George McGovern's Battles Continue

The late Sen. George McGovern understood the need for the United States to fight global poverty and hunger.

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Former Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. George McGovern speaks at the annual McGovern Conference on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus in Mitchell, S.D. Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.

It's such a simple idea—and easy to overlook in this era of aggressive rhetoric and delusional proclamations—that the United States can control what happens overseas by sheer force or even the muddy concept of "leadership." How about just giving school lunches to impoverished kids overseas?

Not only does the program provide critical sustenance to needy children, but it has a ripple effect on political stability, women's rights, and education. Parents who otherwise might keep kids home to work will send them to school, since there they will get a meal—one for which the family won't have to scrounge to pay. Girls, especially, are more likely to be sent to school—raising not only the female literacy rate, but lowering the early pregnancy and early marriage rate. And it happens not because the United States or any other country bullied another nation into changing its ways, or spent years negotiating and pressuring foreign governments which might push back for the sole purpose of not wanting to look like they're being pushed around by a superpower. It happens because someone came up with the idea of giving a kid a sandwich—one of the most natural and noncontroversial gestures one could make.

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The program is called the McGovern-Dole international school feeding program, and one of its founders and champions was former Sen. George McGovern, who died Sunday. McGovern may unfortunately be remembered by some as the man who won just one state (Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia in his 1972 race for the presidency, a devastating loss to Richard Nixon that might have driven many people from public service. But McGovern continued with the quest that was so important to him—peace and defeating hunger—for the rest of his life.

McGovern (with former GOP Sen. Bob Dole) worked relentlessly on the little-known program, one which has suffered budget cuts over the years and appears almost quaint at a time when aggressive rhetoric dominates the foreign policy discussion. Candidates and pundits talk about getting tough with China (whatever that means—tough talk and tariffs aren't always so effective against a country which has a billion-plus market to throw in our faces). They talk about arming rebels in Syria, with no clear idea of what the outcome might be. They talk, even, about a war with Iran, even as the United States is recovering from an Iraq war that cost too many lives and too many billions of dollars. Programs like Food for Peace (which McGovern also worked on) and the international school lunch program are sadly not part of the dialogue on international policy.

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McGovern was a decent, gentle soul. He was a humble man who never bragged about the dozens of combat missions he flew in World War II. He didn't want to talk about his heroism in war; he was more interested in talking about the fight against hunger. He got into politics because he wanted to help people and to spread peace. And he accomplished that as much when he was out of office as when he was serving in the U.S. Senate.

This year's campaign has been about the very rich, and to some degree, about the middle class. It has been about American "exceptionalism"' and its dominance—or lack thereof—in the world. Rarely does anyone talk about the poor, or about accomplishing peace through nonaggressive means. The best tribute all candidates could pay to George McGovern, a great American, is to remember what the enemy really is: poverty and hunger. And McGovern spent his life in that valiant battle.

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