Bob Dole belongs in the pantheon of our American humanitarian heroes

Bob Dole belongs in the pantheon of our American humanitarian heroes
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When former Sen. Bob Dole was presented the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian award, on Jan. 17, he joined a very select group of individuals. Having previously been the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he became only the 49th individual in history to have received these two uppermost U.S. honors.

Since earlier this week we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it is meaningful to note that, like Dole, King too received both of those recognitions. In addition, King received the Nobel Peace Prize, which puts him into very exclusive company, as there are only three Americans to have ever received those three highest honors. In addition to King, they are the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel and Norman Borlaug, the Iowa native and father of the Green Revolution whose “miracle wheat” is credited with saving a billion lives, and was also the founder of the World Food Prize.

There is a strong argument for including Dole that elite triumvirate. What is perhaps lesser known is his humanitarian leadership in ensuring that hungry children are fed both at home and around the globe. In 2008, together with the late Sen. George McGovern, he came to Des Moines to share the $250,000 award that accompanies the presentation of the World Food Prize, which is referred to by world leaders as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”

Dole and McGovern were being honored for their role in spreading school feeding programs around the globe, particularly in conjunction with the United Nations World Food Program. Having been the leading advocates in the Congress for supplemental feeding efforts in the United States and for leading the bipartisan effort in the Congress to expand U.S. food assistance around the globe, their global efforts in retirement have impacted over 20 million students in 70 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Dole and McGovern were extraordinarily inspiring laureates. As the two World War II combat veterans entered the legislative chamber of the magnificent Iowa State Capitol for the Laureate Award Ceremony, they received a standing ovation from the over 800 guests in attendance from more than 50 countries. Then, as they took their front row seats in the well of the chamber, one on either side of the main entry way, Dole and McGovern literally reached across the aisle and touched their hands together in a truly poignant moment. Never at a loss for a touching comment, I heard Dole remark that “Here we are, two losers, who are finally winners.”

The ceremony included a special video that highlighted their work together and the series of school feeding programs that they had initiated and supported across Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and South Asia. The images of those two legislators interacting with hungry students, now with smiles on their faces, touched everyone in the chamber. But the most moving part of the evening was still to come.

Having been presented their World Food Prize sculptures, each man had a moment of personal reflection. It was during their deeply personal, unscripted remarks that it became evident that what united these two great political leaders, who disagreed about almost every other matter of public policy, was their childhood experience of coming face to face with hungry people in rural America during the Great Depression.

Speaking first, Dole told the hushed crowd that he could remember emaciated Americans knocking on the door of his family’s modest Kansas home desperately offering “to work for food.” It was clear that even 70 years later, Dole was still haunted by those memories of proud Americans from the plains of middle America struggling to keep their dignity as they almost pleaded for their daily bread.

McGovern followed recounting the similar ways in which he and his family had witnessed so many hungry, out of work people on the streets of their hometown in South Dakota. Recalling how their religious beliefs sustained them during this time, he told the audience how his mother would sing to him a song that he recalled to that day. Then the audience was riveted as McGovern started singing the lyrics to “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

Like so many others, I was so touched by the powerful memories that these two statesmen recounted that I too was brushing back tears. At the same time, I was recalling the stories that Borlaug told me of his witnessing hungry people sleeping on the streets in Minneapolis, with no place to live and no food to eat. It was experiences like that which had motivated these three men to devote so much of their lives to confronting hunger and ensuring that young children in America and around the globe would have enough to eat.

Dole and McGovern are two of the 46 individuals from 18 countries and the United Nations to have received the World Food Prize since Borlaug created it in 1986 to be the equivalent to a Nobel Prize, but for confronting and eliminating hunger. One of the most remarkable aspects of the award is how often it involved a story of a laureate whose work increasing the availability of food also could abet efforts to build peace.

Among them were laureate Catherine Bertini’s work in Afghanistan and North Korea, and Israeli irrigation pioneer Daniel Hillel, who was nominated by three Muslim scientists from Arab countries. The lesson of their lives and of Dole and McGovern, is that confronting hunger can bring people together across even the widest chasms of political, ethnic, religious or diplomatic differences, whether in remote parts of the world beset with violence, or in the world of politics in Washington.

The Congressional Gold Medal ceremony in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol is one of the most impressive events that our country holds. Surrounded by paintings of George Washington inspecting his troops, Thomas Jefferson signing the Declaration of Independence, and with Abraham Lincoln’s statue gazing on the event, it fills everyone with the majesty of the Congressional Gold Medal and the very special legacy it has in our country.

To me, Bob Dole will always have a special place in the pantheon of great Americans as the recipient of this most special recognition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the World Food Prize, referred to as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”

Kenneth Quinn is president of the World Food Prize Foundation. He served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and spent more than 30 years as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department.