George McGovern, a committed and persistent voice for peace, is spending his last days in a hospice in his native South Dakota. For those of us who worked on war/peace issues, and worked to open and democratize the Democratic Party, McGovern stands as a historic force. McGovern cared about what happened at home by providing leadership on fighting hunger for over 50 years. By leading the Senate efforts in establishing the food stamp program, he secured a critical safety net program.
McGovern was part of a historic group of elected officials from sparsely populated states that neighbored South Dakota. They began their service at the end of the 19th Century and continued through the end of the 20th century. McGovern’s public work went into the 21st century. These officials fought for peace, battled for arms control and worked overtime to end nuclear testing, opposed excessive military spending, initiated bold programs such as Food for Peace as part of foreign aid and recognized that government had to allocate resources fairly. Think of William Jennings Bryan, George Norris, Hubert Humphrey, Mike Mansfield, Frank Church and George McGovern.
McGovern’s greatest contribution was the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment that called for a legislative end to the Vietnam War. It focused the anti-war movement on using politics and policy to set a standard for Congress to meet its legislative responsibilities to end the Vietnam War. It laid the basis for an ongoing Senate effort to end the Vietnam war. Those ideas have served anti-war public purposes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The legitimacy of congressional responsibility is established even if it is not always exercised well.
A Council for a Livable World story merits remembering. After his 1960 defeat in South Dakota, President Kennedy named McGovern Food for Peace Director. McGovern, motivated by his work, chose to run again for the Senate. 1962 was the year Council began endorsing Senate candidates. Leo Szilard, shrewdly understood the importance of paying attention to quality Senate candidates from thinly populated states. George McGovern was Council’s first endorsed candidate. As we are wont to say, the rest is history.
At times in the 1960s and 1970s there were tensions between McGovern and the George Meany wing of the AFL-CIO. Meany was an all out supporter of the Vietnam War McGovern, coming from an anti-labor state, with strong retail businesses, did not oppose anti-union “right to work” laws nor did he always support the liberal position on strengthening the minimum wage law or reforming unemployment compensation. That put him in cross hairs with Meany. But multi-issue liberals, including people in the labor movement, recognized McGovern’s leadership on ending the Vietnam War and fighting hunger. That leadership merited their support for McGovern in his race against Nixon and in his 1974 and 1980 Senate elections.
One critical test of McGovern’s leadership is what did he do after being trounced by Nixon in 1972. Wounds have to be healed. It certainly was not an easy time for the McGoverns. But he did not stay on the sidelines. He continued his Senate service in an active way serving until he was not re-elected in 1980.
That defeat did not stop McGovern from having an active life promoting Middle East peace between Israel and Palestinians. McGovern, with a sense of adventure, tried various entrepreneurial initiatives and wrote books. In the Senate he had worked with Bob Dole on food stamp matters and the two often spoke before audiences on the importance of overcoming hunger.
President Clinton appointed McGovern as the US Ambassador to United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture. President George W. Bush retained him in that post.
McGovern often tied his speaking on hunger issues to FDR’s Four Freedoms, especially Freedom from Want. How appropriate that a few days ago Four Freedoms Park was dedicated on Roosevelt Island in New York.
McGovern’s mid-western roots, like others before him, led to an exemplary public life. His memory continues in all that he did for peace and ending hunger. That is a continuing and powerful legacy.
October 19, 2012