Three former Democratic presidential candidates paid personal respects Friday to George McGovern, whose 1972 campaign for president galvanized the party's liberal wing and ushered in a new generation of political activism.
Walter Mondale, John Kerry and Gary Hart — who like McGovern all spent time in the Senate before unsuccessful runs for the White House — led a crowd of hundreds of mourners. Hart, McGovern's campaign manager in 1972, 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 week, Hart added, but "he was larger than any political label, particularly a demonized one."
McGovern died Sunday at age 90 after a brief stay in hospice care.
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 colorful past. 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.
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.
It was a plan he never had a chance to execute. He lost that year to Richard Nixon, who won all but one state. South Dakota even went Nixon's way. Soon after the election, 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.'"
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