Archive for October, 2012

George McGovern, American patriot

The son of a Methodist minister and professional baseball player, he grew up in the country, liked hunting, taught history, stayed married to the same woman for 63 years, worshiped at the same church his whole life, and served his nation for more than half a century.

In World War II, he flew 35 missions in B-24 Liberator bombers and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, yet he is best remembered as an advocate for peace and a critic of military misadventures.

He was an icon of liberals, yet his biographer, Robert Sam Anson, wrote, “To the extent that his vision of life is bounded by certain, immutable values — the importance of family, the dependence on nature, the strength of community, the worth of living things — he is a conservative. He seeks not so much to change America as to restore it, to return it to the earliest days of the Republic, which he believes, naively or not, were fundamentally decent, humane and just.”

George McGovern was a man of contradictions, but most who knew him would probably agree that he, too, was fundamentally decent, humane and just.

McGovern, at 90, is “coming to the end of his life,” his daughter, Ann McGovern, told The Associated Press this week. He has been moved into hospice care near his South Dakota home.

The 1972 Democratic presidential candidate whose campaign theme was “Come home, America,” is going home.

I had the opportunity to meet McGovern, however briefly, on a couple of occasions. Before a lecture at Georgetown College a few years ago, I told him that a mutual acquaintance, the daughter of a former congressman who had succeeded him as our United Nations ambassador on nutrition programs, was attending the seminary near my home and writing for the newspaper I edited. He seemed genuinely pleased and asked about her.

A year or two later, I heard him speak at Berea College, and he seemed confused. Last year, I talked for a moment with him at the Kentucky Book Fair in Frankfort about his new biography of Abraham Lincoln, and he was polite, but tired.

At an age when almost anyone who had contributed as much as he would want a quiet life, he was striving to stay active, to make a difference.

Maybe it was rooted in his Wesleyan religion or prairie populism, but it was a lifetime commitment. It was especially evident in his concern about hunger at home and abroad.

McGovern was a young congressman when President John F. Kennedy tapped him to head the Food for Peace program in 1962. The idea was to use America’s great bounty to alleviate suffering, strengthen alliances and help farmers by keeping grain prices at a level necessary to sustain families and rural communities.

As a Democratic senator from South Dakota, McGovern worked with his Republican neighbor from Kansas, Sen. Bob Dole, to expand the food stamp and school lunch programs. After they had both retired, the two old friends worked together on their International Food for Education and Nutrition Program to provide free school lunches for children in third world countries. For pennies per day per child, they could provide the nutrition students needed to stay in school and have a chance to make life better for themselves and their families. McGovern explained the benefits in his book, “The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time.”

In the election 40 years ago, McGovern was vilified as the candidate for “acid, amnesty and abortion.” But as Bill Kauffman explained in a 2006 article for The American Conservative, it wasn’t fair to the candidate. He was not for legalizing LSD or any street drugs, but was for reducing penalties for marijuana in an era when young people could serve years in prison for possession of a joint. He thought abortion law was a matter better left to the states. And he was not for amnesty while the war in Vietnam was still going on, but when it was over, he said, he would favor amnesty “for those who planned the war and those who refused to participate.”

McGovern saw a nation that was tearing itself apart, and he wanted to heal it. He saw a country mired in conflict and wasting its precious resources, and he wanted to move it forward.

Later McGovern said of his opponent, President Richard Nixon, that he “would not trade places with the man who won.”

After serving Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the UN, McGovern was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It was a fitting tribute for an humble humanitarian and patriot.

George McGovern never became president, but he was an important statesman, and he will be remembered with gratitude for his tireless service to his country and the world.

October 2012
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