The Magazine

The Wellstone Effect and Chief Wiggles.

From the November 10, 2003 issue: The Scrapbook looks at the Wellstone memorial revisionists.

Nov 10, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 09
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Wellstone Memorial, Revisited

The memorial service for Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone on October 29, 2002, is generally viewed in Washington--by both Democrats and Republicans--as the turning point in the last midterm elections. If there was any one moment that cost Democrats their Senate majority and prevented them from regaining the House, that was it.

Just four days after Wellstone was killed with his wife and several staffers in a plane crash on the campaign trail, Democratic activists gathered in the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena to pay their respects. The service was (very) long and (somewhat) varied. In the course of it, those assembled booed the non-Democratic politicians who came to pay their respects. Republicans were harangued from the stage to drop their partisan affiliation and rally behind Wellstone's program. Wellstone was treated less as an admirable man to be missed and mourned than as a convenient vehicle for advancing a partisan program. A significant portion of Americans found the spectacle repugnant.

In recent months, certain Democratic ideologues--perhaps chastened by their own role in their party's 2002 defeat--have urged a revisionist view of the Wellstone memorial. In this, they resemble the Buchananite Republicans of 1992 who spent years disputing the proposition that Pat Buchanan's "religious and cultural war" speech at the Houston convention cost the GOP at the polls that year. But the Wellstone revisionists go a step further. They seek to convince the American public that it didn't see what it saw. According to them, Trent Lott was never booed by the crowd, ideology was a small part of the service, and the evening turned into a liability for Democrats only because the "right-wingers" who "control the media" distorted the facts for partisan gain.

Our own sense that this ghoulish leave-taking created problems for Democrats was formed more by talking to Democrats than by talking to Republicans. Certainly the media picked up the excesses in a way that caused problems for Democrats. But no rational Democrat believes those excesses were a Republican fabrication. It is thus gratifying to see in Tom Daschle's newly published memoir "Like No Other Time" (Crown Books, 304 pages, $25) that the Democrats closest to the spectacle at the time agree with us on the facts of the matter.

Take, for instance, the booing of Trent Lott. Moments after Lott told Daschle, "I'm here because Paul would have done the same for me," Lott went into the arena and was, in Daschle's words, "showered with boos and catcalls from the crowd. I felt very bad for Trent and Tricia. I think Paul Wellstone would have felt bad, too. He would not have abided the people responding that way--his people or anyone else's."

Daschle found similar sentiments among his fellow Democratic senators, returning to Washington on a private plane:

At one point, Chris [Dodd], [North Dakota Democrat] Byron [Dorgan] and I were sitting together, talking about how anyone who knew Paul or his politics would understand and appreciate how his spirit was reflected in that evening's enthusiasm. But we knew how many people did not know Paul and did not share his politics, and we agreed that among those people--millions of them across America--we were going to pay a price for what had just happened.

"We may just have lost the Minnesota Senate race," Chris said.

"That may not be all," Byron replied.

And Daschle heard the same from former vice president Walter Mondale, who replaced Wellstone as senatorial candidate:

I remember talking to Fritz Mondale in the afternoon the following day. He, too, was shocked at the rapid turn of events. He had already personally experienced the vitriol among many Minnesotans that morning.

And from Democratic pollsters and activists across the country:

Not only did Walter Mondale slip overnight from eight points up to ten points down. . . . In South Dakota, where [incumbent Democratic senator] Tim Johnson's people were going door-to-door all over the state, reports were coming back that more than a few South Dakotans were saying, "I am so outraged at what happened in Minnesota that I was going to vote for Tim, but now I'm going to vote Republican."

This was the Democrats' assessment of the Wellstone memorial before the "right wing" media had had a chance to "distort" it.

Call Him Wiggles