It was, unfortunately, an appalling event. It was supposed to be a memorial service for Paul Wellstone, his wife, their daughter, and three aides who died in last Friday's plane crash. But it turned into something not quite describable.
For one thing, it was a happening. For hours ahead of time crowds lined up to get first crack at seating inside the University of Minnesota's Williams Arena. By the time the so-called dignitaries began to arrive, the crowd was being entertained by a hip soul band. The politicians played right along, waving and smiling and saluting as they walked in to loud cheers from the audience. Leading the way was Bill Clinton, who could be detected mouthing thank you's in response to the cheering, grateful that the event seemed to him to be about him. The Hillary at his side was soon enough smiling and grinning too.
C-Span's cameras caught a number of senators as they walked in. Most carried a ready smile, even someone one would think would understand the need for a show of reserve like Joe Lieberman. Oddly, Sen. John Edwards seemed most uneasy about the event and never once displayed his patented toothy grin. Good for him. Maybe it was because he'd never been so far north. But can anyone explain why Trent Lott caught the good-time spirit? His stupid smile suggested he was grateful not to have been left out. For gravitas one could turn to John Kerry, who by most accounts hasn't cracked a smile in some 35 years.
Then there was Walter Mondale and his coming out, or, in this case, in. He was greeted by a huge roar. He responded by showing his best smile. Then Clinton managed to hug him and he hugged back, and then both flashed smiles toward the cheering sections. The rest of the evening it was delicious to observe the Mondales playing second fiddle to the Clintons, who were seated directly in front of them, in the first row, like the royalty they presume to be.
Republican honor was saved by Tommy Thompson, a last-minute replacement for Dick Cheney. Not only was he not smiling, he looked downright angry. Either that, or he was nursing the worst hangover in politics. Al Gore might argue that he saved his own party's honor. True, compared to the clown he once worked for, he came across as a profile in dignity, what with his dark suit and restrained facial expressions. The problem was one got the feeling he wasn't quite sure if anyone in the crowd recognized him.
Not so insecure were the other pols, most of whom readily recognized themselves on the arena's giant screens and reacted accordingly whenever the television cameras pointed their way. Clinton, for instance, bit his lips on cue whenever he knew he was being filmed. When Gov. Jesse Ventura detected he was on candid camera, he immediately stopped chewing the gum he'd been working on. (There's hope for him yet.) But most revealing was the unimpressive Mondale. Once he knew the camera was on him his face would change from vacant glumness to a patented unchanging smile, in which he resembles an owl that breathes through an open mouth. If this is the man who is supposed to replace to the near manic Wellstone, one can only wish him luck. At this stage in his long career there doesn't appear to be much to him.
For Wellstone loyalists, Mondale is bound to be as irritating a reminder of their loss as LBJ was to JFK's circle after Kennedy's assassination. For whatever reason, Mondale chose not to speak on Tuesday night. The rhetorical honors thus went to one Rick Kahn, described as a friend and former student of the late senator. Once he got going the tenor of the evening shifted irreparably toward wacko partisanship. His fervor was such that he probably right then and there should have announced that he was going to replace Wellstone on the ballot. The crowd would have agreed by acclamation. Mondale would have never known what hit him.
Kahn did something even the rules of chutzpah never anticipated: he called on Republican senators in attendance to suspend all election activity for Wellstone's seat so that the seat would remain in Democratic hands. The request was less audacious than unprecedentedly presumptuous. For all we know, it'll blow up in the Democrats' face and throw the election to Norm Coleman.
But it was useful to hear nonetheless, because Kahn seemed a better reflection of the audience at the event than the carpetbagging senators and other Democratic stars in attendance. C-Span captured these people in such stereotypical detail one needed to be reminded he wasn't watching PBS during pledge week: for starters, there was the usual mix of aging hippies, bearded professors, and peace-sign toting feminazis. Labor was represented, though in an AFSCME (i.e. government employee union) T-shirt. It seemed a crowd, like most college-town gatherings, quite happy with its material and nonmaterial advantages and superior moral understanding. Priests in this audience boogied to the music. It was one big love-in, capped by the band's wonderful rendition of the disco hit, "Love Train."
Yet according to descriptions from the podium, outside the arena and its loving atmosphere was a country in which millions and millions struggle for justice and their daily bread and in which domestic violence is a chronic scourge. The loudest cheer of the night might have been in response to the announcement that a local domestic violence clinic would be named after Mrs. Wellstone. The politics of these people seem to come down to throwing federal money at programs designed to address an alleged shortage of social justice and in so doing subsidizing the caring ruling class that is forever discovering new causes to champion.
"Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning," Wellstone said in a video. Yet his last campaign, which saw him break his term-limit pledge to try for a third term in order to keep the Senate in Democratic control, suggested winning was ultimately all the mattered. To know just how much it matters, ask Rick Kahn.
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