Written by David Aylward, Senior Advisor, Global Health and Technology, at Ashoka, the 30 year old international network of social entrepreneurs
George McGovern died Sunday morning in his beloved South Dakota. No single person after my parents has had such a powerful impact on me.
I first met him in Hong Kong in 1962 where he visited as head of the new Food for Peace Program. He had convinced John Kennedy to create it to feed the world’s hungry with American agricultural surpluses. My dad was in charge of getting the food to the poor. I next met him in Keene, New Hampshire, in the summer of 1971. Just out of college, I was one of the early paid staff in McGovern’s then-quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination for President.
In the wake of his crushing defeat 15 months later, many of the campaign staff gathered in beer-soaked evening sessions in Washington as we struggled with what our future and that of our country might be. There I met a wonderful woman who became my wife for more than 30 years, and who brought with her the amazing three little people who became my children.
Thousands of young people
Two weeks ago I married a woman I met initially over 40 years ago in McGovern’s race for President. And I would not have reconnected with her decades later had it not been for the intense feelings generated by the cause of that man and that campaign. His struggle to end the war in Vietnam brought thousands of young people into public life, many of whom have stayed committed to those ideals. Those feelings brought hundreds of us together several years ago in a celebration of his birthday, and what together we had tried to do. We spent hours in the retelling of “Remember When?,” the hilarious and poignant campaign stories. We all had our “my moment with the Senator” stories of his humor, of his compassion, of his foibles. I have mine. He was always very kind and good to me.
I recalled some of this history in remarks at the dinner following our recent wedding, to a group of friends that included many from those days. Our minister was a fellow field organizer in Ohio in the fall of 1972. I paid tribute to McGovern, who we invited, but could not be with us. Since hearing he was close to death in Sioux Falls, I have been reminded many times a day of what a wonderful mentor and leader he has been in my life. Not just during the campaign and the few years after that I worked for him in the Senate. And not just for causing me to meet the key women in my life!
War hero, seeker after peace
He is remembered mostly for being crushed in an election by Nixon in 1972, but McGovern was right. And, unlike Nixon, he was honest and principled. He was a courageous war hero, a 35+ combat mission bomber pilot over Europe who wouldn’t let his campaign play that up. He was a decent and honorable man throughout a long public career. He believed you run for office to make things better for the people who need help, and not just in America.
How different this country would have been if he had won! How many Americans and Vietnamese would be alive today who were slain or mutilated mentally or physically. His lifelong commitment was to nutrition, to properly feeding the hungry all over the world. It is no overstatement to say that hundreds of millions of people who don’t know his name are alive or stronger today because of the plethora of nutrition programs he got passed and the funding he successfully obtained for them. He was a tireless campaigner for nutrition and against mistaken and immoral use of our military forces his entire life. While too many Democratic leaders in Congress equivocated as Bush and his neo-cons pushed for a war of choice, George McGovern spoke out clearly and strongly against the US starting a war in Iraq. He was right again. How different our world would be today if leaders had listened to McGovern about Iraq.
He has been a lifelong example to me of how to pursue honor, decency, peace (but willingness to fight when we have to) and care for those who need help.
One of the greatest convention speeches
His acceptance speech in Miami Beach in 1972 was a great one. Yes, it was delivered at 3 a.m. But I stood on the floor of the convention and listened to him exhort America, with tears running down my face. Here are some excerpts. They are worth a read to remind ourselves of an honorable man, who called America to a higher standard of behavior abroad and at home:
And this is also a time, not for death, but for life. In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins. I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And within 90 days of my inauguration, every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong. And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.
He closed the speech in the cadence of the minister’s child he was. The words could almost have been written today.
From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation; come home, America. From the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism; from the waste of idle lands to the joy of useful labor; from the prejudice based on race and sex; from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick” come home, America. Come home to the affirmation that we have a dream. Come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward. Come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in that homecoming, for this “is your land, this land is my land, from California to New York island, from the redwood forest to the gulf stream waters this land was made for you and me.” So let us close on this note: May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.
Come home, America. Thank you for a life well lived, George McGovern.
Photo by Warren Leffler via Wikimedia