Congressman Jim McGovern speaks on his time at AU and perspective on the state of American politics
‘It's not enough for us to be able to think good thoughts or to be able to argue in a classroom over policy’
Congressman and American University alumnus Jim McGovern (MA-2) discussed his career and the political issues facing the country at an event hosted by the Kennedy Political Union on Wednesday.
School of Public Affairs Dean Vicki Wilkins moderated the event and asked McGovern questions about his life, political work and perspective on current events.
McGovern began by describing his experience as a student at AU, looking back on the people, places and opportunities that shaped his undergraduate years.
“I loved every minute,” he said. “I had some great courses, I made some great friends who are lifelong friends to this day, I had incredible discussions and I had this incredible internship with George McGovern that’s still among my most cherished memories on Capitol Hill.”
Upholding this culture of activism, McGovern mentioned how he led a protest against his graduation speaker, economist George Gilder, where he convinced several students and their parents to turn their backs to the stage during Gilder’s speech.
“He had written some pretty controversial things, like there was no discrimination against Black women,” he said. “We all had black armbands on and we stood and turned our backs in protest when he spoke.”
McGovern said that losing his first congressional campaign in 1994 taught him important lessons that helped him win on his second bid, despite little support from his personal and political circles.
“When I announced [my run] both times, nobody thought it was a good idea,” he said. “I had never run for anything in my life other than class treasurer when I was a senior in high school, so there was not a lot of establishment support.”
McGovern said his decision to run again in 1996 was fueled by a desire to run a better race the second time and a belief that he was more equipped for the job than the incumbent candidate.
“The most important thing was that I wanted to do it,” he said. “It enabled me to get up every day in spite of the odds and campaign my heart out.”
McGovern has won reelection in each subsequent term since his first successful bid in 1996. Some highlights of his career include starting the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which provides school meals to nearly nine million of the world’s poorest children, and the Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program, an initiative that strives to improve literacy skills for children and students from birth through 12th grade.
Another pivotal moment in his career took place on Jan. 6 of last year. McGovern was inside the Capitol Chamber overseeing the certification of the electoral college when the crowd of insurrectionists infiltrated the building.
“It was really a terrorist attack, not just on the building, but on our democracy,” McGovern said. “I was in the chair, I took over for Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, and I was hearing shouts in the corridor … I was getting texts from my daughter saying ‘Where are you? What are you doing?’”
McGovern said the emotional effects of what he witnessed that day still linger.
“When I walk to work and I see the Capitol building, I still get emotional when I think about what it symbolized, and to see people ripping it apart,” he said.
Speaking of the rioters, McGovern said, “Looking at their faces, if you asked me to describe what hate looks like, I would tell you it is what I saw in the eyes of these people.” He added that the rioters were there “to nullify and overturn the will of the American people.”
McGovern expressed dismay at his Republican colleagues who continue to downplay the events of that day.
“I serve with people who say that the people who attacked us were patriots,” he said. “I can barely look at them, I can’t get into an elevator with them … 140 Capitol police officers were injured, staffers were traumatized … so to glorify any part of that day to me is sick.”
McGovern also warned against letting history repeat itself, saying another coup “will happen again” if those involved are not held accountable.
Asked how Congress can move forward, McGovern said that the upcoming midterm elections are a “crossroads” for protecting democracy against a future of “authoritarianism” and “fascism.”
“If Republicans win the House or the Senate in the midterms, that is a reward to Trump, it’s a reward to those who are the ones who were cheering on those who wanted to nullify the election,” he said. “I think that strengthens their ranks, and it means the Republican party moves more and more in that direction.”
Despite the circumstances, McGovern said he still holds hope that democracy will prevail, but added that protecting democracy is contingent on people being politically active.
“It's not enough for us to be able to think good thoughts or to be able to argue in a classroom over policy,” he said. “If you really care about this stuff, you’ll find a way to put your energy into something of service.”
Born into a family of small business owners, McGovern developed an interest in politics after seeing the economic challenges that his parents faced running their liquor store in Worcester, Massachusetts. Once he became a student at AU, McGovern worked his way through the ranks, interning in the office of Senator George McGovern, to whom he isn’t related, before graduating with a B.A. in history and working in the office of Democratic Congressman Joe Moakley.
McGovern was asked to share some tips with students looking to build a career in politics. His advice: “Just run.”
“Lightning can strike,” he said. “If you wanna do it, do it, and give it your best.”