When they were colleagues in the United States Senate in the mid-1960s, Robert Kennedy once called George McGovern “the only decent man” serving there. It’s possible that Kennedy was only taking the opportunity to make a point, though like McGovern himself, he was never much for mincing words.
It bears remembering that the Senate at the time still had some hold on its self-proclaimed status as the greatest deliberative body in the world. Both major parties had room for conservative and liberal wings, and each of those terms actually carried intellectual weight. Certainly the bar of service was considerably higher then than now — for decency, for competence, for the willingness to leave party affiliation and ideological baggage at the door when it came to doing what was best for the country.
Want an example? Consider the Food Stamp Reform Act of 1977, which was shepherded into law by co-sponsors McGovern — a liberal Democrat from South Dakota — and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican and rock-ribbed conservative. The legislation accomplished the dual feat of tightening eligibility requirements for food stamps and making them available to more people. (For those who are reading this and grumbling about the fact that, once upon a time, Democrats and Republicans came together and decided it might be good for the government of the richest nation on earth to help alleviate hunger among its citizenry — well, I’d tell you to go to hell, but I’m guessing you’re probably doing a pretty good job of punching your own ticket.)
McGovern’s political career began in 1956, with his election to the first of two terms in the House of Representatives. The Republican incumbent he defeated tried to paint him as a Communist sympathizer. McGovern’s response exemplified the quiet moral authority that formed the core of his persona as well as his political philosophy. “I have always despised communism and every other ruthless tyranny over the mind and spirit of man,” he said.
A bid for the U.S. Senate in 1960 came up short, but McGovern ran for South Dakota’s other seat two years later and won. In the interim, President John F. Kennedy appointed him to head the new administration’s Food for Peace program — which had been created as the result of an initiative championed by McGovern while he was in Congress, calling for America to use its food surplus both to combat hunger at home and as a foreign policy tool. In a little over a year under his leadership, Food for Peace established its presence in a dozen countries, increased the number of Americans receiving surplus food by more than 10 million and provided an economic boost to the nation’s family-owned farms.
In the Senate, McGovern strongly supported the Kennedy Administration’s domestic goals, but became a vocal critic of its foreign policy — most especially the expanding American commitment to the war in Vietnam. In 1963, McGovern became the first Senator to publicly oppose the war, warning that the nation was heading down a path of “moral debacle and political defeat.” In the years that followed, he became one of the leading voices calling for an end to what he termed, in an emotional 1970 speech on the Senate floor, “this damnable war.”
“This chamber reeks of blood,” McGovern told his colleagues. “It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed.”
His anti-war stance was the basis of McGovern’s run for President in 1972, when the journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote that he was “the only candidate in either party worth voting for.” Once he won the Democratic nomination, McGovern’s “dove” status was used by President Richard Nixon’s campaign as a bludgeon. The Nixon team called him a coward — a scurrilous charge against a man who had volunteered for duty in World War II and become a highly decorated fighter pilot — and slurred his liberal record, saying his platform was Amnesty (for draft dodgers), Acid and Abortion.
It worked, of course, aided by numerous missteps in McGovern’s own campaign. He lost by what then was the second-largest landslide in American history. Two years later, he was re-elected to the Senate, where he resumed his activism against hunger and for better nutrition. As part of his drive to pass the Food Stamp Reform Act, he authored a document that came to be known as The McGovern Report. The report proved prophetic in its identification of issues that beset America today, noting the direct link between changes in the nation’s intake of sugar, salt and fatty foods and the growing incidence of heart disease, cancer, obesity and stroke.
McGovern lost his Senate seat in the “Reagan Revolution” of 1980, but continued until the end of his life to work for the issues that were the basis of his liberalism. In 1998, President Bill Clinton appointed him as ambassador to the United Nations agencies involved in food and agriculture. He enlisted his old ally Bob Dole in the effort that in 2000 resulted in the creation by Congress of a global food and nutrition program that bears both of their names and has fed tens of millions of children in more than 40 countries.
When I heard of McGovern’s death on Sunday, at age 90, I thought back to that 1972 Presidential campaign. I was in the fourth grade, and on Election Day that November, our classroom took a vote of its own. It was 27-1 for Nixon. Guess who cast the lone McGovern vote?
Now, I can’t claim any preternatural political leanings. I hadn’t followed the campaign that closely, and wouldn’t become actively interested in the political process for a few more years. My parents were reliable Democrats, but they didn’t discuss their views around the house. Frankly, I’m not even sure how they voted that year.
So why did I “vote” for McGovern? Looking back, and taking this opportunity to reflect on his life and legacy, I’m thinking it’s because I’ve always known a decent man when I see one.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org