Needed: Wellstone Democrats

Time stood still for thee hours on Oct. 29, as Minnesotans remembered the late Sen. Paul Wellstone in a truly memorable memorial service at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. Thanks to C-SPAN, the favorite TV network of political junkies, the rest of us were privileged to witness a unique event: part heartfelt tribute to a revered fallen warrior and part campaign rally to continue his legacy. By the end of the evening, it was clear what had been lost, but equally clear what path needs to be taken.

Those watching at home around the country saw something they rarely see anymore, a genuine barnburner of a political event, replete with the kind of spirited spontaneity scripted major-party conventions and humdrum Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners can no longer provide. The public got a rare glimpse into the essence of old-time prairie populism, one of the source tributaries feeding into the great river of modern American liberalism. They also got a candid snapshot of Minnesota's legendary Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (DFL), the once-potent, but lately moribund, progressive organization that gave us Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and Walter Mondale -- revived and reenergized for at least one more night and maybe a lot longer. It was a true blast from the past that could portend a bright future.

The rhetoric, the best heard for some time in American politics, was supplied by an unlikely duo, a relative political unknown named Rick Kahn, treasurer of the Wellstone senatorial campaign, and a tried-and-true war horse in the best liberal tradition, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. Kahn, a close Wellstone confidante, pleaded with the audience to "stand up" for the absent senator, to fight and win the election in his name "one last time," to stand on his shoulders and continue his work. "We're going to organize," he reiterated in mantra-like fashion, bringing the crowd (including former President Bill Clinton) to its feet, some in tears. "They will know we were here; they will know we made a difference. We are going to win this election for Paul Wellstone."

It was a riveting interlude, surpassed only by the final speaker of the night, Wellstone's best friend in the Senate, Tom Harkin, who had broken down in public a few days earlier upon hearing the news of his colleague's death. Harkin started slowly, recounting personal memories and amusing anecdotes about the quirky but passionate Wellstone, and then built gradually, in the style of a master speechmaker with the soul of a poet, to a rhetorical climax. He injected some of the best lines heard in a political speech in years: "People without influence had Paul Wellstone. ... He showed us the way to lead -- by following your conscience. ... He was the mirror in which we, his colleagues, looked at ourselves and searched our hearts. ... Green was his color, the color of springtime, the color of hope." And finally: "We must continue Paul's journey for justice in America. For Paul, will you stand up and keep fighting? Say yes!"

Harkin's stem-winder, while emotion-laden, was not about emotion alone; it was about practical politics. He lectured the audience, which was filled with Democratic officeholders (and some Republicans) from Washington, on what Wellstone's populist movement represented, "a politics putting principle above the latest poll results." The Minnesota senator, he said, "reminded us of the true [progressive] center of gravity of our party." And in a flourish that brought down the house, Harkin reinformed the assembled politicos, in case any had forgotten, that Wellstone was "a true DFL liberal." The use of the "L" word was a galvanizing, cathartic moment -- and an instructive one.

It is unclear what long-range impact the Wellstone memorial service cum rally will have. In the short run, it created a political tsunami that caused controversy; some people didn't apparently recognize the Scandinavian equivalent of an Irish wake when they saw it. More interesting and profound will be the lasting effect, if any, of this signal event on the assembled political dignitaries. They were all there: dedicated liberals like Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, staunch DLC centrists like Bill Clinton, independent wild cards like Jesse Ventura, but more importantly, the entire potential Democratic cast of characters for 2004 was in attendance -- Daschle, Gore, Kerry, Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, et al. Save the sour-visaged Gov. Ventura and the peevish Trent Lott, who both walked out, all appeared to enjoy the show (The Clintons were exceptionally exuberant, with Bill punching the air at one point), but what was going on behind those faces? Do they yet get it? Do they truly understand what Paul Wellstone was about?

Sad to say, I doubt it, but there is nevertheless cause to hope. The Washington political class arrived in Minneapolis prepared, no doubt, to do their obligatory pro forma duty for a deceased senator. To most of them, Wellstone was from another world, a strange and unfathomable figure who became a congressional mascot of sorts, someone whose idealism and progressivism they could fondly indulge at times without taking too seriously. But the spontaneous outpouring in reaction to his death, as well as the intensely moving, albeit partisan, ceremony at the University of Minnesota, may have changed a few hearts and minds among the Democratic contingent. Who knows? Some of those party heavyweights in attendance may have arrived as calculating cynics or accommodationists and left as Wellstone Democrats. Let's hope so, and in the meantime, let's do as Tom Harkin suggested and get on that green bus.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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