George McGovern, 1972 Democratic Party presidential nominee and former U.S. Congressman and Senator from South Dakota died Oct. 21 at age 90. He was a World War II pilot of a B-24 Liberator bomber, flying 35 missions over Nazi occupied Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other air medals. Between his service in the U.S. House and Senate, McGovern was President Kennedy’s director of Food for Peace. As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Hunger, McGovern, often in collaboration with Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS), would set modern day policies on nutrition and hunger. Since his death, many have shared anecdotes about their experiences with Sen. McGovern, here’s one of mine….
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In 1974, I was doing voter registration in western South Dakota for the Democratic Party. It was a year after the take-over of Wounded Knee and a year before two FBI agents would lose their lives in a gunfight in Indian Country.
It was not a good time in Indian Country.
I cannot remember whether it was the Tribal Council or the American Indian Movement (AIM), but the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was supposedly “closed” to non-Indians. That made registering voters tough. Then came word that Senator McGovern, who the Sioux Nation called “Great White Eagle” was invited to Pine Ridge for a celebration that I remember as sort of a “Sun Dance” lite. The invitation came with the stipulation that McGovern could only take in two other non-Indians with him, and somebody came up with the idea of sending another and me from my voter registration team instead of the Senator’s usual campaign or senate staff handlers. While I’d worked as a volunteer in the field in five states for his national campaign for President in 1972, this was the only time I was responsible for actually staffing the Senator. Still he remembered me as he always did and inquired about people we both knew that I was close to, but then he got quiet and worked on files he brought with him. Food preparation is the quickest way to gather people on the Pine Ridge. Free food was also the surest way to get people to hang around, which proved to be an excellent opportunity for registering voters. George McGovern was so popular among the Sioux that after we arrived, tribal leaders just took charge of him and as he moved all those assembled would just open whatever space he needed like prairie grass moving the wind. Because he seemed safe and secure, our two-person registration team worked on the job we came for until late afternoon, at which point I noticed lines were forming for the feast. I hadn’t paid much attention to it, but I then noticed most of what was being served was being cooked in several “burning barrels.” I decided to go in for a closer look. I knew all the lore that existed about McGovern’s past campaigns, including the fact that he was sickened with hepatitis in the 1960 campaign. I knew nothing then about foodborne illnesses, but something just told me I could not let Senator McGovern eat what was being prepared in those barrels. So as tribal leaders were about the move him to the head of the line, I pulled George McGovern aside and said something like: “Senator, you cannot eat whatever that is.” I was a little surprised because he offered no resistance and we worked out a way for him to say his good-byes so we could return to Rapid City. (The hour was getting late and everyone agreed driving after dark on the Pine Ridge was not advisable.) My reaction at the time was total gut instinct. I was not going to let Senator McGovern get food poisoning on my watch. Looking back, he was probably never in danger. Whatever they were cooking was “kill step” hot, and Senator McGovern dined many times with the Sioux who’ve been doing this for ages. Senator McGovern was re-elected in 1974 to his third term, but voter turnout on the Pine Ridge was down to about one-third of what it was during his campaign for President. “Great White Eagle” always won South Dakota’s reservation vote, but 1974 was not a good year for turn-out. The last time I saw Senator McGovern was at a reception in his honor held in Denver in 2008 by the South Dakota delegation to the Democratic National Convention. When I told him I was the one who almost got him poisoned on the Pine Ridge in 1974, he just laughed, but I really don’t think he had the slightest idea what I was talking about. Postscript Bob Dole said it. George McGovern never gave up. From the time President Kennedy named him to run Food for Peace to when he stepped down from the United Nations, McGovern’s work on hunger and nutrition spans almost 50 years. His not giving up is best illustrated by what he accomplished after age 75. A few examples, not counting the books he wrote and lectures he gave include: 1998- Appointed by President Clinton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture, Rome. 2000- The George McGovern-Robert Dole International Food for Education and Nutrition Program providing school lunches to more than 22 million children in 41 countries over next eight years. 2000- awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. 2001- Appointed UN Global Ambassador on World Hunger by the World Food Program. 2006- opens the George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service at Dakota Wesleyan University. He introduced his recorded narration for Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” for the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra in his last public appearance on Oct. 6, 2012.