Interview - George McGovern

''People are getting the message'': three decades on, America's great loser detects the first signs

The elegant George McGovern stands unrecognised in the lobby of the Soho Grand Hotel in New York. Forty years ago, when he was daily condemning President Lyndon B Johnson for perpetuating the slaughter in Vietnam, he was the darling of America's young, the backwoods senator from South Dakota who alone seemed to speak up for those about to be conscripted.

Today's iPod-wearing beautiful people in the Soho Grand, air-kissing each other as they scan the room for a famous face, are oblivious to the 83-year-old in their midst. But if McGovern was largely forgotten after he lost the 1972 presidential election, there are signs that Americans are finally beginning to think again about his legacy. Thirty-three years on from that defeat - in which every state except Massachusetts embraced Richard Nixon - blue-state Americans have started to catch up with his views. He is the subject of a feature-length documentary biography, Stephen Vittoria's One Bright Shining Moment, released last month in the US. And with the carnage in Baghdad and New Orleans dragging down George Bush's approval ratings, the most spectacular loser in recent American politics has become quietly optimistic. He believes conservatism is fading.

To find a parallel British figure to McGovern you would have to reach back to Michael Foot, chosen by a suicidally splintered Labour Party to challenge Margaret Thatcher, the belligerent victor of the Falklands war, in 1983. As with Foot, McGovern's defeat forced Democrats to address what they were doing wrong. And like Foot, he became a painful memory to many in his own party.

The Democrats concluded that McGovern's unapologetic liberalism would keep them out of the White House for ever and even today his views, unsurprising to Europeans, remain way beyond the American mainstream and ensure that the grand old man of 1960s dissent is rarely seen alongside Democratic leaders.

McGovern is clear about why he lost: he failed to elicit that his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, had suffered from mental illness; he failed to postpone his televised acceptance speech from 2.30am to prime time; and the shooting of George Wallace, the Georgia racist, ensured a head-on fight with Nixon, who inherited Wallace's 20 million Southern voters.

And, with reluctance, he admits he was too liberal for the voters. "I was probably ahead of where Americans were in calling for an immediate pull-out from Vietnam, in calling for a curtailment of military spending, and on changing the treatment for first-offender marijuana possessors to a misdemeanour rather than a felony," he admitted. "Those things were interpreted skilfully by the Nixon people as: 'McGovern is surrendering to the communists'; 'He wants to slash our national defence'; and my being in favour of legalising drugs.

"I would also have to concede I was out of step with the majority of Americans. That was a decisive factor. A liberal carries a certain burden which is difficult to translate into the voting majority. Probably still would be."

The Republicans' portrayal of a candidate's liberal beliefs as a fatal weakness radically changed how Democrats present themselves, he says. "It is the reason the two Democrats who have gotten to the White House in the last 40 years, Carter and Clinton, were both Southern governors. You couldn't accuse them of wanting to impose northern liberalism on the country.

"They talked a lot about national defence, security, standing up for America. They both increased military spending substantially. Clinton did away with the welfare programme and used missiles against Saddam Hussein. And he interfered in Kosovo.

"I had a better war record than practically anyone who has run for the presidency in the last 50 years" - McGovern piloted 35 bombing missions over Nazi Germany, including a raid to disrupt the Auschwitz concentration camp - "but that isn't the image you get being a leading critic of our involvement in the Vietnam war.

"I think, however, slowly positions are changing. How do you define a liberal in the United States? I guess it is somebody who believes in giving a strong, positive role to the federal government in lifting conditions of life, as opposed to yielding to where the greatest pressure is from - the organised and the well-born.

"We are beginning to see the re-emergence of a more liberal political force in the country. I get the sense that this tragedy in New Orleans is going to accelerate that. We were totally unprepared. You would think we were Bangladesh. The engineers knew those levees were dangerously weak. Bush cut their budget. They didn't have any plan to evacuate people.

"That is the kind of situation where you would think our commander-in-chief would order our National Guard into Louisiana. But they are over in Iraq, mucking around in the Arabian Desert when they should have been defending this country. I think people are getting that message better than at any time I can recall."

It is McGovern's opposition to the Iraq occupation that sets him apart from leading Democrats, many of whom voted for the invasion. "The war is Bush's biggest problem," he said. "Support for the war is beginning to wane. Everyone knows it was fraudulent. There was no threat. Nobody's going to be such a damned fool, even if he is a maniacal corrupt bastard like Saddam Hussein, to throw a missile at the United States. Your country would be vaporised within 72 hours, if not 72 minutes."

So why did the British government become convinced that war was necessary? "I have a high regard for Tony Blair. I think he is intelligent, decent, goodly minded. I think he has brilliant leadership qualities. He's like Clinton, in the sense that he can take moderate liberal ideas and make them sound like common sense. But he misfired on this and I don't know why.

"Why did Tony Blair buy a fraudulent rationalisation? I don't think he lied, either. I think he saw some threat there. He might have thought the weapons were aimed at Israel. Maybe they were. But that's not a reason to put British and American troops into that part of the world without any kind of exit strategy.

"I still have admiration for Tony Blair. But he made a central mistake on Iraq, and so did George Bush. They may have been showing each other intelligence information. But we know intelligence agencies aren't God. Otherwise we would have known the Soviet Union was about to collapse in 1989, we would have known the shah of Iran was about to be replaced. But how people as intelligent as General [Colin] Powell and Tony Blair could buy that war, I don't know.

"A good slice of the Iraqis don't want foreign troops in their country. That doesn't mean they want Saddam Hussein, but they are rid of him. That is one good thing that came out of this. But now they've got us. American deaths are approaching 2,000. I don't believe it is an exaggeration to say 100,000 Iraqis are dead as a consequence of our intervention and the ensuing insurgency to show their disapproval of us being there."

Should Britain and the US now set a date to leave Iraq? "That may be a good idea. I wrote recently calling for American soldiers to be systematically withdrawn, starting with numbers equal to the number of Iraqi security forces we have trained. That means we could bring out 30,000-40,000 right now. And then a target date for reducing the rest over time, maybe within a year. There is nothing that can be gained staying any longer."