George McGovern’s Indian Summer. At a time when most have put down their pen or have simply placed themselves out to pasture, George McGovern still has a point to make.
With that, The Luncheon Society has become a welcome respite for those who are promoting their new book; a place where authors can engage in a long discussion about their work without worrying about the short attention span of a television audience or lose the flow of a great conversation because of a commercial break.
Over the years, The Luncheon Society has quietly convened over 200 times where ideas can bubble up and be passed around the table at over 40 restaurants like Palio D’Asti, located about a chip shot from the foot of San Francisco’s iconic Transamerica Building, or Napa Valley Grille a well-loved haunt on the edge of UCLA in Westwood section of Los Angeles, or The Blue Fin, situated in the Heart of New York’s Times Square where Jimmy Breslin mourned the loss of the neighborhood’s more grittier residents of hookers and vagrants gave way to tourists with cameras
George McGovern returned to The Luncheon Society after a 6 year absence for two gatherings, one in San Francisco and the second in Los Angeles. The latter took place just 36 hours after the passing of Edward Kennedy, who died after a valiant fight against brain cancer, was equal parts eulogy and a celebration of the issues they shared. Both gatherings served as a reunion for old friends from the McGovern campaign, others who served as volunteers, and still more like myself who were too young to participate and could only vote with our hearts and minds.
At 87, McGovern has outlived or outdistanced his rivals; he has endured the twin sadness of losing his wife Eleanor in 2007 from heart disease and daughter Terry after a long battle with depression and alcoholism, who tragically froze to death in a Wisconsin snow bank in 1994. One Luncheon Society member, who was the inspiration for a character in Doonesbury, remarked that McGovern didn’t look a day over 70.
Now, he finds himself on another campaign of sorts, a book tour to support his recent biography on Abraham Lincoln, organized by the able direction of Patricia Kelly, the widow of Academy Award actor, dancer, and director Gene Kelly.
Throughout the tour, McGovern has turned up at some interesting places. The night before the luncheon in Los Angeles, he was interviewed by Gore Vidal in front of a packed house at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda and the irony was not lost on those in attendance; more than one questioner wondered aloud if both McGovern and Vidal were at the right address.
San Francisco and Los Angeles have always retained great affection for George McGovern. Finding a place that would be able to accommodate both gatherings might be a bit of a challenge. For us, reaching out to Beth Brown at One Market in San Francisco was an easy decision. Located in the heart of the Financial District adjacent to the Embarcadero, Beth had the patience to navigate through the larger and chaotic Luncheon Society gatherings in years past, including Al Franken Linda Ronstadt, a collection of Astronauts and Cosmonauts, and most recently, Germaine Greer where 40 to 50 people might arrive.
For the Los Angeles gathering, we turned again to an old friend. Lisa Specht, a partner at Manatt, Phelps and Phillips; somebody I first met during Joe Biden’s initial run for the White House in 1987. She generously sponsored The Luncheon Society again at The Regency Club in Westwood. We needed a place that could handle a rambunctious group and the staff is simply amazing. While the flu kept Lisa from joining us, she was certainly there in spirit.
McGovern, Lincoln, and The American President Series. Toward the end of his life, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. created the “American Presidents Series,” a collection of biographies published by Henry Holt. “I regard The American Presidents Series as an exciting educational opportunity,” the two time Pulitzer Prize winner once remarked, “telling the history of the United States in terms of forty-two men who at one time or another led — or misled — the republic.” Each biography would run no longer than 165 pages. They would be penned by a variety of historians, political figures, academics, writers, and those who Schlesinger thought might shed some new insight upon the subject.
Ten years ago, Schlesinger buttonholed McGovern at a New York gathering. Since he was a former history professor, Schlesinger felt the South Dakotan would be a perfect author for one of the volumes. McGovern graciously declined but left the door open and offered to write the Lincoln volume. He knew that there would be a waiting list for those who wanted to better understand the 16th president. Schlesinger told McGovern that Bill Clinton had been selected to write the Lincoln volume which led the historian to quip in a gentle tease, “George, some people think that getting elected as president is more important than merely being nominated.”
Since McGovern had little interest to write about Buchanan or Garfield, he thought he was off the hook.
Before he died, Schlesinger called McGovern late one night; the Lincoln biography had become available again. Bill Clinton backed away because of his schedule but McGovern demurred for one last time. However, Arthur reminded George that he had always teased him that Northwestern provided the country with better historians than Harvard; Arthur said it was time for George “to put up or shut up.” They both laughed and the deal was done.
Character and Lincoln. Now that he had a book to write, McGovern wondered what new light he could shed on his subject that 6,000 other books somehow missed. Was there something left untouched, was there a stone still left unturned by past writers and historians?
McGovern was amazed by Lincoln’s capacity to struggle through his deep melancholy, which today would be treated as chronic depression. Throughout his youth and into adulthood, Lincoln would enter into periods of great emotional darkness that would take months, if not years to pass. Lincoln stopped carrying a pocket knife because he feared he might succumb to his darker thoughts and slit his wrists or slice his jugular vein. The depths of his sadness were so overwhelming, so overarching that he often questioned the meaning of his existence and thoughts of suicide and fears of madness always stood nearby as an uneasy companion.
In today’s world, Lincoln’s might be easily treatable by one of the many medical regimens used to battle depression. However, Paxil was at least a century away from introduction and others simply fell victim to their inner demons and were forever lost.
Lincoln’s saving grace was found in his one year of formal schooling, where he learned to read and write. From that point, without the myths that dovetailed him in life and in death, he simply worked at writing. The Gettysburg Address was not crafted on the back on envelope on the train trip to consecrate the dead of both sides; it was piece of oratory that grew, evolved, and slowly took shape. In the end, he redefined the higher concept of what America meant in ten short sentences.
Lincoln’s National Contribution. While Lincoln felt that the Emancipation Proclamation was his crowning glory, McGovern politely disagrees. The Emancipation only freed slaves who lived within the narrow confines of politics; Freedom only came from the rebellious South, not in the Border States or anyplace outside the Confederacy. It would take the successful conclusion of the Civil War, plus the 13th Amendment, to accomplish that greater objective, items only ratified in Lincoln’s memory.
However, McGovern felt that Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment was found in the shrewd practicality of keeping the Union together, often under the most harrowing of circumstances. Our national disintegration began before his inauguration; war fever on both sides only fanned the flames of disunion, but it took the complete destruction of the South to further extinguish any idea of secession.
For some, a political settlement might have offered an expedient route; allow the South to chart their own path, with chattel in hand, in order to reduce the potential for bloodshed. Perhaps if Lincoln was a poll-driven leader, he might have quickly sued for peace after those first initial losses. He suffered from ineptitude within the Union senior ranks, which only subsided upon the emergence of Grant and a new generation of leaders. In the end, Lincoln prevailed with the union intact and the thread that connected his first inaugural speech, his short comments at Gettysburg, and his final inaugural centered on union and reconciliation, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”
However, secession allowed bills and initiatives once bottled up and smothered by Southern intransigence to find a new light of day. Tucked away from the daily onslaught of war, Lincoln passed The Morrill Act, which created the great American universities, including Michigan State, Perdue, Iowa State, Penn State, the University of California, all public institutions with the exception of Cornell. The Homestead Act gave farm families a chance to grow westward and eventually own the land if they tilled the soil. Finally, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 set in motion what became the Transcontinental Railroad, which began during The Civil War and ended four years after Lincoln’s death.
The 1972 Campaign. McGovern spoke of the 1972 presidential bid in wistful terms and related that they did everything right up until the moment they won the nomination. However, once they were nominated, the campaign appeared star-crossed and everything seemed to quickly disintegrate.
Campaign leaders like Gary Hart began to lay the groundwork for an insurgent campaign in 1971, a year before these races traditionally kicked off. McGovern used that extra year to build a grassroots organization in key states, as McCarthy had done in 1968 in New Hampshire.
As I looked around the tables at both Luncheon Society gatherings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I was struck by how the contours of history had played out. Dan Ellsberg sat across the table from McGovern in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, Max Palevsky and Stanley Sheinbaum sat on either side of him. Bennet Kelley later told me that Sheinbaum organized Ellsberg’s defense after he leaked “The Pentagon Papers” to The New York Times and the Washington Post. Ellsberg said that without Sheinbaum, he would still be in jail. Palevsky’s wife Jodie later told me that her husband gave McGovern a check for $1 million dollars to go out and “speak the truth” while he was still a boardmember at Xerox. In Los Angeles, McGovern pulled Hale Boggs aside and reminisced about serving in Congress with his grandfather, the former Majority Leader and later his grandmother, who took his place after he was lost in a plane accident off the coast of Alaska.
Early in the process, McGovern felt that he could score an upset and beat Nixon. The economy was in a rut, wage and price controls angered his base, and 1972 offered a wild card named George Wallace.
The prevailing wisdom guessed that Wallace, running in the Democratic primaries, would bolt and run again as a third party candidate in the fall. In 1968, Wallace came to the table with 10 million votes and nearly threw the race to Humphrey. Since then, the Nixon White House worked overtime to neutralize Wallace voters with their “Southern Strategy,” but Wallace had successfully tapped into the white working class and blue collar discontent. His surprising strength in Southern Ohio and Southern Illinois led McGovern to believe that Wallace might find 20 million votes in 1972.
The hope was that Wallace would have won the rest of the Old Confederacy as a Third Party independent and siphoned enough votes away from Nixon to tip the balance and allow McGovern to win the election. It would have rivaled Truman’s defeat of Dewey. However, it all ended in a Laurel, Maryland parking lot when Arthur Bremer emptied his revolver into Wallace, permanently paralyzing him from the waist down.
The Miami Convention. Once the campaign arrived at the convention, it began to take on water. Problems soon compounded and within a short time, a pall emerged over the campaign. After securing the nomination, McGovern delivered his acceptance speech, his “Come Home America” address, at 2:30 AM, long after most Americans went home to sleep.
The McGovern campaign found themselves in the odd position of attempting to woo their white working-class base back to the Democratic ranks. The indignity of watching Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley booted from the convention in favor of Jesse Jackson was too much for some. Some voted Republican for the first time in their lives and others never came back. The seed of the Reagan Democrat was planted at the 1972 convention.
The third wound, which proved to be fatal, was the selection of Tom Eagleton as the Vice Presidential nominee. Eagleton had kept his psychological issues out of the papers and had been hospitalized three times during the 1960s for nervous exhaustion, which required two episodes of electroconvulsive therapy. He was also taking Thorazine, a powerful anti-psychotic that was issued under his wife’s name. After a short period of time, Eagleton was forced off the ticket and Sargant Shriver was selected as his replacement, but the damage was done.
After Tom Eagleton’s death in 2007, Bob Novak revealed that the Missouri Senator was the person behind the famous Triple A comment, that McGovern was the candidate of “Acid Amnesty, and Abortion.” It was a blind comment that appeared in “Evans and Novak” and some thought that the phrase had been manufactured as a Nixon dirty trick.
One person asked McGovern about the Novak comment and he graciously replied that Eagleton might be the source but nobody knew for sure. During the primaries, Eagleton was a strong Muskie supporter and at that point, the Muskie ship was sinking quickly. What started out to be a throwaway comment was transformed into a broad brush.
All three issues became cautionary tales for future Democratic nominees who make hasty decisions in an era of full disclosure. The Vice Presidential vetting process soon became a very long paper trail of tax returns and personals files. Convention speeches are now served up for prime time audiences, and the process of binding the wounds of hurt feelings became has risen to an art form. Published reports stated that Ted Kennedy vetoed then-Boston Mayor Kevin White as a potential Vice Presidential choice for McGovern in a move that made little sense. With many of his senatorial colleagues begging off, McGovern should have had more room to make a Vice Presidential decision.
However, the Eagleton affair became a leitmotif for the campaign. McGovern noted that nobody got robbed or killed but the story received 10 times the coverage of the Watergate caper. The election came, McGovern was beaten, and he carried one state as well as the District of Columbia. He was reelected to the Senate in 1974 but lost a bid for his fourth term in 1980.
McGovern and Hunger. During the Clinton years, McGovern served as the United Nations Ambassador for Food and Agriculture, serving in Rome. Whenever he talked about the challenges of feeding the hungry, experts replied that McGovern had to address the root cause of population explosion in poor countries first.
However, McGovern thought otherwise. In areas where grinding, horrible poverty were the norms of life, something as simple as a school lunch could be a game –changer on so many fronts. In these areas, boys were favored over girls. These illiterate young women were often pawned off into marriage as early as 11 or 12 and would often have 6 children and the cycle would continue in ad finitum.
A school lunch program would provide dividends on several levels. School enrollments would double and parents would send boys and girls to school for the food alone. Second, a full stomach makes learning easier. If a young girl attended school for 6 years with a school luncheon program, they ended up better educated, had better self-esteem, would marry later in life, and would only have 2.9 children verses double the number without the program.
George McGovern would work closely with Bob Dole on issues of school luncheons and hunger, which proved to be an interesting study in bipartisanship. When Dole entered the Senate in 1968, McGovern thought he was the nastiest partisan in the chamber. During the 1972 campaign, he said, “Dole would take a bite out of him for breakfast and take a bigger bite out of him for dinner.”
However, he later learned that Dole emerged from the Second World War severely injured and spent 3 ½ years rotting away in VA hospitals, fighting off fevers that would have killed a lesser man. He discovered that Dole had a certain compassion for those who were less off. Together, they revolutionized WIC, Food Stamps, the school lunch program, and food aid overseas. McGovern-Dole bills sailed through Congress on a voice vote and did not need a roll call vote.
Obama and Healthcare. In Los Angeles, the conversation often wandered to healthcare, especially after the passing of Edward Kennedy. For McGovern, he looked at the 1,100 pages that comprised the current health bill and would have boiled it down to one sentence:
- “Medicare will be extended to everybody.”
McGovern realized that “Medicare for All” would be phased in over a period of time, but for him, it seemed to be the most rational way to resolve the issue.
As he talked about the fragile state of healthcare reform in Congress, he mentioned two gaping holes that have plagued the Obama team. Ted Kennedy’s illness and death were very top of mind, but the second item caught us by surprise.
- McGovern noted that Kennedy was the only person who had the legislative grease and the personal relationships to move the congressional bill through the Senate committees for a Presidential signature.
- However, Tom Daschle’s failure to be confirmed as the Secretary of Health and Human Services was just as catastrophic. Daschle, who spent 3 terms in the Senate and ten years as Minority Leader before losing to John Thune 2004, understood the mood of the chamber and could work closely with Kennedy to make the deal happen.
As we wound up in Los Angeles, Tyrone Maho, an old college friend and long time conservative asked McGovern about his relationship with both Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.
McGovern didn’t see Nixon for a decade after he resigned from office, but in 1984, they met at Tricia Nixon Cox’s apartment in New York City. McGovern reminded Nixon that he once said that an American President and Soviet Premier should meet on an annual basis and to do otherwise might cause irreparable harm to the strategic relationship.
McGovern had hoped that Nixon still had some pull within the Reagan White House and suggested that the two of them should write a joint statement imploring the two leaders to meet. Nixon considered it for a second but thought otherwise. He mentioned that if he were to sign on with McGovern, any influence within the Reagan White House would evaporate overnight; McGovern agreed and suggested that Nixon should send a communiqué on his own, which he did. The Russian and America leaders met in 1985.
Barry Goldwater was another story altogether. McGovern was out in Phoenix for a meeting of bankers and phoned Goldwater on a lark and they met at his mountaintop home. He could hear Goldwater shuffle to the front door and when McGovern asked how his old colleague was and he replied, emphatically, “old.”
Goldwater said that he had two artificial knees, two artificial hips, nothing below the waist worked (which was the PG rated version) and complained about the challenges of getting old. After spending time together, McGovern wished him well and both said their farewells. Goldwater died a week later. McGovern said that its better to see your friends while they are alive verses the alternative. Well said.
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The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.