Biography: Rediscovering McGovern with Robert Sam Anson

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A Conversation with Bryan Boyhan 

How are you approaching the biography of once-presidential hopeful Senator George McGovern?

It’s an oral history, and I’m going to be as unobtrusive as possible. It’s kind of long quotes strung together with interviews. I’ve got more than 100 people now and another 50 or so to go. They’ll be telling the story in their own words.

I also had the opportunity to talk to McGovern a few weeks before his death. He was a funny guy, moreso than people imagine. And I was teasing him, I was saying I know you were a student for the Methodist seminary, but one thing I’ve always appreciated about you is that you said Methodists can’t stop sinning, but they sure can take the fun out of it. And McGovern turned and laughed and said, “Well, I’m still pretty licentious.”

At least he was human. How are you managing to avoid being academic and find the humanity?

Fortunately there were a lot of funny parts, even in the midst of what turned out to be a tragic campaign. There was a lot of humor, people could find things to chortle about even in the face of the worst news possible.

One involves Warren Beatty, who became invaluable to the campaign as an organizer, and as an idea guy, a cheerer-upper.

One of the last times I spoke to him, I called and he said, “Are you still writing,” and I said, “Are you still acting,” and he laughed and laughed.

He had this great sense of humor about himself.

There is this funny story about McGovern when he delivered his acceptance speech, which was about three o’clock in the morning in Miami Beach, courtesy of the delegates getting completely out of control.

Bob Shrum, who is another very old friend of mine and has worked on numerous presidential campaigns — and Bob is a great writer — well he wrote an amazing, a wonderful acceptance speech. And McGovern tacked on just this really pedantic quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Shrum was really despairing and he said the only solution was, “Well, I know what I have to do, I’ll have to get Warren.” So he goes up to get Warren in his suite and Julie Christie, — one of the most beautiful women in the world, who Warren was dating at the time — answers the door in this diaphanous gown or bathrobe, and says that Warren is in the other room taking a call, but please come in and sit down. So Bob comes in and sits down next to her and Julie says, “So please tell me how to understand American politics.” And Bob says, “I’m supposed to be explaining this to her and basically I’m going ‘Hominah, hominah, hominah…”

So finally Warren comes in and — oh you’re not going to be able to print this — so Warren comes in and hears the problem, and tells Bob, “You’re right let’s go down and see George.”

So they go to see George, who’s still determined to have this; and Beatty says to him, “Listen, George, this is like you’re throwing the best f— of your life with the most beautiful woman. And you’re just about to finish and some guy named Ralph Waldo Emerson steps in and takes over.”

And McGovern collapsed in laughter, and that was the end of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

One of the challenges is that the public already has a pretty vivid perception of McGovern. How do you overcome that?

Well, this is not the first time I’ve done an oral history of something. I did a piece for Vanity Fair about the founding of MTV. It’s pretty tricky. Everyone thinks it’s easy. But it’s harder, actually, than doing a regular thing.

I think impressions of McGovern were formed — people always thought he was a decent man, had all these principles and there was this morality about him.

But, what killed him electorally was the Eagleton affair. His polls just plummeted overnight, and people thought he was indecisive.

Holding onto Eagleton was an interesting story, he largely held onto him because he was a decent guy, perhaps too decent for his own good.

As it happens Frank Mankiewicz announces it’s going to be Eagleton at around three o’clock in the afternoon in Miami, and about 3:30, by just pure dumb luck, I learned almost everything there is to learn about Eagleton and his problems. So I went up to the suite in the Doral Hotel and McGovern’s press secretary was there and a friend of mine who was his executive assistant and Frank was in the background and so was the candidate, McGovern. And I said, listen guys, this guy’s been in the loony bin, he’s had electro-shock treatments, he’s had very serious manic depression, and by all accounts he’s got a drinking problem, too.

And I was told, oh that’s all just Republican rhetoric, we’ve already checked this guy out.

I said, OK, but when the shit hits the fan don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Do you see correcting the public’s perception as your job?

My job is telling the truth, that’s why the campaign biography sold, because I was kind of tough on him.

Perceptions of McGovern have changed, I think, since then. First of all, I think part of it is the book Stephen Ambrose wrote about his experiences as a B-24 pilot in World War II. Even Bob Novak, who was perhaps McGovern’s most bitter critic in the press, said “I was all wrong, George McGovern is not only a leader, he is an American hero.”

This guy had real guts in tons of ways, and I think that’s finally becoming clear.

How has McGovern’s narrative revealed itself to you?

I knew the general outline. The original biography of the campaign I wrote came out very early in the campaign, he was very low in the polls; he hadn’t yet won a primary. But I could sense the general direction this was going. There was no way this guy is going to lose, because history is on his side. The rest of the Democratic Party was trying to behave like Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon; but the rank and file of the party hated Viet Nam.

There was an inevitability to it you never read in the press.

This is an opportunity to fill in tons of blanks that I didn’t know about then, and all these stories I have collected since.

A regular biography is more condensed, more compressed. This is people speaking in their own words. They become characters, so there’s like a hundred characters; some more important than others. And they tell great stories and they make it human and they make it gripping.

I’ve read these oral histories before, and they’re tricky to do. But the well done ones, they’re pretty damn good.

How do you begin whittling away at these 100 characters and the stories they have to tell?

I started off, as I begin every story I do, by writing down a list of every source that I know. In this case it was personal friends, and in this case it was like 75 of those, because I was with the campaign. And then I began working almost chronologically from the beginning, from the Iowa caucuses. Start from there, record everything, every interview, and each interview leads you to four or five others. It just keeps expanding, like an ink blot. I’ll probably wind up talking to a couple hundred people. Some things will just be confirming, or the quote just won’t be good, or I’ll find someone else to say these things.

So there won’t be 200 people in the thing, you’d just get lost. You need to have major characters to drive this.

I think it’s obvious who some of the major characters are. There’s Frank Mankiewicz, who surely is one, Bob Shrum is another. Gary Hart, is still around. Gary is one of the smartest men in American politics. It’s a tragedy what happened.

You’ve devoted a large part of your life to writing about McGovern. What is it about him that speaks to you?

Well, here’s a guy from a small town in the middle of nowhere, a South Dakota Methodist minister’s kid, who is about as unlikely a person as you can imagine to win the Democratic nomination — except for his beliefs.

He is slow talking, and no one has ever accused George McGovern of being charismatic.

I remember talking to McGovern at one point, and he was changing his mind about doing the biography, and said Shirley MacLaine suggested maybe I just do a book of photographs with me on one page and then quotes from me on the other page. And I said, yeah, I don’t know what your dog’s name is, but I can see you just now, like Bob Kennedy, walking on the beach with your dog. And I said, “Let me tell you senator, you’re a lot of things, but Bob Kennedy you ain’t.”

And it was the only time I ever saw him really furious. He said, “Jesus Christ, you don’t have to tell me that. If there’s one thing I am only too well aware of is that I’m not Robert F. Kennedy.”

Boy, a guy like that. And in that instant he said, “You’re right, let’s do the biography.”

Was it this kind of self-honesty that brought you to write the book?

He also had a terrific sense of humor, that people never saw, and occasionally he could get angry. I think it was toward the end of the campaign, it was quite clear that he wasn’t going to win. But there was some guy in a crowd that said “I want my thousand dollars.” — remember that thousand dollars McGovern had promised everybody, it was the beginning of the earned income credit. And the guy is yelling at him, it was in a big crowd.

So McGovern pointed at the guy and sort of beckoned to him to come over. So the guy walks over, and McGovern cups his hand and —not so quietly —  leans over to the guy’s ear and says, “Kiss my f—— ass.”

That’s one of the things about McGovern, he was a lot smarter, a lot funnier, and a lot tougher than people perceived him to be. He could be pretty tough.

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