McGovern, lifelong backer of farmers and hungry, dead at 90

By Jim Webster

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WASHINGTON, D.C., October 21, 2012 - George McGovern, former congressman and U.S. senator from South Dakota, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee and, former Food for Peace director in the Kennedy Administration and U.S. ambassador to the UN food and agriculture agencies in Rome under former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, died early Sunday morning at a hospice in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was 90.

Although best known for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his landslide defeat by the late President Richard Nixon, McGovern's real legacy is his contribution to food and agricultural policy, especially overseas food assistance and agricultural development - a commitment that grew out of his experience growing up among farmers in small-town South Dakota.

He was a member of both the House and Senate agriculture committees in two terms in the House and three in the Senate. He was a major co-sponsor of legislation that created the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and USDA's Federal Grain Inspection Service (now part of GIPSA), and was the author of bills that were enacted to create a USDA livestock credit guarantee program and to restore water, sewer and rural electrification programs that Nixon terminated after the 1972 election.

In 1968, he persuaded the Senate to create the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, which he chaired and produced the first Dietary Goals for Americans - a forerunner of today's Dietary Guidelines for Americans and anti-obesity efforts. He joined with the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, D-Minn., and former Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole to expand Food for Peace and domestic food assistance programs. McGovern's motion in the 1973 farm bill conference committee extended food stamps nationwide. He later joined Dole to inspire the George McGovern-Dole International School Nutrition Program created in the Clinton Administration.

As a teen-ager, he was affected by depression-era farmers' struggles. His 1977 autobiography, “Grassroots” - one of the 14 books he wrote or co-authored - tells of a 1932 trip to a South Dakota farm: “One day as we drove into his farmyard we saw Art sitting on the steps of his back porch, tears streaking down his dusty face. I had seldom seen an adult cry. Art Kendall explained to my dad that he had just received a check from the stockyards for a year's production of pigs. The check did not cover the cost of trucking the pigs to market.” He tells in the first chapter how he came to believe in New Deal conservation, rural electrification and commodity programs.

His first campaign for the U.S. Senate was unsuccessful, but it became the springboard of his career-long fight against hunger. He begins his book “War Against Want,” published in 1964, by describing then-candidate John F. Kennedy's speech to the National Plowing Contest near Sioux Falls. Kennedy, he said, “spoke of farm price supports and supply management with his usual eloquence and urgency, I felt that he was not at ease with the prepared manuscript, and the crowd reacted indifferently.”

He has said privately that he counseled Kennedy to take a new approach, quoting in the book what the future president said two hours later at the iconic Corn Palace at Mitchell, McGovern's home town: “'I don't regard the . . . agricultural surplus as a problem,' he said. ‘I regard it as an opportunity . . . not only for our own people, but for people all around the world.'”

Following the election, Kennedy named McGovern the first director of a new Office of Food for Peace in the White House. From that platform, he spurred the creation of the World Food Programme by pledging to the 1961 FAO World Food Conference a U.S. contribution to be matched by other to step up anti-hunger efforts around the world.

Among many tributes:

Washington attorney Marshall Matz, who was McGovern's counsel on the Senate committee and a colleague for 40 years, said in a statement Sunday:

“Today, 31 million children will participate in the school lunch program, 10 million will have a school breakfast, 7 million mothers and children will participate in the WIC program and 46 million people will participate in the food stamp program. Internationally, millions of the poorest children will have one meal at school and will attend school in order to receive that meal. For the girls, it will change their lives. George McGovern is responsible for all of this, along with the nutrition labels on our foods.

“George McGovern's legacy on food and nutrition is without equal and will be felt all over the world for many years to come.” 

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said: “Today South Dakota mourns the loss of a war hero and a great statesman, and our history will forever reflect the impact of George McGovern. Despite our political differences, I was always proud to call Senator McGovern my friend.”

 

“Simply put, Senator George McGovern spent his life standing up for others,” noted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “He championed our efforts as a nation to help hungry people, especially children, around the world, leading the way on U.S. food assistance efforts that carry on today under his name and that of his friend, former Senator Bob Dole. As we honor Senator McGovern's life, I know that his legacy will impact millions of people in the years to come - from the smallest South Dakota towns that he knew and loved, to countries in every corner of the globe.”

 

Sen. Bob Dole issues a statement also issued a statement reflecting on McGovern's death.
 
"Today the world has lost a great American. Senator George McGovern lived his life by serving others.  Today, 31 million children will participate in the school lunch program thanks to the tireless efforts of Senator McGovern - a humble, compassionate and caring man who always looked out for those in our society who needed a helping hand.  His influence in fighting hunger extended far and wide, and our world is a better place because of his generous spirit"

 

 

 
Editor's Note: Photo above is of Jim Webster interviewing George McGovern.  Contributing Editor Jim Webster, as a wire service reporter in Pierre, S.D., interviewed McGovern for the first time in 1959. He subsequently worked on the staff of McGovern's 1968 Senate campaign and 1972 presidential campaign (heading the rural campaign effort), and was South Dakota press secretary and agricultural legislative assistant in McGovern's Senate office in 1973-74.
Revised:1:45 pm.

 

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