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.”
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.
“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.”’
“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.