The politics of mourning

Posted: Nov 05, 2002 12:00 AM
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 sides. 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.