Burying Wellstone

Posted: Nov 04, 2002 12:00 AM
There was even speculation about how Paul Wellstone would have reacted to his own memorial service. The first hour was reverential, but the world knows what then happened, namely a frenetic political rally. One television executive was quoted as saying the three hours -- which is how long it stretched out -- should not have been broadcast, but that it would have been "disrespectful" to tune off when the frenzy began. So, on it went into however many millions of television receivers.

The implicit (and indeed, here and there explicit) premise of the orators was that Paul Wellstone's tragic death imposed an obligation on the voters of Minnesota to vote for the Democratic candidate (Walter Mondale). There is a sense in which the logic of this claim was true to the spirit of the deceased. Senator Wellstone would advertise his positions, on food, pharmaceuticals, education and peace, in parallel language. If you oppose starvation, vote this way on the farm bill; if you grieve for the sick, vote against high drug prices; if you favor the education of children, vote to raise the minimum wage -- or, rather, vote to raise the teachers' salaries and reduce their obligations.

He voted against giving the first President Bush authority to take on the Gulf War to resist the aggression of the Iraqis. Eleven years later, he voted against giving the incumbent President Bush authority to proceed against Iraq. He did not specify the means by which the United States, saddled with its pre-eminence as a superpower, should exercise it to discourage aggression, or the threat of it, or the cultivation of apocalyptic weaponry by men more evil even than Sen. Jesse Helms. Onlookers put it down simply to the continuing lure of isolationism in parts of the country.

The question now being weighed by professional observers is: Were the two hours, post-heartache hours, spent in convention-style exhortation effective? We know that individual figures, expressing dismay, walked out, most prominently Gov. Jesse Ventura, who with characteristic directness, criticized the proceedings and, with "the first lady," walked out of the auditorium. He has the power to introduce true chaos by naming to the Senate someone of his choosing whose term would expire in January, as Wellstone's would have done, leaving Mondale facing a confused scene.

But Ventura elected not to throw this fight, so that discussion centers on whether a backlash will set in, causing critical independents to reject the opportunism of the Wellstone managers, or whether the notion got through to these voters that to deplore with integrity the sad circumstances of Sen. Wellstone's retirement requires voting for the substitute candidate.

Walter Mondale instantly inscribed himself as a true believer of the populist mode of the late senator. Actually, Mondale is not that bad. Wellstone scored 100 year after year with the ADA, which would give Trotsky 110. The American Conservative Union gave the deceased a score of 4, and here is an expression of contemporary political polarities.

The last time Fritz Mondale went big time was when he was nominated for president in 1984. What happened recalls the mischievous explanation of Raymond Moley, seasoned political handicapper. In 1956, the grimly populist Estes Kefauver defeated aristocratic quipster Adlai Stevenson in the Minnesota Democratic presidential primary. How could that be? Moley offered an explanation: "Did you ever try to tell a joke in Minneapolis?"

This is no time for Republican candidate Norm Coleman to engage in levity, but somehow, he will have to ask the Minnesota independents to think through what was said at the funeral service. ("We must continue Paul's journey for justice in America. Say 'yes' for Paul Wellstone." "We can redeem the sacrifice of his life if you help us win this election." "If Paul Wellstone's legacy comes to an end, then our spirits will be crushed and we will drown in a river of tears.")

That last was Rick Kahn, a friend and former student of the late senator who was treasurer of his three senatorial campaigns. What would such interpreters of moral obligations have said if Sen. Joe McCarthy had died in an airplane crash?