McGovern celebrated as ‘conscience for our nation’

Oct 27, 2012, 4:19 AM

Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – George McGovern made history with his loss of the 1972 presidential election in a historic landslide, but he was praised Friday for galvanizing the Democratic party’s liberal wing and inspiring a new generation to take up his causes.

At his funeral, friends and colleagues remembered McGovern as an early critic of the Vietnam War, a tireless fighter in the battle to feed the poor around the world, and a man who will continue to draw young people into public life.

“George McGovern’s voice is not gone. It is simply waiting new voices, new consciences that have the courage of their conviction,” said former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who was McGovern’s campaign manager in 1972.

Hart was one of three former Democratic presidential candidates who paid personal respects Friday to McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90 after a brief stay in hospice care. Hart, Walter Mondale and John Kerry _ who like McGovern all spent time in the Senate before unsuccessful runs for the White House _ led a crowd of hundreds of mourners. Hart was the only one of the three to speak at the funeral.

“George McGovern was a voice of conscience for our nation in our time,” Hart said. Those who were uncomfortable with McGovern called him a liberal as an insult to try to imply he was weak, Hart added, but “he was larger than any political label, particularly a demonized one.”

In a sign of McGovern’s stature in sparsely populated South Dakota, the service aired live on television in the state’s largest city. As the final farewell to South Dakota’s native son, the funeral was filled with tender reflections and humorous tales from McGovern’s past. A bagpipe processional closed the service. A private burial for McGovern in Washington will be scheduled later.

Larry Fuller, a retired newspaper publisher from Sioux Falls who became friends with McGovern, said it was a fitting tribute for the man who served the state in Washington for two decades. McGovern left office in 1981 after a losing a campaign for a fourth Senate term.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for this state to recognize everything he did for South Dakota, something that didn’t happen after his last election,” Fuller said. “I can’t think of any South Dakotans who had as positive and impact on history as George McGovern.”

Even though he came up short in three tries for president, McGovern is revered on the left as someone who inspired a coterie of young Democrats who would go on to great things. Among his flock of campaign workers were future senators, a secretary of state in Hillary Clinton and a president in Bill Clinton.

The two days of ceremony were something of a reunion of ardent supporters. Old-timers sporting quarter-sized “McGovern” campaign buttons paused for group photos. Another man wore a button declaring: “I Want McGovernment.”

Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a prayer service Thursday night. The dignitary list for Friday included Mondale, a former vice president who was the Democratic nominee in the 1984 presidential race that marked McGovern’s last bid for public office. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator and the 2004 Democratic nominee, made the trip on short notice.

In a show of bipartisanship, South Dakota’s GOP Gov. Dennis Daugaard, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Kristi Noem were there, too.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a fellow South Dakota Democrat, held McGovern up as a model citizen who overcame hardship to lead a life of public service.

“I’ve never known anybody who preached the gospel more effectively in so many ways than George: a peacemaker, a humanitarian, a teacher, a minister, a congressman, a senator, a voice for the voiceless and a champion for hungry children,” Daschle said.

Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, who is not related to George McGovern, also spoke about the love McGovern had for his country.

Most in the audience were family, friends and admirers.

A few hours before the funeral, McGovern’s family gathered to walk behind a hearse bringing the senator’s flag-draped coffin the few blocks from a funeral home to the arts center for the service. One of McGovern’s eight great-grandchildren held a crisply folded flag at the front of the processional.

Bill Walsh, of Deadwood, S.D., drove 400 miles to attend the funeral of a man he has known since growing up two blocks away from McGovern’s home in Mitchell 60 years ago. Reflecting on the 1972 campaign, Walsh said his friend could have won the presidency if he had emphasized his record as a war hero.

His role as a military pilot who did bombing runs over Europe during World War II was a muted part of McGovern’s biography. He returned with medals for valor, but was reluctant to mention that in a campaign setting, especially in the presidential race where he urged an immediate end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

He lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon, who won all but one state. South Dakota even went Nixon’s way. Soon after, Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal.

McGovern was also known for his advocacy for world nutrition, a cause he continued long after leaving public office. In 2008, he was awarded the World Food Prize along with former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who had also faced defeat in a presidential race.

A testament to McGovern’s crusade against hunger was in the lobby at the funeral: a basket brimming with dried food goods that will go to a needy family.

A program distributed at the memorial service had an image of a smiling McGovern in his twilight and bore a comment Pope John XXII made to McGovern when he was an emissary to Rome for John F. Kennedy’s administration. It read: “When you meet your Maker and he asks, `Have you fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, and cared for the lonely?’ you can answer, `Yes.'”

___

Associated Press writer Kristi Eaton and AP photographer Nati Harnik contributed.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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McGovern celebrated as ‘conscience for our nation’