Using tragedy for political gain

By Hugh Hewitt

The wind has changed, and Democrats across the country are worried. The crowds greeting the president on his campaign stops have been large and enthusiastic, and GOP determination not to get out-hustled by union muscle is evident in busloads of volunteers driving off to various tight races around the country. Add to the volunteer energy the large hard-money edge and the location of the tight Senate races in largely Bush 2000 states like Georgia, South Dakota and New Hampshire, and Republican leaders are optimistic about retaining the House and keeping the Senate races close until the late hours on Nov. 5.

To this favorable mix is now added widespread dismay bordering on disgust with the memorial service held for Paul Wellstone last night. Minnesota’s often eccentric but always blunt Gov. Jesse Ventura left the event with his wife in tears over its wildly over-the-top politicization and gave a devastating interview explaining his reasons for leaving. Others walked out as well, as speaker after speaker used the occasion not to remember Wellstone but as the opportunity to exhort the crowd in the arena and watching at home to “win, win, win.”

As I wrote in today’s column, I leave it to others to follow the repercussions in Minnesota of this event of Walter Mondale’s rumored stock deals and of Norm Coleman’s continued bipartisan appeal. The gents at Power Line, for example, have forgotten more about Minnesota politics in the last week than I have learned in the past year. (They convincingly blow apart the “polling” of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, in a way that ought to embarrass the management there into firing the DFL cheerleader who runs the operation.)

But there is a spreading national impact of the “memorial service” that morphed into a mini Democratic Convention. The Democrats’ collective will to power for power’s sake was on display, and it is very repellent.

Conventions are much beloved institutions. Partisans of both sides of the aisle enjoy them and watch for hours even when they just shake their heads in disbelief at the rhetoric and the excess.

Most adults know the awful etiquette of a memorial service for an individual who dies too young, and some know the dreadful gloom of such services when multiple tragedies are combined. Most of America recalls, for example, the aftermath of Columbine and Oklahoma City, and of course now the aftermath of 9-11. We are well acquainted with grief, even when it is not ours personally, and we give a large space to those who grieve as a result.

But had the Columbine services been used for partisan purposes, or Oklahoma City or – impossible to imagine, the events surrounding 9/11 – the revulsion would have been extraordinary. Because we are one people, we put some matters outside of politics and set aside even the deepest of divisions on public matters on occasions of mourning.

We do so because we need the rituals that accompany such events to remind us of our common citizenship and cause. We depend upon that commonality. It is essential to national survival, especially in war.

The bounds of ritual were breached at the Wellstone service, and there at its center was the man who has waged war on so many conventions of civility in public life, who did so much damage to the presidency, and who continues to this day to flout every custom of the ex-presidency. The great wrecker of tradition and style, Bill Clinton, came not to bury Paul Wellstone, but to accept the praise of Wellstone’s crowd. As he glad-handed his way to his seat, he once again put on display his willingness to take and use any occasion and any individual for his own purpose. His defenders reply he does not intend these effects. But I have been much in the company of ex-presidents, and they know very well what happens when they appear. Bill Clinton acts with his great intelligence and purpose in every move he makes. He can pardon Marc Rich, but no one can pardon him for the damage he has done and continues to do to everyone and everything he touches. To this long list he now adds the Wellstone family. If you let Clinton close, he will use you. It is that simple.

Also present were Al Gore, Tom Daschle, Patrick Leahy, Jesse Jackson and of course the old war-horse himself, Walter Mondale, out for another turn in front of the adoring political left for whom power has always been its own excuse. Were they unaware of the spectacle they were producing or of the reaction in living rooms across the country? Clintonism, you see, has so deeply infected this once great party that all it can understand is winning. They had thought there was advantage to be gained by appearing so they came. Their hope now is that not many people outside of Minnesota watched.

Before the event began, I had defended the Wellstone family’s decision to request that the Vice President of the United States – the president of the Senate, I should add since few seem to have made note that the vice president and Sen. Wellstone were colleagues – not attend. My argument to my radio audience is that the specifics of mourning are within the control of the family, and it is for them to calibrate the level of public display. But I was discussing a memorial service, not a political rally. Who advised them on the specifics? That paradigm of tact Terry McAuliffe?

Are the party leaders shocked by the blowback? Do they even begin to understand that all Americans were prepared to mourn even their exact opposite politically, but to do so according to the customs of genuine grief?

I doubt it. Even now they are spinning and ducking and weaving. Jesse Ventura is a palooka, but he’s honest. His wife was deeply offended and Jesse was shocked. So were millions of others. And I suspect that shock will register on Tuesday.