by Gary North
I don't remember Paul Wellstone. If it hadn't been for Google, I would have spelled his name "Welstone." He died in a plane crash on Friday, along with family members and several staffers.
I had heard his name. I knew that he was a U.S. Senator from somewhere in the northern Midwest. He was a Democrat, so I knew he had to be part of the old Democrat-Farm-Labor voting bloc, the same bloc that gave us Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale. How much more did I need to know about Senator Wellstone?
Paul Wellstone was an important man. He was important because the U.S. Senate is divided 50-49-1. These days every Democrat Senator is an important man, even Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
When he died, it created a scramble in Minnesota's Democrat Party to find a replacement candidate. Wellstone was up for re-election this year. So, he was a very important man indeed.
WHY SHOULD MOST PEOPLE CARE?
If the election were not scheduled in a week, and if the Senate were not 50-49-1, the story of Wellstone's death would be big news only in Minnesota and inside Washington's Beltway. But it is a big story. We are getting the full treatment in the media.
I was watching the NBC evening news on Friday. Side note: I watch the NBC Evening News because I enjoy hearing Tom Brokaw trip over his tongue. He didn't have this problem in Los Angeles, when he was the local NBC anchor a quarter century ago, but now he does. The guy gets paid millions of dollars to audibly battle his tongue in front of millions of viewers. There is a kind of determined independence of his tongue, like a king cobra trying to spot an opening to kill its handler.
I tuned in late. By the time I tuned in, Tim Russert was babbling excitedly about who would replace Wellstone as a surrogate. Would it be Walter Mondale? I was flabbergasted at the thought. I had no idea that Mondale was still alive. If he accepts the offer, we could see front-page headlines across America: "Walter Mondale Found Alive in Minnesota — Runs for Wellstone's Vacant Seat."
Would it be former Minnesota Viking defensive star Alan Page, of the Purple People Eaters fame, who is today a state supreme court justice? I asked myself: Why would Paige leave the bench, which is of course a non-political office (guffaws)? There, he has one vote out of nine instead of one vote out of a hundred, assuming he could be elected to the Senate.
In the second half of the PBS News Hour, a lengthy segment was devoted to a panel discussion of the Senator's life and legacy. As an inexpensive way to fill up air time, I understand why they would feature this segment, but why the entire nation was supposed to be interested is beyond me.
We voters know the names of a few U.S. Senators. We certainly know about Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms, because we keep getting fund-raising letters from all sorts of political organizations warning us that we must send a contribution, fast, because Senator Helms (if you're a liberal) or Senator Kennedy (if you're a conservative) is at it again, trampling out the vintage where the grapes of graft are stored.
How many other Senators' names would any normal adult American recognize, outside of his state's Senators — if them? Maybe he would recognize the names of Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, California's tag-team mavens of far-left Democracy. Possibly he might have heard of Phil Gramm, mainly because of Gramm's accent. Tom Daschle, another Farm-Labor politician, is known, because he is Senate Majority leader, and the news programs feature him in his role as the loyal opposition. The only other recognizable name belongs to Robert Byrd, I suspect because of his fame as a performer on the country music fiddle. Voters in West Virginia know exactly what kind of talent is needed in Washington, so they keep re-electing him.
Why should we recognize any other names? Why should we care who dozens of them are? What can we do about any of them, other than the two from our own state? Besides, who could we replace them with? Maybe a guy who plays the dobro, to accompany Byrd.
Beltway insiders somehow believe that the American public knows about and cares about U.S. Senators. After all, Senators are important people inside the Beltway. They have power. They spend lots of taxpayer money. And then there is 50-49-1.
Many years ago another Senator, California State Senator Bill Richardson, revealed to me an important political fact. He understood politics better than anyone I have ever known. As an ex-advertising man, he understood direct mail better than any other state senator in California and maybe the whole country. He was the founder of Gun Owners of America. In 1964, he wrote a good little paperback book on his conservative views, Slightly to the Right. His second book, on what goes on in American politics, is a classic: What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?. Here is what he told me. "Most people care almost nothing about politics in between elections. Those few who do care get all excited about politics all of the time. They cannot understand why the vast majority of voters just don't care. But they don't."
This fact offers tremendous opportunities for people who enjoy politics to gain a lot of influence in local politics merely by showing up at Party precinct meetings in between elections.
The public is not usually interested in politics, and only marginally interested this year. This is why it is beyond me how anyone in the media with political savvy should expect voters outside of Minnesota to spend time remembering Paul Wellstone. Those media folks inside the Beltway who still don't recognize the truth of Richardson's observation have spent way too much time inside the Beltway.
Then again, maybe it isn't about Paul Wellstone at all. The news reports provide no details about his family members or the staffers who died with him on the plane. That's because those people could not affect the crucial numbers: 50-49-1.
"VOTE FOR WELLSTONE!"
His name will still be on the ballot. As a dead politician, he deserves the vote of every Minnesotan. It is a shame that his replacement will automatically get any votes cast for Wellstone. Otherwise, what better way to vote "no"?
Voting for the deceased: I did not come to this conclusion overnight. I came of voting age in Riverside, California. Back in the 1960's, the district was represented in the House of Representatives by an Indian — a Patel-type Indian, not a Tonto-type. He was a Democrat. He had suffered a stroke. Anyway, that was the rumor. No one seemed to know. With an election approaching, it had become Woodrow Wilson time. His wife would not admit that he was comatose — I mean literally comatose, not like Ben Stein's students in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." His staff kept issuing newsletters featuring old photos of him. He was never on the floor in Congress. He was not in the district. There were no reports on where he was.
The election was almost upon us voters. The Democrats could not substitute a candidate, because they could not get the incumbent Congressman to agree. They could not even find him.
It was then that my friend Joel Blain explained the strategy of the local Democrats. Blain was a Democrat, and his family had been long-term Democrats. He was a local activist. He told me that Party insiders had adopted an unofficial slogan to deal with the situation: "Better a crypt than a creep." The slogan impressed me at the time. I have stuck with that theory of political representation ever since.
We should of course have respect for the recently deceased. Wellstone was liked by his peers in the Senate. But the news over the weekend has not really been about Wellstone. It has been about the election. The real issue is 50-49-1. So, for that reason, I decided to pay my disrespects to the political system which he so obviously enjoyed being a part of.
I also wanted to extend publicly my congratulations to Walter Mondale for still being alive.
October 29, 2002
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