George McGovern, a man of integrity and honour

By J Brooks Spector 25 October 2012

American politician George McGovern may be best known for his spectacular loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential race, but his legacy is far more significant than that. J BROOKS SPECTOR looks at McGovern’s fight against hunger and support for freedom in Southern Africa.

George S McGovern, a defeated presidential candidate but a tireless campaigner for progressive government and liberal values in American politics died on 21 October at 90. For many, McGovern had become the definitive example of spectacular political failure at the national level, losing overwhelmingly in the 1972 presidential race to Richard Nixon. But McGovern’s lifelong adherence to a deeply-felt brand of Western populism, coupled with the need for fair play in politics; his dedication to the best ideals of public service and the importance of a sense of morality in international affairs; and his instinctive patriotism and courage can be a continuing source of inspiration to new generations of Americans. And his moral compass also led him to speak out on Southern African issues as far back as the 1970s.

Born in 1922, McGovern was the product of a hardscrabble prairie background in South Dakota, a state whose people had been deeply influenced by the tenets of the West’s egalitarian populism and progressive political movements. A preacher’s kid and scholarship student at a small university in South Dakota, he joined the US Army Air Corps right after the US entered World War II, becoming a decorated bomber pilot carrying out missions over Germany. At one point, he had to crash-land his stricken craft on a British-occupied island in the Adriatic Sea following a bombing mission.

Following the war, he returned to university, gaining a doctorate in history and government before beginning a career as a university lecturer. After working in Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for the presidency in 1952, McGovern began to have dreams of his own career in government. By 1956, he had been elected to the House of Representatives. He was defeated in his race for a South Dakota Senate seat in 1960, but newly elected President John Kennedy appointed him to be the first director of the US Food for Peace Program. There he managed the donation of millions of tons of surplus food supplies to developing nations across the globe in a venture that eventually became the model for the UN’s World Food Programme. Two years after joining the government, McGovern ran successfully for his state’s other Senate seat. In his Senate career, he focused much of his attention on agriculture, nutrition and forestry issues and, increasingly, foreign relations.

As the US grew increasingly weary of its seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam, McGovern sought and won the Democratic nomination for president in 1972. Running on an avowedly anti-war platform, McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide of truly historic proportions. In part, McGovern was beaten because of the chaos and confusion within the Democratic Party. Among many other things, McGovern’s original running mate, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton eventually forced off the ticket shortly after the nominating convention when it became public that he had been hospitalised several times and treated with shock therapy. McGovern picked a new running mate, the Peace Corps’ first administrator, Sergeant Shriver, but the party and McGovern’s candidacy never recovered any momentum.

Moreover, Nixon campaigned successfully that year on his plans to end US participation in the very war – “peace with honour” – that he had already been instrumental in extending for four years. Nixon’s political operatives also succeeded in painting the Democrats as having been captured by violent hippies, an anarchic drug counterculture and unpatriotic, peacenik, anti-American war protesters – despite McGovern’s own years of public service and his war record. Meanwhile, the increasingly dispirited Democratic National Committee became the target of burglary and wiretapping efforts by Nixon’s re-election campaign committee in what became known as the Watergate scandal.

After Nixon had been forced to resign his office because of Watergate, his successor, Gerald Ford, appointed McGovern as a US delegate to the UN General Assembly for 1976. Then, two years later, President Jimmy Carter named him as a delegate to the UN’s Special Session on Disarmament – acknowledging one of McGovern’s other longstanding foreign affairs passions. McGovern eventually retired from the Senate in 1980 and began a second career as a visiting professor at universities and abroad, rather than following the more usual path for a retired politician – joining one of those ubiquitous influence peddling lobbying and legal firms in Washington.

In 1998, late in McGovern’s life, President Bill Clinton appointed him ambassador to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, headquartered in Rome, The following year, the UN appointed him as its first global ambassador on hunger. Summing up a life given over to public service rather than personal gain, US Vice President Joe Biden said after McGovern’s passing, “George believed deeply in public service. It defined him as a Senator and as a man. He never stopped serving for his entire life – whether it was his courage in World War II, his time in Congress, or his fight to eliminate hunger at home and abroad.” And retired Republican Senator Bob Dole added in a letter to the Washington Post, “There can be no doubt that throughout his half-century career in the public arena, George McGovern never gave up on his principles. America and the world are for the better because of him.”

Together, in their sunset years, Dole and McGovern reached across the partisan divide to cofound the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, a global school-feeding program that promotes education, child development and food security for poor children, providing meals at schools throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. The program has provided meals to 22 million children in 41 countries in the past decade. The two men had jointly received the World Food Prize for these efforts. Kenneth Quinn, the head of the World Food Prize Foundation, noted McGovern’s legacy “will be that he took food to people around the world, making it available, and it’s this wonderful, wonderful achievement.”

And José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, joined in the encomiums to say the world has “lost a tireless advocate… (with) his work drafting legislation in his own country to meet the nutritional needs of vulnerable women, infants and children and as a vigorous champion of school lunch programmes, both in the US and around the world….” McGovern had told friends his experience of seeing beggars come to the back door of his family home during the Great Depression and the experience of seeing all those emaciated children during his service in World War II was instrumental in guiding him to focus on food and nutrition issues as a senator and government administrator.

But despite his lifetime impact on improving national and international nutrition, pushing hard for nations to address international food security, and his fierce – but losing – campaign against the War in Vietnam, McGovern should be remembered even more for his effect on others. In an especially jaded and poisonous time – his example helped inspire many to take up the challenges and rewards of public service without seeing them as a pathway to personal reward. In its obituary, The Washington Post observed that McGovern’s agenda, “supporting civil rights and anti-poverty programs and strongly denouncing the Vietnam War — were critical to his landslide defeat to President Richard M Nixon. But those views also helped define the future vision of the Democratic Party.”

Political scientist Ross Baker added that McGovern helped revolutionize the Democratic Party. “His followers drove out the old guard. … Some would say it was the end of the old Democrats, but others would say, no, it opened up the party to women and others.” A whole generation of young Turks like Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Gary Hart, also a future senator and presidential candidate, got their start in McGovern’s 1972 campaign. People like Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger and Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta also got their start in politics in that campaign. (For the record, this writer was also one of those people who, horrified by a never-ending Vietnam War, campaigned for McGovern in his doomed race for the presidency, in hopes someone would finally stop this waste of lives and treasure.)

McGovern himself never made much money at politics. Later in life, after he left the Senate, he even ran a small hotel to bring in some income to supplement his pension. But perhaps true to form, it never became a money-spinner for him. He had personal tragedies in his life as well – two children predeceased him from the effects of alcoholism.

But there are also some half-forgotten South Africa connections George McGovern that should be remembered as well. And when they happened, they were front burner news – both in the US and in Southern Africa. Back in 1976, the American Congress passed an amendment to the US Arms Export Control Act of 1976, named for Iowa Senator Dick Clark, to prevent US aid reaching any private groups engaged in military or paramilitary operations in Angola.

A second measure, the Tunney amendment, was written to forbid the US from participating in any other way in the then-ongoing Angolan civil conflict. McGovern had been a vocal supporter of both measures. Ironically, Edwin Wilson, the CIA officer who secretly circumvented these congressional prohibitions to ship weapons to Angola during the Reagan administration, died less than a month before McGovern passed away.

Two years after those votes, Senator McGovern spoke to an audience at the SA Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. An extract of his speech surely gives the flavour of the times and the man.

McGovern had told his audience, “With the world divided into these camps (the West and the communist bloc), freedom was viewed not so much as an affirmation of ‘liberty and justice for all’, as our founding fathers had prescribed, but as a protective security umbrella under which we welcomed even the most authoritarian tyrants, so long as they carried an anti-communist banner…. It was this negative definition of the Free World that led us into an interminable, self-defeating conflict in Indochina.”

He went on to argue, “Can freedom be defined by what we fear or is freedom an affirmation of positive purposes and enduring values? Certainly, our free society is worth defending with the strongest security measures. One legitimately fears and opposes credible threats to the survival of a free society. But the quest for security has value only insofar as it protects and advances those interests that make life worth defending.

“Many thoughtful Americans have come to feel that if the quest for national security is conducted without reference to our constitutional ideals, then we actually weaken the nation’s long term security as well as its standing and influence in the world. A too rigidly defined quest for national security opened the way not only for the tragedy of Vietnam but for the trauma of Watergate – a mistaken venture abroad in the name of national security turned in on us to undermine those ideals and institutions that Americans hold most precious.

“In my view, the best way to oppose communism is to strengthen democracy. The pillars of national security must rest on the foundation of social justice and individual liberty for all men and women, whatever their origin, race, colour or creed. As the late Senator Robert Kennedy said so eloquently in a speech he delivered in Cape Town in 1966, ‘The way of opposition to communism is not to imitate its dictatorship, but to enlarge individual human freedom – in our own countries and all over the globe … the denial of freedom, in whatever name, only strengthens the very communism it claims to oppose.’

“It will therefore take great moral courage and a deep and abiding commitment to the fundamental values of democracy and justice to change this part of the world which is yielding most painfully to change. I am convinced, however, that this is what will be required for South Africa, Rhodesia and Namibia to be fully accepted as contributing members of the Free World, No society can be regarded as free when 80% of its native born population is deprived of basic human freedoms…”

And McGovern brought his speech to an end with, “It is not for us to prescribe or dictate how other countries conduct their internal affairs. But we have a right – indeed an obligation – to defend the interests of the Free World and to preserve what are, for us, basic constitutional freedoms and universal rights of mankind. Southern Africa, as former Prime Minister John Vorster reminded us in his New Year’s speech last year, is at a crossroads. It is for you to decide whether you can contribute to and receive protection from the Free World by solving the deep racial and ideological problems you currently confront. Your self-examination, like ours, could have a major impact on the strength and direction of the Free World as a whole.”

Then, logically for a preacher’s kid, he concluded with words from Proverbs 16:7 that could just as easily have summed up his own political credo. “And then you might discover anew that ancient wisdom: ‘When a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him.’” DM

Read more:

  • “The free world and South Africa,” speech by George McGovern at the SA Institute of International Affairs, 1979
  • “George McGovern, Champion in Fight Against Hunger, Dead At 90,” on
  • “George S. McGovern, Democratic nominee who lost to Nixon in ’72, dies at 90,” on The Washington Post
  • “A Prairie Liberal, Trounced but Never Silenced,” at The New York Times

Photo: Former Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern (L) sits with Rabbi Michael Lerner, a long time peace and political activist, during a weekend reunion of Vietnam War draft dodgers in Castlegar, British Columbia July 8, 2006. The weekend gathering attracted many former resisters and deserters from the United States military who came to Canada to avoid going to the war in Vietnam 35 years ago. REUTERS/Andy Clark


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