Not just any story was going to shake the serial-sniper frenzy
out of the top slot in the news, but the Senate losing Sen. Paul Wellstone
in a campaign-plane crash in the fog of northern Minnesota certainly did.
Not only did the nail-biting fight for control of the sliver-thin Senate
have a new wrinkle, but so did one of the nation's closest Senate campaigns.
Tragedies like these divide the public into segments: average
people and political people. Most people respond to a death personally and
not politically. The early shock of losing a national leader in a deadly
crash was personally felt, especially by people who actually knew Sen.
Wellstone. Conservatives like Newt Gingrich were very warm in describing how
much they enjoyed debating Wellstone, even as they disagreed about nearly
every matter of public policy. The noblest urge among us greets death with
magnanimity, and puts the "business" of life, the careerism and the
calculating, aside for a reasonable time.
That is a high challenge for political people when an election
is 10 days away. Political people are certainly capable of charity in
tragedy's wake. But the political person cannot help but greet these events
with a certain amount of cold calculation, especially at a sensitive point
on the campaign calendar.
Republican Senate candidate Norm Coleman was suddenly thrust
into the uncomfortable position of John Ashcroft two years ago. Trying to
put his humanity forward, Sen. Ashcroft suspended campaigning. ... and lost
his seat to a dead man. When the election was tainted by delayed poll
closings in Democratic areas, Ashcroft didn't go to court like Al Gore. He
conceded. Now the Coleman camp has to deal with the expectations of average
people -- expecting the grace -- and the GOP's political people, who don't
want the Ashcroft experience repeated.
For the Democrats, losing Wellstone was not just a blow to their
incumbent advantages but a loss to their most liberal wing. They restarted
the campaign shortly after the crash, recruiting former Senator and Vice
President Walter Mondale. But the real calculation emerged at a "memorial
service," broadcast live for three hours on C-SPAN and on local television
stations across the state. The average people expected something like the
memorial services they've attended, remembering the times, traits and events
that would never be again. Even many political people were stunned by the
convention-style political rally that evolved.
So the last days of the race had a unique challenge: How would
the political people woo the average people, by suggesting one side had all
the grace and dignity, and the other side was crudely manipulating events?
It's in this field of spin where the media often rejected the option of
acting as guardian of political dignity, and predictably chose instead to
assist the Democrats at this crucial moment. The Republicans had done
nothing to match the blatant electioneering of the Wellstone service, but
the TV news titans suddenly found complete moral equivalence between the two
CNN's prime-time prince of pomposity, Aaron Brown, began his
"Page Two" commentary by calling the memorial service "totally tasteless"
but said that outraged post-service e-mails sent to his CNN office were
"equally shameless." He declared, "Here is what last night proved: One side
can be tasteless and the other side has the computer skills to cut and paste
under the guise of genuine outrage. Which is worse? To me, it's a tie." In
other words, in Brown's bizarre estimation, there's no shamelessness
differential between a Democrat memorial service/pep rally attended by
thousands and viewed by probably millions on television, and a handful of
e-mails he received in private from a few Republicans who merely copied each
other rather than write something original.
On CBS's "Early Show," longtime political reporter Bob Schieffer
applied the same pox-on-both-houses shtick. "Even before they had separated
and identified the remains in the plane crash that took Paul Wellstone's
life, you had Republicans running polls and attacking Walter Mondale, who
was believed to be the Democratic candidate even in those early hours." He
also denounced the memorial rally as "just an awful thing."
It's a little hypocritical for media people to denounce
political calculation and polling in the aftermath, since they were also
calculating and polling before the memorial service. But Schieffer made the
additional mistake of somehow concluding it was offensive for Republicans to
test-poll Mondale, when they would not have had the name to test if
Democrats hadn't selected him first and leaked his selection to the press.
There's nothing wrong with a nonpartisan media response --
unless it hopelessly muddles a Democratic bonfire of insensitivity with a
kerosene lamp on the GOP side. Voters decide which side crossed a line of
dignity, but the media ought to refrain from laying their thumbs on the
scale for endangered Democratic hopes and dreams.