George McGovern and Bill Clinton: the State of the Friendship

George McGovern endorsed Obama today, forsaking his old friend Hillary and, in particular, his dear friend Bill. Is this another Clinton relationship fraying at the edges?
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George McGovern endorsed Obama today, forsaking his old friend Hillary and, in particular, his dear friend Bill. This post from April 27 describing the close tie between the two men takes on a new resonance this dark afternoon.... for the Clintons.

Is the decades-long friendship between Bill Clinton and George McGovern -- in 1972, Yale law student Bill Clinton relocated to Texas to organize the state for McGovern -- another of the many Clinton relationships currently fraying at the edges?

Earlier this month, Clinton operatives slyly hinted that were the Democrats to make the mistake of allowing Obama the nomination, he would be another McGovern, who, in 1972, carried only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia in a landslide loss to Richard Nixon.

In an interview with Huffington Post political reporter Sam Stein, McGovern, who has endorsed Hillary, said that he expects Obama to win the nomination and paid tribute to Obama's political coalition. McGovern described that coalition as much wider than his back in 1972 and more likely to succeed on election day. McGovern complained that some of his worst enemies before the convention in 1972 were Democrats he had defeated in the primaries who "bad mouthed[ed]" him across the country and provided fodder for Nixon's people to use against him in the general election. Sound familiar?

Any breach between the former presidential candidate and the former president would be a shame because of their genuine mutual affection and respect. Their friendship during the last decade -- post January 21, 1998 when the Lewinsky scandal broke -- provides a window into the soul of the mature (chronologically, at least) Bill Clinton.

In an interview I did with McGovern in November 2006 while writing Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, the former South Dakota senator fondly recalled the night in 1999 that he and his late wife Eleanor stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom. Other guests were writer and Clinton friend Taylor Branch, currently writing a book about Bill Clinton -- Branch also worked for McGovern in 1972 in Texas, where he met Bill Clinton and roomed with him -- and the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg and his wife. After dinner, the president led the group to a room upstairs in the White House where they played "Oh, Hell!" a game that Clinton learned from Spielberg.

After about an hour and a half, McGovern recalls, Spielberg said, "'I think it's time to head to California,' rushed out to their jet, ...while everybody else -- Hillary was home that night -- went to bed except the president and Eleanor and me; we were escorted by [Bill Clinton] to the Lincoln Bedroom. He told us the history of it and the various people who stayed there." Two and one half hours later, the Commander in Chief left, and the exhausted McGoverns went to sleep.

Anyone who berates the Clintons for renting to the highest contributors the Lincoln Bedroom and the Queen's Bedroom would have to recognize that the McGoverns' overnight was all about friendship. Not even the most rabid Clinton haters or most wild conspiracy theorists could accuse Bill, late in his troubled second term, after Lewinsky and impeachment, of looking ahead to Hillary's race in 2008 and starting to prepare the chit to be used in the South Dakota primary on June 3; a race that in the "Hillary-is-inevitable" days nobody expected to count for anything. (It counts for plenty now, even though it will certainly go to the Republicans in the fall, because, with Montana, it will officially end the primary/caucus part of the battle between Hillary and Obama.)

Back in 1999 Bill Clinton was worse than a lame duck or even a disabled duck; he was a crippled creature, unwelcome in the Al Gore campaign among other places. He found himself commiserating with his buddies in late night telephone calls, spending way too much time playing cards and golf, and keeping Lincoln Bedroom guests up well past their bedtimes -- almost no one willing to tell the man who was still called the most powerful man in the world but, in a sense, not really anymore -- that they were tired and wanted to go to sleep.

In June 2004, after Bill Clinton rehabilitated his seemingly wrecked reputation, looking as handsome as anyone had ever seen him -- but harboring seriously clogged arteries; less than three months before he underwent emergency bypass surgery -- he returned to the White House for the unveiling of his and Hillary's official portraits. President George W. Bush gave the Clintons a warm "Welcome home," and brought his predecessor to tears: "Over eight years it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency," Bush said. "He filled this house with energy and joy." The Texan-in-chief evoked laughter when he made a joke at George McGovern's expense. "People in Bill Clinton's life have always expected him to succeed, and more than that, they wanted him to succeed. And meeting those expectations took more than charm and intellect. It took hard work and drive and determination and optimism. I mean, after all, you got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas."

In the post presidency years before Hillary entered the race, McGovern says, Bill worked hard to be seen as not "too much of a partisan... I'm sure he has serious doubts about some of [Bush's] policies, but he never, at least not in my presence, ever has ridiculed the President or attacked him." (Some close Clinton supporters say they wish that instead of making nice with Bush and especially with Bush's father, the former president had let the Bushes have it, regularly, between the eyes. The relationship with the first President Bush is another that is surely fraying much beyond the edges.)

In October, 2006, when McGovern needed a big name to speak at the dedication of his library at Dakota Wesleyan University in his hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota, he asked Bill Clinton to be there. Clinton first said no because he had a wedding to attend in Little Rock -- Chelsea was the maid of honor for a childhood friend -- but, when McGovern renewed the request, the former president agreed to do the speech pro bono (no small favor given his six-figure fees) so long as McGovern or his people supplied him with a private plane to ferry him there from New York and then to Little Rock for the wedding.

McGovern recalls, with enormous pleasure, Clinton's visit to this "little Methodist college" where McGovern had met Eleanor -- then bedridden and dying of heart disease -- received his undergraduate degree, and taught history. Bill did a "masterful" job of relating to almost every one of the five thousand people in attendance; he tried to shake everyone's hand, stayed around much longer than scheduled, as usual making his Secret Service agents anxious.

On the 2006 Clinton Family Foundation tax return is a $25,000 donation to the McGovern Library made in early 2007. McGovern, who endorsed Hillary in October 2007, before the campaign turned ugly, told a reporter from the Washington Post "it was the furthest thought" from his mind when he decided to endorse, and one certainly believes the gracious and earnest George McGovern.

McGovern also speaks highly of Hillary. While campaigning in Texas in the winter 2008, she made much of her work in 1972 -- she was then Hillary Rodham and Bill's girlfriend -- registering Hispanics for McGovern.

McGovern remembers his campaign manager, Gary Hart, calling him, not about Hillary, but about Bill: "There's a young guy [here; Bill was standing at his side] who wants to work for you and he says he could organize Arkansas for us, but he's so smart and resourceful from every indication, I think we should send him to a bigger state and we talked for a couple of minutes and decided Texas would be a good place for him..." Hart remembers Bill as "personable, obviously very bright, terrific resume at that point educationally and clearly understood politics and was willing and eager to help." He remembers Hillary as quiet, not saying much. (Hart, whom I also interviewed, has endorsed Obama.)

Also at the dedication of the McGovern library in 2006, was Tom Daschle -- a former Senator from South Dakota, once a close friend of Bill Clinton's and a recipient of anguished calls from the President during the impeachment crisis. Daschle now also supports Obama. Will McGovern stick with Hillary in the South Dakota primary? Yes, he told Sam Stein, but expressed hope that the bitter tone of the campaign will subside.

On introducing Bill Clinton that day in Mitchell, South Dakota, McGovern recalls saying words to the effect that the former president, "very possibly will do more in the years ahead to reduce disease and poverty and hunger than any other person on the planet.... Two major journals have already labeled him the most influential man in the world. And that's probably true. It's hard to think who would claim that mantle more than he unless it's Carter. With Nelson Mandela fading physically, I don't know who would have more influence with people across the world than Bill Clinton." One wonders if he would use the same words today.

McGovern muses that Clinton must regret not being able to run again for office. "He's such a natural at it; he must miss the thrill of the crowd. I haven't been in that business for many years and I still miss it."

Bill Clinton is a natural at running for office. But he is not a natural at helping another, even one as close to him as Hillary; one whose election would help him clean and extend his legacy, run for office. Some think, and it's becoming part of the latest conventional wisdom, that Bill is just starting to learn how to do it, and to turn the campaign narrative in his wife's favor. It may be too late.

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