Wrapping up his speech, McGovern took a few questions, including one about Barack Obama. Not surprisingly, he praised the president as a brilliant orator. But he also had some words of advice.
McGovern said it’s right to decrease troop numbers in Iraq, but reductions aren’t enough.
“I wish they’d draw down everyone who’s over there,” he said.
McGovern also said Obama should heed the lessons of history in Afghanistan, a war he thinks cannot be won.
Afghanistan, he said, isn’t really a country in the modern sense. Instead, it’s a splintered nation of tribes and their warlords.
“It’s very difficult for Western-style armies to prevail there,” he said, citing failures by the British and the Russians.
What America should do, McGovern the former anti-war candidate said, is to stop looking for wars.
“There’s no country that wants to go to war with us,” McGovern said.
Instead, we take the wars we want to fight to other countries, he said. “I think that’s a mistake.”
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