George McGovern, the Democratic progressive who lost the presidency in a landslide defeat to Richard M. Nixon, was buried Thursday in his native South Dakota as political leaders of both parties praised his reformist idealism, his heroic war service and lifelong crusades against world hunger.
McGovern died a week ago at age 90.
But in Kentucky, former governor and senator Wendell Ford, only two years younger than McGovern, had no words of regret for his vigorous opposition to him in a raucous nominating convention in Miami in 1972.
On the other hand, he said he fears that the unreported Super PAC money flowing into both sides of the Obama-Romney presidential contest can corrupt the electoral process, perhaps on a scale as bad or worse than the Watergate scandal that played out after the 1972 election, and ultimately forced Nixon to resign.
Forty years ago this summer, flying to Miami after he had recently undergone major surgery for an aneurysm. Ford plunged into an "anybody but McGovern" fight, supporting Sen, Henry Jackson of Washington or Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine. Jackson was his favorite, Ford said from his Owensboro home last week.
"He talked our language (in Kentucky) better. He understood our people better than McGovern," said Ford, a self-styled conservative Democrat. "He was stronger for the military" in the Vietnam era.
A commission chaired by McGovern rewrote the nominating rules before the Miami convention to curtail the influence of party leaders in smoke-filled rooms and make the nominating process more accessible to women and minorities.
Asked how the Democratic Party has fared since that change, Ford declined to criticize McGovern further. But Ford is concerned about the future of democracy in our country, now awash in negative political advertising, much of it funded by wealthy unidentified persons. Ford, probably Kentucky's most revered Democrat, was always lukewarm or downright opposed to McGovern's liberalism.
However, last week he urged a reform of campaign financing perhaps as challenging as any of McGovern's divisive crusades against foreign wars and racial discrimination, and for guaranteed jobs and a guaranteed family income above the poverty line.
"We've got to fight the Supreme Court rule allowing so much big money in elections, with little reporting who gave it," Ford said firmly.
Citing the court's decision in the Citizens United case of 2010 expanding the right of corporations and independent donors to give unrestricted and sometimes secret amounts of money to so-called independent committees for political ads in the name of free speech, Ford said, "We must correct this."
"More than ever, politics is bent at the direction of major funders and the little fellow is being left out or pushed out of the democratic process," he said.
Without overturning Citizens United, said Ford, elections and lawmakers will be dominated by wealthy givers. Showing a populist streak that surfaced on occasion in his four terms in the Senate and earlier as governor and lieutenant governor, he said, he raised between $2 million and $2.5 million in his last race. "When I was told I would need $5 million to run for another term, I quit."
Noting the remedy for overturning the court decision lies with Congress, he said, "I hope they fix it in my lifetime."
Meanwhile, other than a tour of nursing homes in Lexington to support the re-election of U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, he has not been active in the presidential or other races.
But he is proud of Owensboro's Wendell H. Ford Government Center, where he meets with visiting high school students and talks to them about government through the perspective of his 34 years of elected service.
While offering no other comment about the passing of McGovern, whom he cordially welcomed to Kentucky in the 1972 presidential campaign in his first year as governor, Ford said he was disappointed in the coal industry's ongoing attacks on President Barack Obama for problems he said are due to "much more than environmental regulations."
"They resemble the failed defenses of the tobacco companies when they denied any health problems with smoking," he said. "Instead of complaining about big government, the coal folks should be pledging support for more development of clean coal and all energy sources."