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.”)
Mondale had said that he would not address the question of whether he would pick up Wellstone’s mantle and carry it into the election until after a decent interval had passed. That interval come to a close Wednesday morning as Republican Norm Coleman, the White House-selected candidate for the Minnesota Senate seat, began campaigning again. Wednesday night, the DFL did indeed pick Mondale as their candidate.
While none of Tuesday night’s speakers made explicit “Mondale for Senate” pitches, few left any doubt as to their fervent hope that Wellstone’s supporters would, by electing Mondale, “win one more election for Wellstone.” The theme of the night, repeated in songs, signs and new green campaign buttons was “Stand Up, Keep Fighting” and fighting words were in abundance.
“We will carry on the fight. We will carry on the struggle,” was the booming promise of Mark Wellstone, the senator’s son, who recalled a note his mother had given his father shortly before they died that concluded with the line: “We will win!” “Mom, you’re right,” shouted Mark Wellstone, as raucous cheers filled the cavernous auditorium. “We will win! We will win! We will win!”
One of Senator Wellstone’s closest friends, Rick Kahn, bluntly characterized the November election as one in which Minnesotans would face a stark choice that will decided whether Wellstone’s legacy is “kept alive” or brought “forever to an end.” Kahn suprised many in the crowd by naming Republican senators who had been friends of the Minnesota Democrat and were present Tuesday night — including New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and Ohio Senator Mike DeWine — to: “Help us win this election for Paul Wellstone.”
Kahn argued that, instead of helping Coleman, these Republicans ought to back off and let Minnesota choose a successor to Wellstone. That successor, Kahn and other speakers clearly intimated, ought to be a DFLer in the Wellstone tradition so that, in Kahn’s words, the party faithful might “shout out Paul Wellstone’s name in joyful celebration on one last election night.”
Tuesday’s night gathering was not all politics, at least not in the purest sense. Painful reflections on lost friends and family made certain that was the case.
Yet, it was also the evening when just about everyone who is anyone in progressives politics — and some who are not so progressive — mingled in the halls of an 14,000-seat arena that filled to capacity early and required the use of the satellite facility’s 6,000 seats. (Hundreds of thousands more watched television broadcasts of the memorial program, which were aired statewide.) Former Senator Bob Kerrey, D-Nebraska, was waiting in line for a hotdog when Cornel West, the Princeton professor who is one of the nation’s most widely-known and respected public intellectuals, spotted him. The two hugged and recalled campaigning together for former Senator Bill Bradley’s 2000 Democratic presidential campaign. A few moments later, they had found Bradley and were reminiscing about Wellstone’s role in the 2000 campaign.
Across the arena, the Rev. Jesse Jackson embraced Bill Clinton. Next to Clinton sat former First Lady and now Senator from New York Hillary Clinton. Behind the Clintons sat Mondale and Senate Majority Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota. Behind them sat Secretary of Human Services Thompson, a former governor of Wisconsin, and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura. In the next row was Ted Kennedy.
But just as important to the organizers were the miners from the Iron Range, the family farmers from southwest Minnesota and the hundreds of recent immigrants — inluding many Hmong and Somalis — for whom Wellstone was both a senator and a friend. Recalling Wellstone’s generous, self-deprecating style and his refusal to adopt the trappings of a Senator, Harkin said, “No one, no one, ever wore the mantle of senator better or used it less.”
Of his late colleague, Harkin said, “He had a powerful authenticity that made a miner up in the Iron Range know that he was as important to Paul Wellstone as the president of the United States.”
A pack of retired miners cheered that line, while former President Clinton was laughing and applauding. Then Harkin asked if the troops were ready to fight one more battle for Paul Wellstone on November 5 — presumably by electing Mondale and the rest of the DFL slate. Referring once more to Wellstone’s campaign bus, which became something of a shrine outside the arena Tuesday night, Harkin said, “Let’s all get on that campaign bus together, that green campaign bus, that bus of hope. Let’s keep it moving to a better Anerica. Keep standing up and keep fighting! And keep saying yes! To justice! To hope! For Paul! For Paul!”