The Magazine

Mourning in America

From the November 11, 2002 issue: Paul Wellstone's memorial and Walter Mondale's coming-out party.

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IT IS NO GRAVESIDE cliché to say that the death of Paul Wellstone leaves a gaping void in American politics. Let's be clear about exactly where that gaping void lies. Iowa senator Tom Harkin's tribute to Wellstone as a man who "made a miner up on the Iron Range know that he was as important as the president of the United States" may have been true for some miners (and some presidents). Harkin may have been right to say that Wellstone fought "for those who mop our floors and clean our bathrooms, for those who take care of our elderly, take care of our sick, teach our kids, help our homeless." But the poor were Wellstone's topic, not his constituency. Wellstone's constituency was academic leftists. We don't doubt that his struggle helped rescue the poor on occasion. But the help they got was incidental to his larger struggle, which was to rescue the consciences of his fellow professors.

This is not an observation we make sneeringly. The tendencies Wellstone represented are a real and serious corner of our political landscape. We won't pretend to like this politics: With its obsessive focus on sexuality and race issues, its embrace of the anti-Western side in all conflicts, its combination of class privilege and class envy, its political correctness and its authoritarian speech codes, the leftism espoused almost unanimously on university faculties (and elsewhere) most often strikes us as irresponsible. And yet it can be granted that our professors are under-represented in the political system. For decades now, America has employed far more people in education than in agriculture. This is a country with more gender-studies professors than cowboys, more guidance counselors than stevedores, more admissions officers than sleeping-car porters. So who represents them in our Senate? It's true that there are a few senators in near-total sympathy with their university constituents; Hillary Clinton comes to mind. But Paul Wellstone, a Carleton College political science professor, was the only senator the academic Left could call its own. As such, he was the living symbol of the most important, most elite, most interesting--and possibly most dangerous--wing of our contemporary "progressive" politics.

It is in this context that the nationwide outrage over last week's "memorial service" for Wellstone at Williams Arena in Minneapolis is best understood. Millions of Americans--and 55 percent of Minnesota households--tuned in on television to watch a solemn commemoration and found a rally devoted to a politics that was twisted, pagan, childish, inhumane, and even totalitarian beyond their worst nightmares. The crowd of 20,000 booed a succession of people who had come to pay their respects to a dead colleague: Senate minority leader Trent Lott, Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura, and former Minnesota senators Rod Grams and Rudy Boschwitz. Vice President Dick Cheney was disinvited from the affair. Former president Bill Clinton appeared on the Jumbo-Tron yuk-yukking and giving thumbs-up signs, looking happier than he had since . . . well, since Ron Brown's funeral. And most bizarrely, Wellstone's treasurer and friend Rick Kahn staged a confrontation with Republican representative Jim Ramstad and three senators (Domenici of New Mexico, Brownback of Kansas, and DeWine of Ohio) that was reminiscent of a Maoist reeducation camp. With the help of the mob, Kahn sought to bully and shame these Republicans into abandoning their party and supporting Walter Mondale, taunting: "We can redeem the sacrifice of his life, if you help us win this election for Paul Wellstone." And if they don't help. . . ? Small wonder Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd was said to have apologized afterwards to his Senate colleague Domenici. It was a sinister incident, unexampled in recent American politics.