George McGovern has a word for Vice President Dick Cheney: "Resign."
Responding to Tuesday's conviction of Cheney's former chief-of-staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on charges of obstruction of justice, perjury and lying to the FBI -- after a trial that revealed Cheney's intimate involvement with a scheme to discredit a critic of the administration's war policies -- the former congressman, senator and presidential candidate said it was time for the vice president to go.
"What we have learned about how he has conducted himself leaves no doubt that he should be out of office," McGovern says of Cheney. "If he had any respect for the Constitution or the country, he would resign."
And if Cheney does not take the liberal Democrat's counsel?
"There is no question in my mind that Cheney has committed impeachable offenses. So has George Bush," argues McGovern. "Bush is much more impeachable than Richard Nixon was. That's been clear for some time. There does not seem to be much sentiment for impeachment in Congress now, but around the country people are fed up with this administration."
At age 84, McGovern has attained the elder statesman status that is afforded politicians who have held or sought the presidency. He enjoys the respect of fellow Democrats and more than a few Republicans for being, like former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a straight-talking man of deep commitment who may have lost one presidential election but won the battle for a place of honor in the nation's history texts.
McGovern testifies before congressional caucuses about how to end the war in Iraq, delivers distinguished lectures, travels widely to discuss his well-received books, contributes articles to magazines such as The Nation and Harper's and regularly defends anti-hunger programs with a former Republican colleague in the Senate, Bob Dole.
What distinguishes McGovern from most other political elders, however, is his refusal to mince words about the current occupants of the White House.
"I think this is the most lawless administration we've ever had," he says of the Bush-Cheney team. That's a strong statement coming from a man who tangled in 1972 with Nixon, and then saw Nixon's presidency destroyed by the Watergate scandals. But McGovern says there is no comparison.
"I'd far rather have Nixon in the White House than these two fellows that we've got now," said the former three-term senator from South Dakota. "Nixon did some horrible things, which led to the effort to impeach him. But he simply was not as bad as Bush. On just about every level I can think of, Bush's actions are more impeachable than were those of Nixon."
Of particular concern to McGovern is the war in Iraq, which he has steadfastly opposed.
"The war was begun in clear violation of the Constitution," McGovern says. "There was no declaration of war by the Congress. Secondly, it's a flagrant violation of international law: Iraq was not threatening the United States in any way. Yet, the United States went after Iraq. The president and vice president got away with it, at least initially, because they were willing to exploit the emotional power of the 9/11 attack to achieve their goal of getting us into a war in the Middle East."
McGovern, a decorated World War II veteran, approves of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold's suggestion that Congress should look into employing the power of the purse to force the administration to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. "Frankly," the former senator says, "I would support anything that would get our troops out of there."
During his tenure in the Senate, McGovern worked with a Republican, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, to try and pass legislation to force the end of the Vietnam War. He also supported efforts to "chain the dogs of war," which were spearheaded by his liberal Democratic colleague, Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, a leading proponent of the 1973 War Powers Act.
Eagleton, who died this week at age 77, was briefly McGovern's running mate in the 1972 race. But the revelation that Eagleton had checked himself into the hospital three times for physical and nervous exhaustion led, after some internal turmoil, to a decision by McGovern to drop the Missouri senator from the ticket.
That decision, McGovern now says, was "absolutely a mistake." He now believes that the controversy would have quickly blown over. He also says that dropping Eagleton from the ticket did more harm than good.
McGovern is not afraid to delve into the historical record, even when it involves incidents related to his own career in public life. "We ought to learn from history," says the former senator, who notes that he earned a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University "thanks to the G.I. Bill."
"I think that the greatest deficiency in our politics these days is the fact that our leaders fail, by and large, to remember our history," says McGovern.
A close second is the caution of the current political class. McGovern calls the Congress "lily-livered" for failing to check and balance Bush and Cheney on the war.
McGovern does not suffer from the condition. He's as bold now as ever, and there is a sense of urgency about the man who could easily relax and accept the honors accorded an senior statesman of his own party and the country.
"I feel an obligation to speak up when I see these flagrant things happen," says McGovern. "I can't be silent when President Bush and Vice President Cheney choose to disregard the Constitution. Maybe if there were other people in the White House, I could slow down a little. But I can't do that as long as this administration is in charge."
Speaking of which: Is there a Democratic contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that McGovern likes? He's making no endorsements at this stage. But, like a lot of Democrats, McGovern says, "Right now, (Illinois Sen.) Barack Obama looks awfully good."
Then again, a typically frank McGovern admits, "I've gotten to the point where I think just about anyone would be better than Bush."
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for
Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic,
passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich
examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of
the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic
leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the
founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
Copyright © 2007 The Nation