When Philip Johnston, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts, first heard the news, he was stunned. Representative Jim McGovern, the six-term Democrat who represents the state’s Third Congressional District, had endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton for president. On March 29, the Clinton campaign had issued a press release announcing that McGovern was backing the former First Lady in the Democratic presidential contest. The notice proclaimed that McGovern considered her the “best candidate to end war in Iraq.” To Johnston, who’s backing Democratic Senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid, and other political observers, this Clinton-McGovern meet-up appeared curious: a fierce critic of the war backing a politician who has been accused (rightly or wrongly) of being hawkish.
McGovern is renowned as a liberal legislator. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he worked for Senator George McGovern (no relation), managing the senator’s second-time-around 1984 presidential campaign in Massachusetts. Since before the Iraq invasion, Jim McGovern has been an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war. In November 2005, he introduced legislation that would end the war by prohibiting the president from using any taxpayer dollars for the deployment of US troops in Iraq (except for the “safe and orderly withdrawal” of troops).
Hillary Clinton has been slammed by anti-war activists for voting to grant George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq and for not apologizing for that vote. Her anti-war detractors have hounded her, protesting at her office and campaign events. Though she recently proposed cutting off money for Bush’s so-called surge in Iraq and voted with her party to tie troop withdrawals to ongoing funding for the war, she had previously been critical only of the execution of the war, not of the idea of the war. She had seemed more supportive of the endeavor than her two key Democratic rivals: Obama, who spoke against the war before its start, and former Senator John Edwards, who (like Clinton) voted for the war but later apologized for having done so. On the campaign trail, Clinton now declares she will end the war should she return to the White House. Still, her past stance suggests she and McGovern might be odd foxhole-fellows.
Not so, says McGovern. Asked to explain why he partnered up with Clinton, he notes,
“I just decided to do it. I called her office. I talked to a number of people close to her over a period of weeks. They suggested it would be more useful if the endorsement came sooner than later. I’ve known her for a lot of years, and I respect her and admire a lot of what she did as First Lady. Even though HillaryCare did not fly, she was on the right track. She’s out front as someone committed to universal health care and to early childhood development. She held conferences on childhood development at the White House that I attended. We need to get serious that education begins at age 0 and that we need universal preschool.”
McGovern also offers an up-close-and-personal reason for the endorsement:
“I picked up my daughter from kindergarten the day after Hillary announced her presidential campaign, and all these five-year-old girls were talking about Hillary. I found it amazing. They were excited about Hillary’s candidacy. I realized if she’s elected, she breaks an important glass ceiling. These little girls learn about presidents who are only men. For me this is a very powerful moment. A lot of people portray her candidacy as a cautious and establishment candidacy, as if she’s the Walter Mondale of this campaign. I see this as a bold, history-making campaign.”
But what about the Iraq war?
“I believe her when she says that if it’s not over when she takes office, she will end this war. If this war is still going on then, you’re going to need somebody with skill and experience to bring everyone together here in the United States and within an international coalition. On the war, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference among the leading Democratic candidates. They’re all voting for or supporting timetables and withdrawals. It’s not as quickly as I want. My bill would start a safe and immediate withdrawal. If I were president, this war would be over now. But I can’t get 218 people [in the House] to agree with me….People say, ‘How could you do this when Hillary voted for the war.’ John Kerry, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden voted for the war. I can’t change the past. I can only try to shape the future.”
Hillary Clinton has refused to apologize for her vote to hand Bush the authority to invade Iraq. Does that bother McGovern?
“Jesus Christ,” he exclaims, “I’m not interested in an apology. I’m interested in the strategy. People are saying she has to get down on her knees and beg for forgiveness. This war is such a tragedy. Insisting upon an apology is an issue that trivializes the war. The war is the biggest moral, political, diplomatic, and military catastrophe in our history. I hate this war. I want to end it before the next presidency. And every Democratic candidate wants to end this war.” McGovern contends that Clinton is best equipped to do so, citing her ability to work with Republicans in the Senate and her efforts and missions overseas during her husband’s presidency. “She has the international statue,” he says, adding, “the Bill connection helps.”
Political endorsements don’t “mean a lot,” McGovern maintains. But he has told Hillary Clinton he will gladly work for her campaign, perhaps as an emissary to die-hard liberal Democrats who might harbor doubts about her. “I’m willing to go to New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, wherever I can be of help,” he says. “Some of the people who believe as I do in liberal politics go after her the way they go after George Bush. I can tell them, read what she believes in, listen to what she says.”
Both Hillary and Bill Clinton were helpful to McGovern when he faced difficult congressional campaigns in his early years as a House member. One reporter, McGovern recalls, accused him of endorsing Hillary Clinton as payback for that assistance. McGovern insists he’s not redeeming a political IOU–and that this endorsement is not part of a calculated attempt on the part of the Clinton campaign to bolster her left flank. “I approached them,” he recalls.
What about the other candidates? Obama, a onetime community activist, has caused many progressive Democrats to swoon. His campaign also can shatter a political barrier. “In his first year in the Senate,” McGovern says, “I don’t recall him being much of a leader.” McGovern notes he admires John Edwards’ “focus on dealing with issues of poverty.” Representative Dennis Kucinich? This progressive legislator agrees with McGovern that US troops should be removed from Iraq immediately. “On the war, our views are the closest,” McGovern says. “I hope he does well. But there’s more than just that one issue.” Senator Chris Dodd, McGovern notes, is a friend. The two have worked together for years on Central America issues: “I think he’s terrific.”
But McGovern says there was no competition for his political affections. He’s a Hillary Clinton fan. “I think she’s a good person,” he says. “Maybe because I know her as a woman who cares deeply about a lot of issues and who’s motivated not just by ambition. That’s how I’ve seen her for years–not this caricature of a person who doesn’t stand for anything and who’s secretly pro-war.”
For some progressives, the Clinton years were a time of frustration and disappointment–a period of lost opportunity (with or without the Monica madness and other scandals, real or hyped). McGovern doesn’t remember it that way. “I wish we could’ve done more then,” he says. “But Bill Clinton protected more land in this country than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. He defended civil rights and reproductive rights. Do I wish he had been more liberal? Sure. I had sharp disagreements with him on Nafta and the [anti-drug trafficking] Colombia Plan. Overall, I thought he was a good president. As time goes on, I appreciate more the job he did.”
Endorsing Hillary Clinton was no tough call for McGovern: “I didn’t anguish over this. She’s who I want to be with. She’s the right person for the job. If I thought for one second that she wouldn’t do everything humanly possible to end this war as fast as possible, no way in hell I would endorse her.” McGovern is now looking forward to trekking from church basements in Iowa to pot luck suppers in New Hampshire to convince other Democrats she ought to be president.
DON”T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris “the most comprehensive account of the White House’s political machinations” and “fascinating reading.” The Washington Post says, “There have been many books about the Iraq war….This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft.” Tom Brokaw notes Hubris “is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq.” Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, “The selling of Bush’s Iraq debacle is one of the most important–and appalling–stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it.” For highlights from Hubris, click here.