WASHINGTON - He was a pilot in World War II, bombing targets in Europe to stop Hitler. But former senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern says that didn't qualify him to run the country - and the same goes for GOP presumptive nominee John McCain.
"I don't have any regrets about that," the antiwar Democratic stalwart said in a brief interview yesterday on Capitol Hill. "While bombing is a terrible thing, we smashed Hitler's oil refineries all over Europe."
"But I don't recall ever saying that experience as a bomber pilot equipped me to be very strong on how to run a war, how to command the armed forces," said McGovern, who will turn 86 on July 18.
Retired General Wesley Clark, a onetime candidate for president himself, raised ire when he said recently that McCain's experience in Vietnam - while laudable - did not qualify him to be commander in chief. While noting that he honored McCain's service - including his years as a prisoner of war - Clark said late last month that McCain has not held "executive responsibility," and added, "I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is qualification to be president."
The remarks on CBS's "Face the Nation" were immediately derided by McCain's supporters.
But McGovern said Clark had it right.
"I think General Clark was misunderstood," McGovern said yesterday evening as he visited the House chamber where he once served. "He wasn't belittling [McCain] at all."
McGovern, who remains a fervent anti-hunger activist, was in town to present an award to Representative Jim McGovern [no relation to the former senator] for the Worcester Democrat's own contributions to fighting hunger. The younger McGovern last year lived a week on $3 worth of food a day - approximately the amount allowed to individuals receiving food stamps - to underscore the struggle hungry Americans face daily.
Former South Dakota senator McGovern - forced to drop his first vice presidential choice, former Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, from the 1972 ticket after it was disclosed that Eagleton had received shock treatment therapy - said his advice to Democratic presumptive nominee Barack Obama is to "first, do no harm" when selecting a running mate.
"Don't pick someone that can hurt you," McGovern said, adding that the current trend toward excruciating background checks of vice presidential hopefuls is a good move.
Before then [when Eagleton was picked], there wasn't much of any vetting going on," McGovern recalled. Former Alabama senator John Sparkman, the 1952 Democratic vice presidential nominee, was asked just one question before he was invited to join the ticket with Adlai Stevenson, McGovern said. "He was just asked, 'Will you take it?' " McGovern said. "That's the way it was then."