The basketball arena at the University of Minnesota holds 20,000 people. Tonight it’s jam-packed. Not for the Gophers, whose Big 10 championship banners hang from the rafters, but for Paul Wellstone, the liberal senator who died Friday in a plane crash while campaigning for re-election. A pantheon of Democrats—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Ted Kennedy, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry—has come to pay its respects.
Tonight’s event is officially a memorial service. The lighting inside the arena is eerily appropriate: The big incandescent bulbs on the arced ceiling have been turned off, leaving the upper decks in darkness while the dais below is illuminated by stage lights suspended above the court. The contrast creates the impression of a vast ghostly assembly. It’s as though the dead have come to honor the living, when in truth the living have come to honor the dead.
As fans of Garrison Keillor know, Minnesotans are wonderful storytellers. The most delightful treat at the ceremony is the anecdotes told by friends and family members of aides who perished aboard Wellstone’s plane. The humor in these tales is gentle and wise; the delivery is a modest Scandinavian deadpan. It begins with remarks by a brother of Wellstone’s young driver. As the story goes, Wellstone had told his driver to pull up alongside cars that sported Wellstone stickers, so the senator could wave at the occupants. Wellstone kept wondering why the occupants never waved back. Finally, the driver broke down and informed Wellstone that nobody could see him because the car’s windows were tinted.
A favorite staple of Lake Wobegon comedy is the reinterpretation of foibles as virtues. The driver’s brother explains that Wellstone and the driver got along well because both of them hated being told what to do. Another speaker recalls that a professor who died on the senator’s plane was always imposing on friends in order to help others. A Wellstone aide who was close to the senator’s wife points out that her competitiveness was overlooked and underappreciated. As a folk singer puts it during a musical interlude, “It’s the imperfections that make us whole.”
But the solemnity of death and the grace of Midwestern humor are overshadowed tonight by the angry piety of populism. Most of the event feels like a rally. The touching recollections are followed by sharply political speeches urging Wellstone’s supporters to channel their grief into electoral victory. The crowd repeatedly stands, stomps, and whoops. The roars escalate each time Walter Mondale, the former vice president who will replace Wellstone on the ballot, appears on the giant screens suspended above the stage. “Fritz! Fritz!” the assembly chants.
“Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning,” Wellstone declares in a videotaped speech shown on the overhead screens. “Politics is about improving people’s lives.” But as the evening’s speakers proceed, it becomes clear that to them, honoring Wellstone’s legacy is all about winning the election. Repeating the words of Wellstone’s son, the assembly shouts, “We will win! We will win!” Rick Kahn, a friend of Wellstone’s, urges everyone to “set aside the partisan bickering,” but in the next breath he challenges several Republican senators in attendance to “honor your friend” by helping to “win this election for Paul Wellstone.” What can he be thinking?
There’s a salutary practicality about many of the liberal clichés repeated and applauded tonight. But there’s a creepy arrogance about them, too. The ceremony’s closing speaker, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, says Wellstone “never took himself too seriously” and “never had to proclaim his decency.” Yet tonight, the men and women who purport to represent Wellstone’s legacy are taking themselves quite seriously and constantly proclaiming their decency. “We can redeem the sacrifice of his life if you help us win this election for Paul Wellstone,” Kahn tells the crowd. Somewhere, Wellstone must be turning on his cross.
Above the stage hangs an immense cubic scoreboard. During basketball games, it’s electrified and illuminated from above. Tonight it looms just above the stage lights, blank and unlit. A man has died. This is no time to keep score.