The end of September marks the 40th anniversary of the Food Stamp Act, the program that institutionalized the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Its passage was a model of how to make constructive and important legislation, finding common ground by making tradeoffs across all the usual boundaries. In this case, the key players included George McGovern and Bob Dole, Tom Foley and Shirley Chisholm, among others.
The McGovern-Dole alliance was a striking one. When I came to Washington in 1969-70, I witnessed the near-nuclear conflict between the two men. First, McGovern, a passionate opponent of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, went on the floor of the Senate on September 1, 1970 and fingered his colleagues for their culpability: “This chamber reeks of blood.” A collective gasp went through the gallery; senators didn’t talk like this! A few weeks later, freshman Republican Senator Bob Dole took to the floor and ripped McGovern. (McGovern later said that the Bob Dole of that era was “tough and mean.”)
But the two men built a different relationship around the issue of food. McGovern cared deeply about hunger in America. Dole cared deeply about the plight of farmers, who were whipsawed by the commodity markets and prices that sank when there was too much surplus food. That was the basis for a partnership that turned into a legendary friendship spanning four decades, until McGovern’s death in 2012. They used the relationship, and their overlapping interests, to build the broad coalition for the Food Stamp Act, even as the presidency was transitioning from Republican Gerald Ford to Democrat Jimmy Carter, through a stiff headwind against major policy movement in Congress.