SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (Reuters) - Former Senator George McGovern was remembered on Friday as a man of principle and a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War who shaped the Democratic Party even in his lopsided 1972 presidential election loss to Richard Nixon.
McGovern, who died on Sunday at age 90, was the son of a Methodist minister, a decorated bomber pilot in World War Two and a leading advocate in the fight against world hunger.
McGovern was mourned and celebrated during a two-hour funeral service in Sioux Falls that included tributes from former Senators Tom Daschle and Gary Hart and U.S. Representative Jim McGovern, who is not related to George McGovern.
“George McGovern’s voice is not gone, it is simply awaiting new voices of conscience that have the courage of their conviction,” said Hart, who worked on McGovern’s 1972 campaign.
McGovern suffered one of the biggest defeats in U.S. history in the 1972 election, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, against a well-oiled Republican political machine headed by Richard Nixon.
Later, as Nixon’s presidency unraveled in the Watergate scandal, bumper stickers saying, “Don’t blame me, I‘m from Massachusetts,” and buttons saying “Don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern,” appeared.
“Voices of conscience make us uncomfortable,” Hart said of McGovern, who he said was there for wounded Vietnam veterans, hungry children and for women, minorities and young people who felt shut out of a once-closed political system.
Representative McGovern, who volunteered on the 1972 campaign while in junior high and later as an intern, said the senator was a “treasured friend” with no patience for cynicism who always believed America’s best days were ahead of it.
“There are millions and millions all around the world who are being fed, who are not starving to death, who have hope because of George McGovern’s actions,” he said.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Senator John Kerry were among the hundreds of mourners who attended the funeral. The Democratic nominee in 1984, Mondale won only his home state of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, while Kerry was nominated in 2004, but lost.
South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune also attended.
McGovern’s flag-draped casket was wheeled on stage for the funeral and placed between the U.S. and South Dakota flags among flowers and a large photograph of McGovern and his wife Eleanor, who died in 2007.
McGovern was a mentor to many Democrats. His 1972 campaign workers included former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
During a prayer service on Thursday night, Vice President Joe Biden praised McGovern as “the father of the modern Democratic Party,” who opened it to women, minorities and young people, an example that encouraged Biden to run for the Senate.
A B-24 bomber pilot during World War Two, McGovern flew 35 missions over Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was not a pacifist even as he opposed the Vietnam war, said historian Thomas Knock, who is writing a McGovern biography.
McGovern was a fierce advocate in the fight against world hunger and champion of other social issues, who continued to give speeches and write until weeks before his death.
He was elected a U.S. representative in 1956 and 1958, served as President John F. Kennedy’s director of the Food for Peace Program and represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1981.
McGovern will be buried later in Washington D.C. in a private family service.
Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham