George McGovern is ready for the 2004 presidential campaign to stop focusing on the Vietnam War records of George Bush and John Kerry.
"That's a war that was fought 35 years ago," the former presidential candidate said Monday. "That was the big issue in my campaign in 1972. Now we ought to be talking about the war in Iraq, not the one we foolishly blundered into in Vietnam four decades ago."
The campaign was one of many topics McGovern discussed during a news conference and Lied Center lecture at Kansas University, where he received the second annual Dole Leadership Prize from the Dole Institute of Politics. The award, given last year to former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, includes a $25,000 prize.
McGovern, 82, represented South Dakota for 22 years in the U.S. House and Senate and was the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee.
McGovern criticized the war in Iraq, saying the Bush administration didn't have a strategy for leaving the country. He said the United States should withdraw its troops "as fast as possible."
"I think once we pull out, there will be a royal civil war between the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds," he said. "I hope I'm wrong."
His advice to Kerry included:
- Answering every criticism against him.
- Continuing to emphasize the idea that, although Kerry and Edwards voted to authorize the war in Iraq, Congress was misled and Bush abused his power.
- Convincing voters that Bush represents the elite, while the Democratic ticket represents the rest of America.
Liberating the 'l-word'
McGovern's evening speech focused primarily on the topic of his newest book, "The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition." He said liberals needed to be more vocal in support of their ideology, which he said was responsible for everything from rural electrification to Social Security.
"The thing I've been concerned about in recent years is the ceaseless attack on liberalism," McGovern said. "It's almost as though it's an alien ideology that you don't talk about in polite company. We have this phrase 'the l-word,' but liberalism is a doctrine that has been responsible for almost every forward step in the life of the country."
McGovern said he didn't have a problem with the old wave of conservatives, including Bob Dole or Barry Goldwater.
"The conservatives I can't stand are these neo-conservatives," he said. "All I know is they're not in the mainstream. They're way out there on the right wing, chipping away at programs that have served this country well. ... They tell you they're against abortion -- that's a big right-wing campaign movement now. But after they get elected on that platform, nothing happens on the abortion issue, and Enron gets another big tax cut."
But Scott Poor, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, dismissed McGovern's claims.
"I think Mr. McGovern probably doesn't speak for the people of Kansas," Poor said. "Mr. McGovern comes from a different era and probably speaks from sort of a different perspective of a generation or two before us."
Politics and humor
About 1,800 people attended McGovern's speech, Lied Center officials estimated. Many of them were in their 20s and were just as impressed with him as the college-age crowd was 30 years earlier.
"In conservative Kansas, it was an opportunity to hear someone from the other side," said John Beverlin, 23, of Overland Park, who stood in line after the speech to have McGovern sign his copy of "Essential America."
Jeanne Dietrich, 58, and her son, Brian Dietrich, 26, drove to Lawrence from Omaha, Neb., to hear McGovern.
"He was fabulous," Jeanne Dietrich said. "I enjoyed the variety of stories he told, and he has a sense of humor, something I wish we could see more of in politicians."
Brian Dietrich said he liked McGovern's comments on Iraq.
"It was a pleasure to be in his presence," he said. "He's one of the country's most notable politicians."
Dole was not present for McGovern's speech, but he sent a letter that was read to the crowd by William Lacy, the new director of the institute.
"Throughout your career you made it clear bipartisanship is not a dirty word," Dole wrote to McGovern. "My association with you has been a great source of joy and pride."
McGovern, whose daughter was an alcoholic and died in 1994, said he intended to contribute "a good part" of the $25,000 to a national alcoholism foundation. He also said he would keep the leadership award on his desk "where I can see it every day."