Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Memorial, Memorial, and Memorial

Today we observe the third anniversary of the plane crash that killed eight people, including Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife, and their daughter. It is worthwhile to reflect on the political career of the late senator. One way to look at it would be a tale of three memorials.

Following his improbable victory in 1990, Senator Wellstone held a controversial news conference in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. During the visit to the memorial, the senator and his wife located the name of a veteran from Northfield, Minnesota, where Wellstone had taught political science to college students. There was no indication in the media that they had known the man they were mourning. Veterans groups were angry.

While Wellstone later regretted his actions at the memorial, it was right in sync with the style of many of his supporters. Candidate Wellstone had delighted supporters and the media with a two-minute campaign commercial in the style of Michael Moore's Roger & Me. Although the ad was expensive to run, some media outlets ran it as a news segment on the creative grass roots campaign against Senator Rudy Boschwitz. "Looking for Rudy" was vulnerable to some of the same criticisms that are leveled at Michael Moore -- editing out of context, exploiting low-paid receptionists and security guards, etc. -- but the ad worked like a charm. Wellstone supporters celebrated their narrow victory at election-night headquarters, singing "Bye, Bye Boschwitz."

The only time I saw Senator Wellstone in person was at the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day 1993 or 1994. The master of ceremonies praised Wellstone's constituent service work on veterans benefit issues and invited him to the podium. Wellstone sheepishly said a few words and gave the floor back to the other speakers. I was unaware at the time of his work with veterans benefits. It fit well with his strengths of empathy and one-on-one communication. It also meshed with his view of a progressive government role in people's lives. This remarkable turnaround from his earlier appearance at a Vietnam Memorial was a testament to his quiet good works in Washington and Minnesota.

It has been said about President Clinton that there is a "Saturday Night" Bill and a "Sunday Morning" Bill. One could say that there was a "War Protestor" Paul and a "Veterans Benefits" Paul.

Senator Wellstone built friendships across political parties. He gained respect, even from those who disagreed with him. For example, one of my colleagues in the Army JAG Corps found out I was from Minnesota and remarked how he admired my senior senator -- even though he did not agree with the senator on any issues. Some of Wellstone's college students who were political conservatives had similar thoughts. The admiration among political opponents meant that people across the political spectrum needed to grieve and wanted to show their respects to the senator after his death.

Although Senator Wellstone matured in office, some of his supporters did not. This is one of the major explanations for the controversy surrounding the memorial after the plane crash.

Another explanation for the controversy is religion. The close race in 1990 between Boschwitz and Wellstone was turned upside down by an exchange of letters. Supporters of Wellstone sent a letter to members of the Jewish community in Minnesota promoting his candidacy over that of Boschwitz. Angered, Senator Boschwitz had supporters send a letter to the same mailing list pointing out that Wellstone had married outside his faith and was not as involved in the Jewish community as Boschwitz was. This was an important issue to Boschwitz, having escaped from Nazi Germany as a young boy and having played matchmaker within the Jewish community in Minnesota and on Captiol Hill. Like most hockey referees, the media did not report the initial infraction, only the retaliation. Aside from a few references in passing, one would not know from news reports that Wellstone supporters had sent the first letter the the Jewish community.

The letter controversy made religion an off-limits topic in Minnesota politics. Yet religion was probably part of the reason why there was not a public funeral as we saw for Vice President Hubert Humphrey and others. Religious funeral and burial traditions are an important and delicate subject for families with blended religious backgrounds. There are many reasons to have a private memorial service, and religion may have been one of them in this case. If this had been explained better, politicians from other parties may not have been expecting a somber funeral when they attended the memorial.

Despite attempts at revisionist history, the memorial at the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena was terrible. If the two pilots, Richard Conry and Michael Guess, were mentioned at all, it was in a dismissive "Professor and Maryann" way. After campaign treasurer Rick Kahn made a bizarre speech appealing to Congressman Jim Ramstad and other Republicans to support replacement Democrat candidate Walter Mondale, some mainstream Democrats were uncomfortable. In between speeches, former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, a Democrat, quipped that he was glad Rick Kahn was being bi-partisan. Neither the cheering crowd nor the subsequent speakers could take the hint. While it is understandable that the Wellstone brothers, who had just lost both parents and a sister, would not be at their best, the Democratic politicians in attendance also joined in the political pep fest. As Senator Tom Harkin concluded the final rallying speech, the musicians struck up the "Vote for Paul Wellstone" song, reworked as "Remember Paul Wellstone."

Immediately after the plane crash, both parties were working behind the scenes to salvage the election. Many Republicans were resigned to a loss, as happened in the race between the late Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan and Senator John Ashcroft two years earlier. When the memorial ended in the late evening, only one Republican, Vin Weber, gave an immediate response. Others were still filing out of Williams Arena, or were keeping an appropriately low profile. The newspapers had already filed their stories. So the reaction to the memorial was in slow motion, with Independence Party Governor Jesse Ventura taking the lead.

The mainstream Democrats could have come out ahead if they had expressed outrage of their own. Other than George Latimer's comment, there were no reports of any disapproval from Democrats while they were in the arena. One wonders what would have happened in the election if former Vice President Mondale had walked out in the middle of the speeches.

Beyond the political implications, the memorial trivialized Wellstone's life and accomplishments. Instead of his politics being about something larger, it was reduced to a single election and a single candidate. People who disagreed were denied a chance to grieve.

If Wellstone is to be remembered for a memorial, let it be the second memorial mentioned above.

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