Guest column: McGovern fought to meet with Herbert Hoover by Timothy Walch, Director Emeritus of the · Op-Ed · November 02, 2012
The recent memorials to Senator George McGovern have called attention to his many contributions to public life including his work to alleviate world hunger. In the years after he left the Senate in 1980, he was US ambassador to the United Nations World Food Program and a sponsor of an initiative that has saved the lives of millions of children. For this work, McGovern was among those honored with the World Food Prize in 2008.
What is little known, however, is that McGovern’s humanitarian achievements had a personal tie to Herbert Hoover.
It boggles the mind to think that these two men had anything in common. Hoover was a conservative Republican and McGovern was an unabashed liberal. It’s doubtful that they agreed on very much except for the importance of food as an instrument of world peace. That was why McGovern sought Hoover’s counsel.
And that should not be a complete surprise. Hoover had won international recognition as a famine administrator after two world wars and was widely known as “The Great Humanitarian.” When McGovern was given the responsibility of directing John F. Kennedy’s Food for Peace program, the first person he consulted was Herbert Hoover.
They met on only one occasion, but it was a seminal meeting. At first, Hoover was reluctant to meet because McGovern was running an international food relief program for a new Democratic president. The former president was generous with his time, but he was not inclined to counsel his political opponents. So McGovern’s first requests for an interview were rebuffed.
To his credit, McGovern refused to take no for an answer. He wrote to Hoover repeatedly in February and March of 1961 offering to come up to the Waldorf or, if need be, to meet the former president at his vacation home in Florida. Finally, on March 27, Hoover relented and agreed to meet McGovern when he returned to New York in April. In response, McGovern sent Hoover the report that he had prepared for the president.
They finally met on the afternoon of Friday, April 21. Although here’s no transcript of the meeting, it’s clear that both men found value in what was said. At the end of the discussion, McGovern invited the former president to serve as honorary chairman of the “Food for Peace” Advisory Committee. Hoover declined the honor, but agreed to act as an informal advisor. “And in such service to you,” he wrote, “I am available to you or to anyone whom you suggest at all times.”
McGovern contacted Hoover two more times, soliciting advice and inviting the former president again to take a more active role in Kennedy’s food relief efforts. As expected, Hoover declined these invitations, but was willing to meet if advice was needed. His door was always open, but he didn’t want his name on any letterhead.
Hoover passed away in October 1964 at the age of 90 just as the 42 year old McGovern was rising to prominence as a U.S. Senator and eventual presidential candidate. Although their paths had crossed on only one occasion, George McGovern came to embody many of the compassionate principles that are found in the life and work of Herbert Hoover.
Those principles are certainly found in the “McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program” now celebrating its tenth year of feeding and educating millions of children around the world. Established by McGovern with his friend Senator Robert Dole, this program has substantially reduced hunger and boosted school enrollments in more than 40 nations. Herbert Hoover would approve.
I had a brief opportunity to talk about Hoover with Senator McGovern. We were both attending a World Food Prize event when I introduced myself as the director of the Hoover Presidential Library. His eyebrows shot up:
“Herbert Hoover,” he said with acclaim. “He was the most underappreciated American of the 20th century.” McGovern would know; he had worked with the Great Humanitarian himself.
Timothy Walch is the director emeritus of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. He can be reached at: Twalch47@gmail.com