George McGovern will be the guest of honor at a series of events on Capitol Hill this weekend in honor of the 35th anniversary of his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon and his upcoming 85th birthday. The festivities will shine light on the former Democratic Representative and Senator from South Dakota’s efforts to stamp out global hunger.
“I think it’s fair to say that there’s probably no one who has made as profound an effect as [George McGovern has] in the fight against hunger,” said Marshall Matz, a lobbyist and the chairman of the board at the Friends of the World Food Program.
Specifically, McGovern has advocated for food stamp subsidies and in-school meal programs in Congress, in his role as President John F. Kennedy’s first director of the Food for Peace Program and as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. He currently is continuing his efforts as the WFP’s global ambassador for hunger, a position he has held since 2001.
This weekend, the collective effects of his advocacy will be remembered at a World Hunger Symposium at 10 a.m. on Saturday at The George Washington University.
Those familiar with his work say these effects are staggering, particularly in the arena of subsidized meals for children in school. In the United States, the number of students receiving lunches provided by the government soared from 19.4 million in 1969 to 30.1 million in 2006 — thanks in large part to McGovern, according to Matz.
On the global scene, his mark is present through the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program, which served 3.4 million students in 15 countries last year.
McGovern’s partner in this undertaking is former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), whom he also teamed up with in Congress in 1972 to help establish the Women, Infants and Children Program.
Matz said the aura of bipartisanship that has surrounded food-based initiatives in recent years largely stems from this partnership and from the two “making these programs beyond politics.”
In a recent interview, McGovern said that while bipartisan support for such initiatives is still prevalent in Congress, the Bush White House has balked to a certain extent. Under former President Bill Clinton, the McGovern-Dole program got $300 million; it now gets only one-third of that amount.
Other food-related programs are feeling the squeeze, too. “All of those things are under pressure financially, in part because of the war in Iraq,” he said.
McGovern’s position on the Iraq War resembles the one he took on Vietnam while running for president in 1972: that the United States should pull out immediately. And following the withdrawal, he feels that the government should do all that it can to bring food to the war-ravaged country, as it did in parts of Europe after World War II.
“We did the right thing even though they had been our enemies when we decided to help them as generously as we did in the years following the second World War,” McGovern said.
In that sense, he sees a link between food programs and national security. “I think that when people are hungry, out of work and undernourished, unable to make a decent living, I think they’re prime candidates for terrorist appeals,” he said.
Matz agreed, noting that the converse is often true in nations where the Food for Education program operates. “When you go into these countries and you see the amount of goodwill created by the McGovern-Dole food program, it’s quite real and as an American, very heartwarming,” he said.
The other two events planned for this weekend are a reunion of McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign team on Friday evening and a party for his 85th birthday (which is actually July 19) on Saturday afternoon.
Actor Warren Beatty; Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who is not related to the former Senator but is his longtime friend and supporter; journalist Bob Woodward; and former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) are each expected to be there for at least one of the three events.
According to Rep. McGovern, those who will be present are thrilled about the opportunity to express their gratitude to the guest of honor.
“He stands for things that kind of represent the best traditions of our country and the best instincts and values that we all have,” he said.