George McGovern: A True Progressive Hero

Robert Borosage

I am saddened to hear that progressive champion Sen. George McGovern is reported to be at the end of his days. He has lived a life nearly as large as his heart.

McGovern will be remembered as a stalwart of American liberalism. For my generation, he was beloved for his courageous opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. That opposition came from his knowledge of war learned in heroic service in World War II. He brought common sense prairie populism to Washington. His efforts to end hunger both here and across the world made him a remarkable champion for the `least of these.’

His candidacy for president in 1972 helped forge the consensus that forced the eventual ending of the war. Along the way, he transformed the Democratic Party, opening up its doors to women and minorities, and making its nominating process far more democratic.

McGovern led the challenge to the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. He fought for years for a legislative solution; the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment sought to end the Vietnam War. McGovern took a personal financial risk in order to take this fight to the American people. In May 1970, he got a second mortgage on his Washington, D.C. home to buy TV time to promote the antiwar amendment.

In that debate, McGovern challenged his colleagues with a candor seldom heard in Washington. He said, “It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will someday curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”

McGovern moved public opinion, but the amendment was defeated in September 1970 by a 55-39 vote.

Demonstrating his compassion for the vulnerable, McGovern worked to feed the hungry, not just in the U.S. but around the world. He issued a report that led to a new set of nutritional guidelines for Americans. He also led the effort for a school meals program that has provided food for millions of children worldwide since 2000.

McGovern worked to unleash the power of grassroots activists. He worked to open up the nominating process of the Democratic Party beyond elite party insiders. The McGovern–Fraser Commission fundamentally altered the Democratic presidential nominating process, by increasing the number of caucuses and primaries and reducing the influence of party insiders.

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