SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — In a stirring tribute Thursday to former Sen. George McGovern, Vice President Joe Biden hailed the one-time presidential nominee as the “father of the modern Democratic Party” for his forceful stand against the Vietnam War and for helping open the party to more women, young people and minorities.
Biden’s 25-minute reflection capped a day of remembrance to the South Dakota icon, who carried his anti-war sentiment to his party’s nomination in a 1972 race he would lose in a historic landslide to Republican President Richard Nixon.
Despite the loss, Biden said McGovern summoned public restlessness with the war and helped bring about its end before “so much more blood and so much more treasure would have been wasted.”
“The war would never have ended when it did. It would never have ended how it did,” Biden said, his voice rising as he turned his body toward McGovern’s daughters. “Your father gave courage to people who didn’t have the courage to speak up to finally stand up. Your father stood there and took all of that beating.”
A larger funeral service for McGovern, who died Sunday at age 90, is set for Friday.
The Thursday evening ceremony featured heartfelt tributes by McGovern family members, longtime friends and political loyalists. The crowd of hundreds sat hushed as snippets of McGovern’s acceptance speech from the 1972 Democratic National Convention crackled on a church loudspeaker. “We are entering a new period of important and hopeful change in America,” came the echo from the past.
Mourners from near and far spent the afternoon filing past a flag-draped coffin, many drawing attention to his lifelong efforts to fight global hunger.
Biden, who served in the Senate with McGovern in the 1970s, led a cast of dignitaries. But many of those who showed up early at the First United Methodist Church were friends, neighbors, constituents or admirers of McGovern.
Among them was Burton Barnard, a 68-year-old from western Wisconsin. After driving 300 miles, he was toward the front of the line when the church opened for a four-hour viewing period.
“There’s not that many people I would drive that far for,” Barnard said. “McGovern was a deeply moral and principled leader for us in the 60s and 70s.”
Francis and Nancy McGowan of Sioux Falls, both retired, said they attended the viewing because they held McGovern in high esteem because he cared for people.
“We’re thankful for his service,” Nancy McGowan said. “The world is a better place because he was here, not only for his wisdom as a politician but also for his caring and feeding of the hungry.”
Some mourners sat down in the pews after filing past McGovern’s coffin, and reflected as photos of McGovern flashed on screens. Some showed him during his 1972 campaign, others in his World War II Army uniform and others with his wife Eleanor, who died five years ago. One showed him hunched in a field with the words “Prairie Populist” in a corner.
Outside the church, a couple dozen members of the Patriot Guard stood on freshly fallen snow next to U.S. flags flapping in a cold wind. They were there to honor McGovern’s World War II-era military service even though he was defined more by his anti-war stances later in life.
Jim Lentsch, a retired sheriff from Salem, S.D., referred to the senator simply as “George,” a testament to the personal connection the small-state politician had with his former constituents.
“I grew up in South Dakota, I guess l’ve known him for years,” Lentsch said, applauding McGovern’s commitment to society’s most needy and dedication to the college in his native Mitchell, S.D.
Thelma Moberly began to cry as she walked past the casket. Moberly, 85, and her husband Richard were good friends with the McGovern family. When Richard Moberly died in 1995, George McGovern called her from Washington to express his condolences.
“I just thought that was a beautiful gesture of kindness and caring. But that was George,” Thelma Moberly said. “He was such a kind man to us. We’re better because of him.”
The two days of remembrance for the liberal lion will include some of South Dakota’s highest ranking officials from both sides of the political spectrum. Sen. John Thune, Rep. Kristi Noem and South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard, all Republicans, have confirmed they plan to attend. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson was scheduled to speak at the Thursday evening prayer service that Biden was attending.
A larger memorial service was set for Friday, also in Sioux Falls. McGovern is to be buried at a later date at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington.
After his 1972 White House run ended in defeat, McGovern was re-elected once more to the Senate. South Dakota voters turned against him in 1980.
But McGovern, once a global ambassador in the fight against hunger, continued that cause well into his 80s. In 2008, he was awarded the World Food Prize along with former Republican Sen. Bob Dole, who like his compatriot faced defeat in a presidential race. It was not known if Dole would attend any of the services.
Associated Press writer Chet Brokaw contributed to this report.
Follow Brian Bakst on Twitter at http://twitter.com/stowydad.
Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton.