How Minnesota voters got snowed.

Politics and policy.
Nov. 8 2002 10:36 AM

Wellstone's Ghost

How Minnesota voters got snowed.

7:25 a.m. PT: Two years ago, I saw Al Gore debate George W. Bush in their first clash of the 2000 presidential election. The first impression of most reporters was that Gore had won on points. I agreed but thought Bush had made a more favorable impression as a human being. Neither of those opinions became the consensus, though. The consensus formed around a theory partly validated by Gore and fully promoted by conservative activists: that Gore had shown he was a compulsive liar. He never recovered from that consensus.

Last week, I saw it happen again. I was at Paul Wellstone's memorial service. I saw Rick Kahn, the speaker chosen by Wellstone's family, deliver an election rallying cry instead of a eulogy. I thought it was inappropriate, and I said so. But the consensus that formed around that service—that the whole thing was a crass political rally—was a gross exaggeration. The possibility that that consensus changed the outcome of the election gives me great remorse.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Wellstone's service was about three and a half hours long. Most of it, as I reported, consisted of poignant tributes to the friends, aides, and family members who died along with Wellstone. Kahn's speech was way out of line, as was the crowd's enthusiastic reaction. Wellstone's sons also crossed the line, but less so. When the time came to review my notes and choose a theme for my story, it was a tough call. I wrote about Kahn and the politicization of the service—I said the event had gradually "turned into" a rally—because it was the aspect that stood out most. The eulogies were dog-bites-man. The electioneering was man-bites-dog. I'm sure other reporters followed the same reasoning.

What I saw on Minneapolis TV and on the Internet the next day was a distillation of that spin. Gone were the accounts of the touching eulogies delivered the night before. All anybody talked about was the electioneering. Dittoheads showed up in Slate's "Fray" and every other political chat room to spread the new message. People in the street who hadn't been to the service began to describe it as an all-out rally. Minnesota Democrats spent the rest of the week apologizing. Their replacement candidate, Walter Mondale, sank in the polls and lost the election.

Kahn's speech was inappropriate and inconsiderate to the many Republican senators who had come to pay their respects to Wellstone. And there were plenty of legitimate reasons, depending on your political views, to vote against Mondale. I suspect that the Republican who won, Norm Coleman, will be a better senator. But I hope he didn't win because voters thought Wellstone's memorial service was just a political rally. That wasn't a fact. It was a spin job.

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Thursday, Nov. 7, 2002  

12:15 p.m. PT: The new Dick has arrived. No, not Dick Nixon. Dick Gephardt. Fresh from managing to lose seats as head of the opposition party in a midterm election, he's quitting as the House Democratic Leader and hinting strongly at a run for president. "I'm looking forward to the freedom to speak for myself and talk about my vision for America's future," he declares. "Staying on [as House Minority Leader] requires me to represent my Caucus and the wide diversity it represents. … It's time for me personally to take a different direction, look at the country's challenge from a different perspective and take on this President and the Republican Party from a different vantage point."

So what's his new perspective? "I want to step out of a day-to-day management role and talk to a broader audience about our nation and our goals for our children," he says. "Ideas that will make our children's lives better: providing health care for all, expanding economic opportunity, supporting world-class education, secure retirements, energy independence, environmental protections, and securing America in a changing world."

And what was the old perspective he had to represent on behalf of his caucus? "As Democrats, we fought for our values--opportunity for all, a more secure America, good and affordable health care, and Social Security and Medicare that is there when you need it," he says. "We fought for a world-class education for our kids."

Let's recap. The old, hamstrung Gephardt was forced to fight for a losing agenda of health care for all, world-class education, secure retirement, and a secure America. The new, authentic Gephardt will fight for an exciting agenda of health care for all, world-class education, secure retirement, and a secure America.

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