I was standing in the Ambassador’s reception line nervously chatting with those closest to me. In spite of the wine that I was gulping more than sipping, and the charm of the late September Rome evening, I was growing more anxious as I waited my turn on the terrace at 14 Vicolo Antoniniano. This was the Italian residence of the American Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization where I and my colleagues from the U.S. delegation to the 2000 Conference on Food Security were about to meet Ambassador George McGovern and his wife.
Though the exotic location populated by important people had over-stimulated my senses, it was more the prospect of what I would say to Ambassador McGovern that was fast undoing me. True, I had never met an ambassador before and the number of high-level politicians whose hands I’d shaken could be counted on one hand. But this wasn’t any ambassador or politician; it was George McGovern – the first presidential candidate I had ever voted for, a fervent opponent of my generation’s war in Vietnam, and possibly the best known elected official to work tirelessly to end hunger and malnutrition.
There were only three people ahead of me in line. I had less than a minute to come up with something brilliant to say, something that would at least rescue me from drowning in my own pool of sycophantic drool. As I lifted my hand to his, it came to me, from my heart I think, which is always the best place if only your brain gets out of the way. I told him that his work as co-chair, with Senator Robert Dole of the Senate Committee on Nutrition had been an inspiring and seminal event for my career and for thousands of other young people who chose community food activism as their path to social change.
Ambassador McGovern seemed to hold his smile and my hand a little longer than he had for those he’d previously greeted. In his easy South Dakota drawl he earnestly thanked me and went on to say at some length that he had just run into Senator Dole at a recent Washington function. They had both agreed that their service on the nutrition committee was among the most important and meaningful of their careers. He said he was truly touched by my compliment and thanked me for sharing it with him. I thanked him, he thanked me, and I thanked him again. It was time for me to move on.
It’s hard to imagine another person whose public persona and actions were such a touchstone for my life. As I marched on Washington to protest the insanity of the Vietnam War and later faced jail time for my refusal to comply with orders of the Selective Service System, George McGovern’s voice became my voice; he spoke for me and to me. He was a bed rock of consistency and principle that never let me down, and if this sounds like a homily for today’s class of politicians whose positions waft like stray pigeon feathers in the wind, then so be it.
McGovern, however, was also a loser. He had been stomped badly in the 1972 presidential election by Richard Nixon whose Watergate antics would soon leave a permanent hurt on the American political experience. Rather than wage a less principled campaign that might have endeared him to more Americans, presidential candidate McGovern chose to speak out against a nonsensical war that was then long beyond futile. He also spoke out against poverty and hunger, subjects that have never proven able to win over a majority of American voters. For speaking the truth he was rewarded with 38 percent of the popular vote, the electoral votes of Massachusetts and the District of Colombia, and the scarlet “L” of “Liberal loser.”
After taking such a drubbing he could have easily retreated forever to the plains of South Dakota, but instead chose to expand his fierce advocacy for ending both domestic and world hunger. By making the association between hunger, poverty, equity, and sound nutrition, he remained ahead of the pack. As a re-elected Senator in 1974 McGovern led the Senate Nutrition Committee into on-going investigations into the link between the rising tide of hunger in the U.S. and domestic poverty. Perhaps most importantly and with prescience we can only appreciate today, the Committee issued its now famous 1977 Dietary Goals for the United States that made it clear that the growing prevalence of salt, sugar, and fat in our diet was likely to have grave consequences for the country’s health. It called for a change in the way we ate, but like Vietnam, we didn’t pay attention.
I’m sure there will be ample competition for the epitaph on George McGovern’s headstone, but somewhere engraved in granite and read aloud until everybody hears it should be these words from the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition:
“[Hunger] is not [so much] the mechanics of the food assistance programs as it is the fact of persistent poverty, and the continued tolerance in this country of a starkly inequitable distribution of income. In a nation…in which 40 million people remain poor [50 million today] or near poor, more than a food stamp or child-feeding program is at issue.”
His life was a testament to peace, truth, and the promise that all should eat well.