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Mondale talks candidly about Paul Wellstone’s death and legacy — and the tumultuous aftermath

“It was difficult, but I’m glad I did what I did,” he said of stepping in as the last-minute replacement candidate. Days later, his campaign ended in narrow defeat.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale welcomes freshman Sen. Paul Wellstone to Washington, D.C. in 1991.
Photo by Terry Gydesen

Editor’s note: This is the first of several articles noting the 10th anniversary of the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone.

Ten years ago, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy were at a fundraising event in downtown Minneapolis.

Kennedy was surprised that Sen. Paul Wellstone wasn’t at the event.

“Where’s Paul?” Kennedy asked Mondale.

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“He needed to be at a funeral up north,” Mondale said.

Kennedy understood. The two continued to work the crowd until someone approached.

“Could you step into the hallway?” the two Democrats were asked.

They moved outside the room, into the quiet of a hallway.

‘A plane has gone down’

“A plane has gone down, and we’re very worried,” they were told. “We don’t know what’s happened, but we’re afraid Paul and Sheila might have been on it.”

Kennedy and Mondale sat down, stunned.

Within 10 minutes, they were told that their worst fears had come to pass. The Wellstones, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, staffers Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic and Will McLaughlin and pilots Richard Conroy and Michael Guess had been killed in the crash.

Mondale and Kennedy rushed directly to the Wellstone campaign headquarters in St. Paul.

“All these young people,” Mondale recalled in a recent conversation about the events of Oct. 25, 2002. “We just wanted to commiserate with them — share their incredible grief. It was an awful day.”

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Everyone was too numb even for politics. The Senate race between Wellstone and Republican Norm Coleman was considered one of the most important races in the country.  But Coleman immediately put his campaign on hold. President George (H.W.) Bush canceled a trip he’d planned to Minnesota to campaign on Coleman’s behalf.

Wellstone sons ask Mondale to run

On Saturday, the day after the crash, Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s campaign manager, asked Mondale to meet with him and Wellstone’s two sons, David and Mark.

“Please run,” Mondale recalled Wellstone’s sons telling him. “We fear if you don’t run, his voice will be lost.”

Blodgett added that Wellstone’s entire campaign apparatus would go to work on Mondale’s behalf.

Mondale was 74 years old. The former senator, vice president and presidential nominee hadn’t run for office in 18 years.

“I have to talk to [wife] Joan,” Mondale said.

Joan Mondale told him she didn’t see that there was any choice — and that running was “the only right thing to do.”

Mondale told Blodgett that he’d run if that’s what the DFL wanted, but he also added that he wouldn’t start any form of campaigning until after the funeral.

The Wellstone memorial service, held in Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota, was held on Wednesday night, Oct. 30. Mondale was struck by the huge cadre of U.S. senators of both parties who attended the event.

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The tone of the service — filled with passion and political rhetoric and pain — didn’t particularly surprise Mondale.

“What do expect from people who have lost someone they believe in, someone they loved?” Mondale said.

Memorial service backlash

But Gov. Jesse Ventura, the media and some Republicans expressed outrage. Ventura walked out, claiming to be “offended” by the political tone of a memorial to a political man.

Blodgett, who had not vetted the eulogies, knew instantly there would be a backlash. Immediately after the event, he apologized publicly for the tone and privately told Mondale, “This is going to make things more difficult.”

The next day, a special convention of the DFL was held in downtown St. Paul, and Mondale was nominated to run in Wellstone’s stead.

He hit the road a week before the election. He learned a quick lesson: Age was a factor in a way he hadn’t anticipated. Yes, he had a vast resume. But time passes quickly.

“I think there was half of Minnesota who didn’t know who I was,” Mondale said. “I’d go to a college campus and you could just see young people saying, ‘Who’s this?’ ”

That is a reality for all people in politics or positions of power.

“There are two kinds of historic memory,” Mondale said. “There’s the living memory. But that doesn’t last long. You talk to people today about even someone like Hubert Humphrey and they have only a vague idea about who the person was. When one generation passes, that living memory passes, too.

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“The other sort of historic memory is the one that’s written in words,” Mondale continued. “Of course, that lasts longer.”

Mondale gave it all he had. Although their styles were different, the messages of Mondale and Wellstone were similar. In the end, Mondale lost to Coleman by 2 percentage points.

“I do believe Paul would have won that race,” Mondale said. “But one of the things that happened is that when Paul died, Coleman’s negatives decreased. He handled the situation very well. He handled it with great dignity.”

There’s no place in his careers in politics and public service that Mondale hasn’t been physically and emotionally. That brief run as Wellstone’s fill-in is a unique chapter in his life.

“It was difficult, but I’m glad I did what I did,” Mondale said. “I believe that history will treat it well. I hope I was consistent to his lifetime of speaking out for justice for all people.”

Still, at a personal level, politics comes down to winning and losing.

“I’d rather have won,” Mondale said.

Paul Wellstone’s legacy

At an event honoring the memories of the Wellstones earlier this month, there was much talk of “the Wellstone legacy.” It was noted that Mondale’s voice helped inspire many of those young Wellstone campaign workers to keep pushing. And about how Mondale had helped give young staffers hope to carry on.

As the results came in on Election Night 10 years ago, Mondale quietly spoke with the Wellstone staffers.

“I talked to them about how this wasn’t the end, but the beginning,” Mondale recalled. “I said that within every defeat there are seeds to victory — that they needed to go home, get some rest and then get back out there.”

Mondale has been impressed by how the passage of 10 years has not diminished the energy of so many of Wellstone’s supporters.

“You look at a young man like Jeff Blodgett [currently the director of President Obama’s Minnesota campaign],” Mondale said. “God bless him. He has spent his life serving the progressive cause. You certainly don’t do that for the money, or for the glory.’’

Others, too, have pushed on. Wellstone’s legacy has been left in good hands.

“He was a remarkable man,” said Mondale. “He was inspirational, unrelenting, a devoted champion of the poor. That legacy is going to survive.”

Mondale laughed as he told a story about stepping into Wellstone’s shoes for those tumultuous days.

“Paul knew all kinds of people,” Mondale said.  “One of the secrets to his success was that he knew people that most politicians never get to know.

“I remember, just as we were going to start campaigning, Jeff gave me a list of people to call. There were Hmong and Hispanics. Turned out some didn’t speak English, but somehow they understood Paul and he understood them.”