WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not since the last third of the 20th century — when such high-profile Minnesotans as Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Orville Freeman, Bob Bergland, John Blatnik, Don Fraser, Warren Burger, Harry Blackmun and Paul Wellstone stood at the center of American politics and government — has the North Star State been as visible here as during the first six months of the Obama administration.
And Minnesota’s political profile is likely to get even higher this week when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the nomination of Miguel Diaz as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. If confirmed as expected, Diaz, a Cuban-American professor of theology at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, will be the first Hispanic to hold that position.
He’s been hailed by the National Catholic Reporter as “A new face of Catholicism [who offers] Rome a resource to understand the contours of an increasingly diverse Church.” His hearing follows last week’s Judiciary Committee hearing, which paved the way for Sonia Sotomayor to become the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Senate committee on Wednesday also will consider another Minnesota’s ambassadorial nomination with religious significance, that of Minneapolis lawyer and DFL Party activist Samual Kaplan as envoy to Morocco. Kaplan, who is expected to be confirmed, would become one of the few American Jews to serve as ambassador to an Arab country.
Al Franken the superstar?
While other Minnesotans have emerged as key players in the Obama era, including Democratic Reps. Jim Oberstar and Collin Peterson and Republican Rep.John Kline, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and White House National Security Council spokesman Denis McDonough, the real superstar has been Al Franken.
Since he was sworn in on July 7 as the junior Democratic senator after his marathon recount victory over Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, the former late-night TV comedian, radio talk show host and author has been almost as visible as Obama and as closely scrutinized as Sotomayor. That’s in part because he gives Democrats an all-important 60th vote for a filibuster-proof majority on any party-line vote.
Franken’s celebrity status was certified by a laudatory article in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker (“Enter Laughing: Al Franken’s long road to Washington”) and by a spate of equally favorable articles in the Washington Post, New York Times and most other media outlets in the United States and abroad.
In fact, Franken crossed paths with Sotomayor last week when, in his first appearance as the newest member of the Judiciary Committee, he did what most of Washington was awaiting: cracking his first joke. While it was hardly a side-splitter or as risqué as many of those he told on “Saturday Night Live,” it served its purpose.
“The comedian, in his second week on the job,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote on July 16, “noted that Sotomayor had … said she was inspired to become a prosecutor by watching ‘Perry Mason,’ who, in all his TV episodes, lost only one case to the nefarious Hamilton Burger. The Democrat’s question was deft and devastating: ‘What was the one case in ‘Perry Mason’ that Burger won?’ ” When Sotomayor confessed she couldn’t remember, Franken drew laughter by responding, “Didn’t the White House prepare you for that?”
(Not everyone was as impressed by Franken’s performance. When EW.com, the website of Entertainment Weekly, reported his Perry Mason remark, one reader commented that Franken “managed to add fuel to the fire that he is a laughing stock, and that is not the kind of laughing stock that he desires. The state of Minnesota deserves a senator that acts like a senator, not a comedian-in-chief.”)
That’s precisely the image Franken has tried to counter as he promised to be a sober-minded, hard-working senator looking out for Minnesota’s interests. He was undoubtedly mindful of advice from Mondale and others to avoid Humphrey’s disastrous experience when he barged into the Senate like a drunken lumberjack in 1949 by attacking the Senate’s Southern establishment, a mistake he later called the worst of his career. And he obviously was listening when Sen. Jon Tester of Montana welcomed him to the Senate by bluntly telling him, “You have two ears and one mouth. Act accordingly.”
Intentionally or not, Franken’s reference to Hamilton Burger, the fictional Perry Mason prosecutor, in his exchange with Sotomayor evoked memories of U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger, who headed the court from 1969 to 1986. At the same time, Franken was jarringly reminded that the controversial majority opinion written by Burger’s “Minnesota Twin,” Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortions nationwide continues to roil the political waters.
As Franken was making his opening statement on the first day of Sotomayor’s hearings, 61-year-old Norma McCorvey, the Jane Roe of “Roe v. Wade,” was arrested after she interrupted the hearing by yelling that the ruling bearing her name should be overturned.
Minnesotans played key D.C. roles from 1960s to ’90s, too
But Republicans Blackmun, who served on the high court from 1970 to 1994, and Burger were only two of the Minnesotans of both parties who played key roles in all three branches of the federal government in the 1960s and well into the 1990s. Others include:
• Humphrey and Mondale, both senators, vice presidents and Democratic presidential nominees.
• McCarthy, whose anti-Vietnam War crusade forced President Johnson from office and handicapped Humphrey’s White House ambitions.
• Liberal firebrand Sen. Paul Wellstone.
• Agriculture Secretaries Freeman and Bergland.
• White House economic adviser Walter Heller.
• CIA Director William Colby.
• Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans.
• Labor Secretary James Hodgson.
• Democratic Reps. Blatnik, Don Fraser and Joe Karth.
• Republican Reps. Clark MacGregor, Al Quie and Bill Frenzel.
• Retired Army Gen. John Vessey Jr., who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1982 to 1985.
• Federal Commerce Comissioner Lee Loevinger.
• And even Bob Short, who earned Washingtonians’ undying enmity by moving the Senators baseball team to Texas in 1972.
Now, a new generation of Minnesota leaders
Among the new generation of Minnesota movers and shakers in Washington is the not-so-senior Sen. Klobuchar, who took office only two years ago as the state’s first elected woman senator. A newly appointed member of the Judiciary Committee with Franken, she talked to Sotomayor about baseball’s All-Star Game and her role in ending the baseball strike in the 1990s. (Klobuchar won rave reviews earlier this year for her witty speech at the annual at the Washington Press Club Foundation’s congressional dinner, giving Minnesota the dubious distinction of having the two funniest members of the Senate.)
Meanwhile, 5th District Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minneapolis, who already made history as the first Muslim elected to Congress and the first African-American to represent Minnesota, gained new stature when President Obama portrayed him as a symbol of America’s multiracial democracy in a speech at Egypt’s Cairo University.
Obama’s speech prompted a lengthy favorable profile of the two-term congressman in the Washington Post last week. “Without trying too hard, just by being who he is, Ellison has multiple publics,” the article stated. “To Arabs overseas, he is evidence that Americans can embrace Islam. To Muslim Americans, he is a role model for political engagement.” (The article appeared one day after the Post published an equally favorable profile of Stephanie Schriock, the Washington political consultant who masterminded Franken’s Senate victory as his campaign manager.)
Powerful committee chairmen
Then there are Oberstar and Peterson, chairmen of House committees critically important for Obama’s plan to revive the economy. Oberstar, who represents the 8th District, chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Peterson, who represents the 7th District, heads the Agriculture Committee. (Minnesota would have had a third committee chairman if Democrat Martin Sabo had not retired as ranking member of the Rules Committee in 2006.)
Oberstar, now in his 18th term and the longest-serving member of Congress in Minnesota history, told The Hill newspaper last week that Congress cut taxes too much and did not include enough money for transportation projects when it passed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill earlier this year.
It appears that his ambitious six-year, $500 billion surface transportation reauthorization bill won’t get passed this year because House leaders are focusing on the massive overhaul of the nation’s health care system, which is Obama’s highest priority. Oberstar is confident it will eventually pass.
Although an early supporter of Obama, Oberstar is openly critical of the president’s economic advisers, saying that they have done a poor job of explaining how his economic stimulus program will produce jobs. Nevertheless, Oberstar predicted that the stimulus package will produce 250,000 new construction jobs, another 30,000 in bus and train manufacturing, and 25,000 for work on water projects by Labor Day.
Peterson, meanwhile, not only heads a committee with jurisdiction over a broad set of issues affecting rural and urban America, but is a leader of the coalition of centrist House Democrats known as the Blue Dogs. As such, he’s a forceful critic of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handling of two of Obama’s top legislative priorities, global climate change and health care reform. Peterson persuaded all 27 Democrats on his committee, as well as many other Democrats, to oppose the climate change bill because he is convinced it would hurt the economies of energy-dependent rural districts.
“Peterson is seen as someone who if finally giving voice to the voiceless — dozens of rural and middle American Democrats who feel that their interests are being ignored by an urban-minded set of leaders,” including Pelosi and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California, The Hill reported last month.
And 4th District Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum earned a front-page photo in Politico last week after she joined Peterson and other moderate Democrats in protesting regional disparities in the reimbursement rates for Medicare. McCollum threatened to oppose the health care reform legislation unless Pelosi makes changes that don’t penalize such states as Minnesota and the Dakotas because they provide patients with better health care for much lower costs.
Kline, meanwhile, has used his position as ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee — and his membership on the Armed Services, Intelligence and Ethic Committees — to lead House Republican opposition to much of Obama’s legislative agenda.
The four-term Marine Corps veteran, who represents the 2nd district, has issued no fewer than 60 press releases since January that criticize Obama’s plans for economic stimulus, health care reform, energy independence, student loans, emergency funding for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility — and even the reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler, because it would force the closure of many auto dealerships.
Ironically, one of the less-visible Minnesotans in recent months is 6th District Republican Rep. Michelle Bachmann, whose penchant for making controversial statements, such as her interview on MSNBC last October in which she suggested that Obama and some members of Congress are anti-American, have made her a favorite of conservative Republicans and the bete noir of Democrats.
Bachmann, derided by her Minnesota Democratic colleagues as “the Sarah Palin of Minnesota,” recently told a radio station that she wants her constituents to be “armed and dangerous” on the issue of the energy tax “because we need to fight back,” a comment that caused Politico last month to include her among the “loose cannons” of Congress.
Finally, one of Minnesota’s new stars on the national political horizon is Denis McDonough, the Stillwater native who is the principle spokesman for the National Security Council. A former standout defensive end for John Gagliardi’s St. John’s University football team, McDonough has already demonstrated his defensive skills in international diplomacy.
After accompanying President Obama and his wife when they met Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, he briefed reporters afterward and downplayed Obama’s disagreement with the pope on the politically sensitive issues of abortion and stem cell research. “They discussed a range of those issues, and I think the president was eager to listen to the Holy Father,” McDonough said, adding that while there may be some issues on which they can’t agree, Obama was “eager to find common ground on those issues.”
And just last week, McDonough dismissed rumors that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been shunted to the sidelines, after the White House failed to approve her choice of ambassador to Japan and delayed the nomination of her candidate for director of the Agency for International Development. “Secretary Clinton is a key member of a very strong team,” McDonough told the New York Times last week. “The president values her inputs, her team’s inputs.”
Al Eisele has been covering the Minnesota political scene in Washington since 1965 — with time out to work for Walter Mondale and Control Data.