Skip to comments.Shock of crash lingers -- Sen. Paul Wellstone
Posted on 10/25/2003 5:24:17 AM PDT by Oldeconomybuyer
A makeshift memorial of fresh flowers and flickering candles lined a chain-link fence on University Avenue for days.
A public service meant to heal instead ripped people apart.
A beloved elder statesman, a vigorous up-and-comer, an ever-aggrieved governor and a president worried about weapons of mass destruction all played their parts.
One year ago today, Minnesotans began an extraordinary chapter in the state's history, when the chartered plane carrying U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign aides and two pilots crashed into a pine forest near Eveleth.
By the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 6, Minnesota and the nation were a changed place. Wellstone and his impassioned liberal voice were gone. Republican Norm Coleman was headed to the U.S. Senate to replace him, helping to flip the Senate majority over to the Republican side.
The timing of the deaths, so close to the election, compressed events that normally would play out over months into mere days and sometimes hours. Minnesotans had to move through the stages of grief, from sadness and into a kind of resolution, in the blink of an eye. Political operatives grieved in public and plotted in private. Teary Wellstone staffers soldiered on for stand-in candidate Walter Mondale. Coleman's troops, silenced by the tragedy, had to find a way to battle a Minnesota icon.
For an extraordinary 12 days from the crash through the election, with the cable-connected world watching, Minnesota's tragedy became the political story for the nation a year ago today.
The blow was swift. . Paul Scott, driver of Wellstone's famous green bus since the 1990 campaign, was gassing up and preparing to head north for a campaign swing that Friday mornng. He noticed a crowd gathering in front of campaign headquarters on University Avenue. He called a fellow driver on his cell phone.
"They're all dead," the driver told him.
"I walked around the bus four times in disbelief,'' said Scott, now 71, dabbing his eyes and offering a driver's best testimonial about his passenger. "I want to tell you how much I liked the guy.'' He became one of thousands of shocked Wellstone supporters, many of whom dropped flowers and candles off at headquarters that day.
Wellstone's oversized persona and stature as a leader of the left made the tragedy a national story. So did the partisan split in the U.S. Senate. The prospect of an unexpectedly vacant seat created a breathless rush of politicos and media commentators to the state, ensuring Minnesota's drama would play out in prime time.
Coleman had to step lightly, embracing the memory of the man he had been trying to throw out of office. DFLers immediately looked toward Mondale, the 74-year-old former vice president who hadn't been a candidate since his 1984 loss to President Reagan.
A wave of funerals followed.
Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager at the time of the crash, said he was amazed by "the challenge of trying to get your arms around how big it was . How many lives were lost. The impact each person had. That's taken a long time it's going to take a lifetime, probably.''
But a year ago, there was little time to grieve.
Scott was on duty outside the green bus Tuesday evening as thousands filed into Williams Arena for a memorial service for the Wellstones and other victims. He was inside several hours later, sitting not far from Gov. Jesse Ventura, when the governor got up and walked out, angry that the tone of memorializing had given way to Wellstone-style politicking.
"Let's all get on that bus together that green bus!" shouted Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, a close friend of Wellstone's. Cheers at Harkin's message segued into a chant of "Fritz! Fritz! Fritz!" as the arena screen showed images of a smiling, clapping Mondale.
Within hours, the memorial was under attack and the attack, like the service, shot around the country. By the time the election geared up later that week, the memorial and the reaction to it had attained a kind of political equivalency to the tragedy itself.
"The Republicans were able to say the DFLers and the Democrats nationally were manipulating the sorrow into a political event,'' said University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman, who was analyzing the memorial on live television that night. "And that turned against the Democrats.''
Mondale picked up the gauntlet at a gathering of DFLers Wednesday night, saying, "I don't believe there's ever been a moment in our history quite like this.''
The politicking at the memorial service, meanwhile, allowed Coleman to resume the fight without fear of being accused of acting in bad taste.
Mondale drew affectionate, nostalgic crowds and sought to channel Wellstone's passion. Coleman radiated a manic, finishing-kick energy. Mondale harkened back to the years when liberal giants strode across Minnesota's political stage. Coleman tapped into the new conservatives those raised on Rush rather than Hubert.
President Bush came to the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Sunday to tell 10,000 supporters he needed senators like Coleman to help protect the country from Iraq's buildup of weapons of mass destruction. At that time, the Senate was narrowly in Democratic hands.
Then Minnesota's larger-than-life governor, Jesse Ventura, stepped into the fray.
On Monday morning, as Mondale and Coleman began the climactic lone debate of their brief campaign, Ventura summoned the media to the Capitol reception room.
In one of his trademark blowups, he denounced the exclusion of his Independence Party candidate from the debate and named political mentor Dean Barkley to fill Wellstone's seat through the end of the year.
In some broadcasts, Ventura's angry visage was carried on a split screen with Mondale and Coleman debating taxes and terrorism. Minnesota was equally divided. Polls by the Pioneer Press and the Star Tribune right before the election came up with opposite results.
A huge turnout delayed vote-counting, and Coleman's victory by 3 percentage points was not assured until dawn on Wednesday.
It was part of a banner election for conservative Republicans in Minnesota and across the country, continuing a rightward trend that Wellstone defied throughout his career. Within months, a second round of federal tax cuts was signed into law and the "shock and awe'' campaign that Wellstone voted against rained down on Baghdad.
In Minnesota, Republicans won the governorship and moved to within a few victories of controlling both houses of the Legislature. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty delivered pro-gun and anti-abortion bills that had been bottled up for years and hewed to a no-tax pledge at a time of record deficits.
A YEAR LATER
Wellstone's death and the political changes that followed have echoed through the year.
The weapons of mass destruction that Bush wanted Coleman to help protect the nation from have not been found.
Like Wellstone in his first year in the Senate, Coleman has made fumbles. He told an interviewer in April that he was "a 99 percent improvement over Paul Wellstone,'' a comment that rubbed a raw wound. He later apologized.
While Wellstone's supporters are trying to teach his organizing skills to activists around the country, no candidate has emerged in Minnesota to carry the liberal message in the way that he did.
"In some ways, his death signified the end of an era for the DFL,'' said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College.
And partisans still argue about the memorial service and the election, as sharply divided in their views as the "red" and "blue'' states of the 2000 presidential election map.
Minnesota has been cleaving into separate political camps for some time; the Wellstone-Coleman-Mondale race underscored that gaping political divide. Political pollster Bill Morris sees that rigid division as one legacy of those intense days between the crash and the election.
"In our own way, we've become red and blue now too,'' Morris said.
First, the outcome of the election was in doubt. Second, the DFLers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when they callously squandered the sympathy vote they would have received by their outrageous display of indifference to the loss of life.
The real outcome of this entire fiasco was that undecided and independent voters got a chance to see just how little life means to this party.
To Paul Wellstone in Hell, where he burned in agony,
A few Democrats offered a Petition,
That he their inspirer and Patron would be,
When this answer arrived from the Politician:
Lies, corruption and sleaze, don't abate if you please;
I'll lend you my corpse for a little strip-tease.
And besides I'll instruct you, like me, ever to mix,
Funereal sadness with crass politics."
Yep, the grieving son, Mark Wellstone...
I wonder if this whole piece was written just to repeat this big lie.
Also, has anyone ever rationally explained what the TV networks found so complelling about this event that they devoted hours of prime time coverage to it?
What ? It was deleted because people obviously reported it as an abuse. As you saw fit to reproduce it, I'm reporting yours a abuse too. The comment is disgusting and shouldn't exist even on your message.
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