Sen. Eagleton has the last word at his own memorial service

Sunday, March 11, 2007
A large crowd filled St. Francis Xavier College Church in St. Louis during a memorial Mass on Saturday for the late Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton. Eagleton died March 4 in his hometown of St. Louis. (Jeff Roberson ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- A younger Sen. Thomas Eagleton may have neglected to disclose the depression and electroshock therapy that ultimately cost him a brief run as George McGovern's vice presidential running mate in 1972.

But a wiser, seasoned public servant got in the last word after all.

Eagleton, who died March 4 at age 77, wrote in a farewell letter distributed at the end of Saturday's memorial service to "go forth in love and peace -- be kind to dogs -- and vote Democratic."

It was the final line in a two-page, single-spaced, typewritten farewell that Eagleton, who was famous for his notes, wit and love of politics, wrote months earlier in planning his funeral.

And fitting for a man whose lasting image on a memorial card features him sharing a couch with his pooch.

Eagleton left his words for the more than 1,200 family members, friends and political leaders who packed the glorious St. Francis Xavier College Church at Saint Louis University for his funeral Mass.

A busload of dignitaries in attendance was a Who's Who of the Senate present and past and included Sens. Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and Dick Durbin; and former Sens. John Danforth, Walter Mondale and Dale Bumpers.

The lineup prompted Bumpers, a friend and eulogist, to say he wished he was running for president. "You don't get an audience like this every day," he said.

Missouri leaders included Gov. Matt Blunt, Attorney General Jay Nixon, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and federal judges from St. Louis and the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as former Govs. Bob Holden and Warren Hearnes.

"I join with everyone here in mourning this loss," Kennedy said. "His was a life well lived. He set the pattern for what a senator should be."

Eagleton, one of Missouri's Democratic icons, was remembered for his hearty belly laugh, his eccentricity and sense of humor, his generosity, and the courage to take an unpopular stand. Speaker after speaker eulogized him as a "liberal lion" with a "capacity for outrage who insisted that justice be done."

And they struggled to keep their remarks short.

Longtime friend and former Senate staffer Mark Abels recalled Eagleton whispering to him years ago during another person's eulogy, "in a voice that could be heard 10 church pews away, 'I hope he finishes before someone else dies."'

Bumpers said that in an era when politicians were admonishing the poor to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, Eagleton said that "some people don't even have boots."

"He liked to say that if we really were born equally, we wouldn't need politicians so badly," Bumpers said.

Fellow Missourian Danforth, a Republican who served with Eagleton in the Senate, said Eagleton took high marks from both parties for speaking out against a Democratic senate colleague in the 1980s public corruption episode known as Abscam. In the end, one senator and five members of the House were convicted of bribery and conspiracy.

"I still remember (Sen.) Fritz Hollings saying 'I don't know how we got here, but I know it ended with Eagleton's speech,"' Danforth recalled.

Danforth, an ordained Episcopal priest, said that after Eagleton retired from the Senate, he corresponded with Danforth in notes addressed "Dear Rev.," kidding him once about being "a senior citizen on Social Security" seeking a job as an Episcopal bishop.

He even razzed Danforth, whose family founded Purina, for providing the puppy chow that kept his dog free of arthritis. "Her hips were always perfect," Eagleton's note said. "In fact, she was doing so well in her later years, I started eating it, and my hips are perfect."

Friend Louis Susman said Eagleton easily could have won a fourth term in the Senate, but retired from an institution that had been "ruined by the money chase," and become too partisan.

He called Eagleton a "giver, not a taker, who never wanted anything in return except friendship."

Carnahan, who studied under Eagleton when they worked at the same law firm, said Eagleton viewed politics as a "sacred trust, a worthy pursuit," as a "calling" rather than a job.

In his farewell address, Eagleton said he was shaped by a saintly mother, a "magnificent trial lawyer" father, and early exposure to wide-ranging political views, from Socialists to racist preachers.

The former Navy man said he most proud of introducing the amendment that ended the Vietnam War, and his original version of the War Powers Act to re-establish shared war powers of the president and Congress. He later refused to sign the watered-down version.

He said he didn't miss the Senate once he left it, except for the debate on the "horrible, disastrous Iraq War that ... will go down in American history as one of our greatest blunders ... and as a curse to our Constitution when Attorney General John Ashcroft attempted to put a democratic face on torture."

A Roman Catholic, he criticized the church's veer to the right, in which "we seem to have merged God's power into political power."

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