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Six years later, Wellstone memorial host Latimer still agonizes over event's political fallout

Photo by Terry Gydesen

Saturday marks the sixth anniversary of the event that re-shaped recent Minnesota politics.

The death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in a northern Minnesota airplane crash shook the state — and much of the nation — 11 days before the populist politician was to stand for re-election.

But it was the emotional evening four days later that ended up altering the state's political landscape and sending the Republican candidate, Norm Coleman, to Washington.

It was a Tuesday night, Oct. 29, 2002. Williams Arena was filled to overflowing for the memorial service paying tribute to Wellstone and the others who died — his wife, Sheila Wellstone, his daughter, Marcia Wellstone, aides Will McLaughlin and Tom Lapic, family friend Mary McEvoy and the two pilots, Richard Conry and Michael Guess.


Latimer watched helplessly as memorial service turned political
George Latimer, the former mayor of St. Paul, had been asked to be the host for the service.  And, as the evening's tone took a sharp turn from grieving service to passionate rally, he found himself sitting at the back of the stage wondering how to reclaim the event for all who had come.

For six years, he's wondered if he could have — should have — done something to stifle the emotional speech by Rick Kahn, a close Wellstone friend.

"It was a complicated thing,'' said Latimer. "A lot was going through my mind: 'Should I tackle him? Take him by the arm and lead him from the stage?' In the end, what I did was some feeble little comment.''

George Latimer
George Latimer

Latimer, and his late wife, Nancy, had been back in their childhood hometown of Schenectady, N.Y., when they received the news.

"We were at the kitchen table in my sister-in-law's home, when she came into the kitchen and said, 'You knew that Wellstone, didn't you?'

"I said, 'Knew?'

"She said, 'We heard that he was killed in a crash.'  

"We were sickened.''

Shortly after that, he received a call from St. Paul.

"It was Jeff Blodgett [Wellstone's friend and campaign manager],'' Latimer recalled. "He told me they were having some kind of a memorial. They didn't know what it would be, but would I be available? I said, 'Of course. Anything you decide you want me to do is fine with me.' ''

It was decided that Latimer, a man of grace, wit and comfort in front of large crowds, would be a host for the evening. He would introduce the speakers and, after each introduction, he would move to the back of the stage, where there was a chair for him, in the dark.

Close friends, colleagues eulogized crash victims
He was to introduce a unique lineup of speakers. The audience was filled with mighty political celebrities, including former President Bill Clinton and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.

But none of those heavyweights was asked to speak.

"They only wanted people close to Paul, or the others,'' said Latimer.  "I knew most of them.''

David McLaughlin spoke of his brother; friends and colleagues, of the others. Brian Ahlberg spoke of Lapic. Robert Bruininks, then interim president of the University of Minnesota, spoke of McEvoy. Theresa Sax and Larry Denucci of Marcia Wellstone. Connie Lewis of Sheila Wellstone.

But Latimer didn't know Rick Kahn, Wellstone's campaign treasurer  and a close friend since the two met at Carleton College in Northfield in 1969. Kahn was to speak of the late senator.

Paul Wellstone
Paul Wellstone

"I asked them to give me a few words to say about Rick, because I didn't know him,'' Latimer said. "I also said I'd like to meet him, so I would at least know what he looks like. I was taken over to meet Rick. He was sitting there — you could see he was very tense and focused as he looked at his manuscript. I introduced myself. Nice kid. I said something like, 'I'm sorry, I know you were a dear friend of his.' And then I left him alone.''

The early part of the service was done beautifully, Latimer recalled. All spoke from the heart, sometimes with a touch of humor about beloved people lost.

Then, it was Kahn's turn.

"Rick's talk overwhelmed everything else that happened,'' said Latimer. "That's sad on many levels. Every one of those people we had lost was extraordinary. But all of that was lost or forgotten.''

Kahn started off OK.

"When he started speaking, there was nothing out of the ordinary,'' said Latimer. "He was just nervous and sad. I remember, I simply felt grief for him because you could feel his grief. It was not until well into his remarks that you could feel his shift. He was going beyond expressing love and loss for Paul and into the arena of winning an election. You knew that was clanking badly.''

Latimer's mind started racing. Should he do something?

"What was going through my mind was less political than humanistic,'' Latimer said. "Somebody has died. People of all perspectives have come. When you see Trent Lott from Mississippi (who was booed by some when he entered the building). Well, he didn't have to be there. I don't think that was just a gesture. It had a dignity and a generosity about it. He needed to be thanked and honored for coming. So did many others.''

Instead, they were being called out by the grief-stricken Kahn.

"Honor your friend,'' Kahn said to Republicans. "Help win this election for Paul Wellstone!"

Kahn specifically singled out U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a moderate Republican and a friend of Wellstone.

"I felt terrible for Jim,'' said Latimer. "What a terrible spot to be put in.''

Thoughts were racing through Latimer's head as he sat, in the dark, at the back of the stage.

Now he can laugh, a little, as he talked of some of the thoughts.

"Should I tackle him? Pull the plug? I never would have dreamed of cutting off Paul's sons. But I did think of cutting him (Kahn) off.  But I don't regret not doing that. Any impulse I had to stop him,  I held back because you could see this was a kid in total grief and you had to have respect for that.''

Latimer paused, then said, "What I did was feeble.''

What Latimer tried to do after Kahn's speech was soften the mood.

"I said, 'This has gotten a tad political,''' Latimer said.

There were some laughs, of relief, from many in the massive crowd.

But that wasn't enough to save the evening, which prompted some in the throng, including then Gov. Jesse Ventura, to leave early.

Months after the service, Kahn was unapologetic for the tone of his eulogy.

"If you told me that there were a million people in the state of Minnesota who hate me because of what I said, I would say I am truly sorry they feel that way,'' Kahn said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio. "But even knowing that, I would still say I don't regret what I said because I was pouring my heart out, and that's what I will always do in my life because I learned that from Paul Wellstone.''

For all of these six years, Latimer has thought Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin had the best chance of saving the evening and treating the cross-section of people at the memorial with the respect due them. Harkin, another close friend of Wellstone, was the one Big Name who spoke at the service.

"He had a chance to say something to all of those Republicans,'' said Latimer, "and he didn't. He could have thanked all of Paul's friends for coming. Instead, he gave a stemwinder.''

At the time, Latimer couldn't have known how the memorial service would unite Republicans.  A week after the service, Coleman narrowly defeated Walter Mondale, the last-minute fill-in candidate for Wellstone.

"I believe Mondale lost because of what happened (at the service),'' said Latimer, "and I regret that profoundly.  Here was a guy of stature and quality, defeated by something he had no control over.''

For his part, Mondale at the time demurred on any feelings that the tone of the service cost him the election. The day after his defeat, Mondale told the press, "The eulogizers were the ones who were hurt the most. And can we now — it doesn't justify it, I'm not saying that, but we've all made mistakes — and can't we now find it in our hearts to forgive them and go on and do what we must do as citizens."

Blodgett, Wellstone's campaign manager, apologized after the service for the political tone: "We're a grieving bunch here."

Ramstad, who all along had supported Norm Coleman, also was forgiving, saying he understood the words came from grief. "We lost a great friend," he said.

Latimer got positive feedback and then …
In the weeks and months after the service, Latimer said he received nothing but positive feedback for his role at the service.

"I got notes from all over,'' he said. "Notes from people in Washington, notes from my family members, notes from all over. 'You did a wonderful job.' Sometimes I've told people, 'If I did such a wonderful job, why'd Mondale lose.'''

Latimer chuckled.

"Here's a little story I've never told anybody in the press,'' he said. "Two years after the service, John Kerry was in town, looking for support for his run for president. I was invited to meet with him, along with maybe a dozen other people, at the Minneapolis Club.

"John Cowles [Jr., former publisher of the Star Tribune] is at the gathering with Kerry,'' Latimer continued. "I think the world of John Cowles. He's the best that the patricians have to offer. A wonderful man. We all listen to Kerry. Kerry shakes our hands and leaves. So as the rest of us are leaving, Cowles comes up and grabs me by the arm.

"'Mayor, mayor,' '' he says.

"I say, 'Hi, John.'

" 'Mayor,''' he says, "'For two years, I've been waiting to say to you that if anybody in the state could have stopped what went on, it was you.'

"I  started laughing, and John says, 'Why you laughing?'

"And I said to him, 'For two years, everyone has been telling me what a wonderful job I did, and you were the first one who came up and told me the truth.' ''

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (16)

This is an interesting retrospective; I'm glad to hear that Mr. Latimer considered tackling Mr. Kahn. A sufficiently early intervention would have paid both political and humanistic dividends. While not a Wellstone supporter, I respected him as a Senator who lived and legislated according to his convictions. It saddened me to see his headstone used as a political podium.

I think the outcome of the memorial rests on a base broader than the shoulders of Mr. Kahn. The demeanor of President Clinton was more of a man attending a political rally than that of a grieving man attending the memorial for a friend and colleague. It was reminiscent of the President's demeanor when he thought he was off-camera at the funeral for Commerce Secretary Ron Brown.

Even broader, how many people in the large arena booed Senator Trent Lott? 1000 or 5000? It was clearly obvious on television. I can't think of another instance of man being booed for attending the funeral of a colleague. I think it is unprecedented. I also think it may have emboldened Mr. Kahn's in the delivery of his harmful words.

It is clear to me that the Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial service was steered off course by many hands. I am happy to hear that a tackle was considered. I wish we were looking back six years at a sack.

This is one of the most interesting stories I have read in a long time. This is a good example of a reporter staying out of the way of the story ... and we don't see enough of that from journalists anymore.

And thanks to George Latimer for his respectful service to the community. It is so difficult to have a respectful conversation about politics anymore ... and the Wellstone "rally" was a good example of how politics trumps respect for some people.

Great interview. Latimer's obviously a class act. I was at the memorial and I remember feeling very antsy myself about the tone shift. At the same time, it's hard to tell people the proper way to grieve for someone close to them.

I just left what I thought to be a respectful, non-partisan comment. That was prior to reading Mr. Rose's tasteless comment about using Senator Wellstone's "headstone as a political podium." While the Wellstone memorial may have gotten too political for Mr. Rose's tastes (and mine too to be honest), I think the relentless smearing by right wing pundits after the fact was just as distasteful and deserving of condemnation. As Mayor Latimer points out there were plenty of respectful tributes to great people at the memorial - all of which were ignored and tainted by Limbaugh and O'Reilly and their ilk.

"Six years later Latimer [still] agonizes?"

The 'agony or the ecstasy'...or one last punch?

Funny thing about an idea...someone starts a story. A few nod in unison and pretty soon you've established a point-of-view and others began to believe it too...but it may just as well be called the syncopated reaction of a copy-cat few.

Lesson learned: My god, don't show emotion, don't get passionate and certainly don't get political at a memorial service for a most passionate political figure who came running down campaign trails in Minnesota for a mighty long time. And I've got to add...one who did not follow the 'party line' quite as gently or quietly as some may have expected.

Doing the unexpected is a crime against the establishment? Rick is still the issue here or was it really Paul, the 'irritant', even at his own memorial?

Yes sir, the old blame game rises agin...blame, shame on Wellstone's best friend even when Paul is long gone? (Sounds more like nefarious nostalgia to me, sorry)

Then I suppose it must be( Nick's speech again?) what took any substance out of most of our present day congressman who failed to stop a bad war at the beginning but only whimpered out any opposition when the general state of chaos and body count was so totally negative that only a blind fool would continue to support the Iraq debacle and support the ever-growing death of our troops...even as a traumatized congress still sits on its hands and waits for closure?

One could say a few of the state's old cronies name dropped in the telling here...they still blame another for Coleman's seat; still play the scapegoat game to relieve themselves?

T.S. Eliot reduced it down so well..."They grow old, they grow old...they wear the bottom of their trousers rolled..."

Come on, the entire event was political. It was designed to be a 3 hour campaign commercial and everyone knows it.

This very sad event was unplanned, uncontrolled and some people went over the top. And that should have been the end of it. But media people, who had pleaded to be let in, saw a golden opportunity. They immediately ran to prominent Republicans, handed them microphones and asked "do you think it was inappropriate?" Then they ran across the street to the Democrates and said "Republicans have said it was inappropriate. What do you think?" Then back and forth a couple of times, and by the end of the day they'd whipped up a terrific "controversy". Then they spent the next few days stoking, and covering, the so-called controversy.

George Latimer has nothing to feel bad about. It's the media people who should be ashamed.

Latimer is not without sin in the political tone. In his opening remarks he made reference to "a free and caring people can overcome war, pestilence and the loss of common sense," which drew a huge reaction.

Granted, he was quoting Robert Frost, but when you consider the country was days from war, it did its part to set the stage for what was to follow.

On the other hand, six years later, I'm not entirely convinced there was a way of having that service in which it could've ended any other way.

One question that still nags at me. I don't remember Norm Coleman attending the service. That's not to say he didn't; perhaps he did. But I don't recall him doing so or being asked about it. Anybody?

Bob:

Coleman did attend the memorial service, but I don't recall him being asked about it. I would be interested now to hear him interviewed regarding the experience. Perhaps, it would be a good follow-up to this story. There appears to be sufficient interest.

Reggie:

You found my comment regarding the use of Senator Wellstone's "headstone as a political podium" to be tasteless. I found the act itself to be tasteless.

Only Jim Ramstad behaved with compassion and generosity. He said that Kahn's grief was palpable and the subject should be dropped. He seems to be the only one who understood what grief is like. It makes sufferers rage, look for someone to blame, and cry out for ways to immortalize the loved one. Even the young people booing Republicans must be forgiven just because they were young, and that loss may have been their first experience with sudden, cruel death.

But Ventura had to bray and whine as if the service was about him, and Republicans had to ratchet up their righteous indignation so the election could be snatched away and handed to Coleman. This is a dark and shameful memory. I wish we could agree never to bring it up when we talk about that wonderful man and his family.

Mr. Latimer was put in a shocking situation and can't be blamed for failing to intervene with miraculous tact. I wish he had not justified himself by blaming Harkin, who was also staggering under the weight of inconsolable grief for his beloved friend. We need to honor those who died, not link them forever to that sadly mishandled memorial. Next year, could we please talk about Paul and Sheila?

I am a native Minnesotan, but I was a long-time resident of Oregon at the time of Wellstone's death, so I couldn't have voted in Minnesota in any case.

Living away from the pumped-up controversy in Minnesota, my main comment about the memorial service was that it went on too long and that it was not well-organized. Making political statements at a memorial service for a politician seemed entirely appropriate.

I was angry to see all the right-wing national pundits condemning the memorial service with one voice starting the next day (surely not a coordinated effort by the RNC, oh, no, not those innocent lambs!). And I was even more disappointed to hear that the DFL had apologized.

The DFL should have fired right back, "How DARE you criticize the conduct of grieving people? Don't you have any real issues to talk about?"

Right-wingers consider apologies to be a sign of weakness, so an abject attitude only encourages them to keep attacking.

Apologies are for when one has done something deliberately wrong. The reports I hear from people who actually had inside knowledge of the memorial service indicate that the disorganization was the result of people being too grief-stricken to think straight.

The Republican campaign of false indignation was cruel and unforgivable.

This is why us St. Paulites always liked George Latimer. Six years later, he still is willing to fall on his sword for a guy he didn't know ... because he feels it is the right thing to do.

It is instructive and tells us, in part, why Mayor Latimer never went farther in his political career. He couldn't bring himself to do what politicians who move to the higher levels usually so - throw people overboard when it suits them.

All things considered, that's a legacy onto itself.

The last four commentators have it right. I was also there. No one really had control - just like at any memorial service where family and friends are invited to speak about the departed.

Whether the media helped to encourage the controversy, the Republican party in Minnesota could have listened to the voice of Jim Ramstad and been respectful without agreeing with the tone of the event. They dis not.

The leadership of the MN Republican Party saw what the event had haplessly become and seized upon it as a political gift. That truly was a shameless act, which we should never forget, because it said alot about who they had become - and still are.

I miss Paul and Sheila very much, especially when I see how joyless much of politics have become.

OK, if one can be so certain that the Wellstone memorial was a staged 3 hour campaign commercial. Then my concern of a possible assassination is just as valid. Timing was everything, when it came to that tragedy. I mean no disrespect for those who knew the Wellstone family and the others. I truly do not believe that the crash was investigated properly. It was bad enough to lose a great person in politics, but of course the Republicans just had to kick the Democrats when they were down. Apologies are in order.

One brief footnote:

If the activity of public respect for Paul Wellstone in the form of a memorial service was
"too political" then I assume those who were so offended would consistantly, find activities of rememberance for Martin Luther King at his tragic passing, also "too political"?

What is the acceptable protocol here, eh? How do we honor a man in the political arena with strong human, civil rights convictions if we remain silent in pursuing passionately the ongoing support of those convictions? How should that be offensive? Where is the dignity and respect in silence or in soft, sad murmurings and bowed heads; rather than passionately expressing the ongoing pursuit of those ideals at the time of his or any great statesman's memorial? Seems a most appropriate time to respect Paul or anyone of public stature, this man being one most charismatic progressive with his consistant record in pursuit of justice. Thanks for the white space...enough already, yes.

Thanks for writing this. It's more than nine years later, but I remember this service quite clearly, even though I never knew Wellstone, had never been to Minnesota and was watching it (live) on CSPAN from California. But as an anti-war progressive, I mourned his death greatly.

But it was a moment in which history stood in the balance (Go to war? Bless or condemn the US Supreme Court decision to install Bush?) & so much stood on a best friend's eulogy.

I don't know Kahn, of course, but at the time it struck me as hyper-political approach that I was coming to reject. Crazy Ventura was waiting for some kind of mistep like that; I just wish Kahn hadn't handed it to him.

[And find it amazing that in June 2004 Kahn was so tone-deaf as to not realize that he had done so. Of course, 2004 was seven years ago.
http://news.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/2003/06/04_zdechlikm_kahn/ ]