Unlikely liberal fed the world


As most readers know, Sen. George McGovern, erstwhile presidential candidate and long-serving senator from South Dakota, died this past weekend. McGovern was 90.

You need not agree with McGovern’s politics to admire him. He was a bona fide war hero, having flown 35 missions as a bomber pilot during World War II. He held a doctorate in history. He was a devoted family man and the son of a Methodist minister.

With such a pedigree it seems more likely that McGovern would have been staunchly conservative, especially given the leanings of his home state. As we know, he was any thing but conservative. More than this, he was a beacon of liberal, anti-Vietnam War politics. Even so, as chairman of the senate Agriculture Committee, McGovern was well-known for reaching across the aisle.

Despite his personal talent in fostering conciliation, the American electorate soundly rebuffed McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid against Richard Nixon. While he is certainly remembered for that trouncing, he is also heralded for his work against hunger.

In 1964, McGovern published a book titled, War Against Want: America’s Food for Peace Program. McGovern served as the director of Food for Peace under President Kennedy. The top U.S. program in fighting world hunger, Food for Peace started under Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. McGovern’s book documented the history of Food for Peace and America’s leadership in fighting world hunger.

McGovern understood that by addressing hunger, a host of other social ills could also be assailed. He led school-based feeding programs in South Korea, Brazil, India, Poland and other countries. These countries are now contributors to the cause of ending global hunger. McGovern also was a leader in building the U.S. national school lunch program including summer feeding.

Successes with the U.S. Food for Peace program led to the creation of an international version, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). McGovern spearheaded this initiative, which is currently the largest food aid organization in the world. The U.S. Food for Peace program is the single biggest donor to WFP.

At any point after the 1972 election, McGovern could have justly retired and been lauded for a lifetime of achievements. He did not. Neither did his zeal to unite often oppositional forces in the cause of doing good.

In 2000, McGovern, along with Sen. Bob Dole, joined forces to form an international school meals program. To date, the McGovern-Dole program has fed millions of children in Haiti, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bangladesh and other locations. Each year McGovern-Dole grants are awarded to WFP and other hunger fighting organizations so they can provide school meals in developing countries.

Writing about his friend and senatorial colleague, Dole wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post that read in part: “In 2008, George and I were humbled to be named the co-recipients of the World Food Prize. As we were called on stage to accept the award, we once again reached across the aisle, walking to the podium literally arm-in-arm. I began my acceptance remarks by saying that ‘The good news is that we finally won something. It proves that you should never give up.’”

As we are on the precipice of another presidential election, we should be instructed by the example set by these two men. While neither ever ascended to the nation’s highest office, they were both winners in a broader sense. They showed us that reasoned differences were possible to discuss in a civil tone; that ethical governance could emanate from either political party; and that effective government was indeed possible in a time before corporations were afforded personhood. In those 40 years since McGovern was handed his hat by the Nixon campaign, the wheels of progress don’t seemed to have turned all that far — if at all. At a time of billion dollar, two-year campaigns, perhaps we ought to look backward as we push forward.