MINNEAPOLIS — “We pay tribute to a leader — a true DFL liberal…” shouted US Senator Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, invoking the initials and the ideological tradition of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party to honor his fallen colleague, Senator Paul Wellstone.
The Iowan’s battle yell drew the loudest cheers of a night filled with tears, laughter and passionate reflection on the legacy of the Minnesota senator Harkin described as “the soul of the Senate.” The crowd of more than 20,000 that packed a University of Minnesota arena and an adjoining sports center rose in a foot-stomping, fist-pumping frenzy as Harkin continued: “That’s right! A DFL liberal who constantly reminded those of us who are Democrats of the real center of gravity in our party — the progressive grounding of our being: that everyone should be able to reach their whole potential in our society,” Harkin bellowed as the crowd stood and cheered.”
The official memorial service for Wellstone, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia and campaign aides Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy — who perished Friday in a plane crash on Minnesota’s Iron Range — was more a rally than a funeral. Busloads of Wellstone partisans from across the state poured into Minneapolis to share the memory of the man many of them had marched with, rallied with and campaigned with across two decades of struggle against conservatives in both the Republican and Democratic parties.
But the bus everyone recalled was the green school bus that Wellstone road across Minnesota in his successful 1990 campaign for the Senate, and that was rolled out once more for an intense 2002 campaign in which Wellstone was targeted for defeat by the Bush White House.
Harkin, the only national political speaker invited to address what was essentially a local event, recalled Wellstone’s green bus again and again in a speech that owed a good deal more to William Jennings Bryan’s turn-of-the-century populism than to the stilted speaking styles of comptemporary politicians.
“Paul Wellstone was a hopeful man. Green was his color — the color of springtime, the color of hope, the color of that bus he climbed on 12 years ago as set out on his journey for a better Americ,” Harkin recalled. “Paul didn’t want it to be a solo voage. He wanted us all onboard. And, now, we must all continue Paul Wellstone’s journey for a better America.”
Harkin was the last of a succession of speakers who left little doubt that the first leg of that journey leads to next Tuesday’s voting when, if all goes as appears to be planned, the DFL will elect former Vice President Walter “Fritz” Mondale to fill the late Senator’s seat.
Mondale did not speak Tuesday night. But he was greeted with applause more thunderous than that given former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Senator Edward Kennedy and a who’s who of Dmocratic Party leaders — along with a smattering of Republicans, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. (Lott got the most boos, something Republicans were immediately spinning as evidence that the event has been “too partisan.”)