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Al Franken

Al Franken

Posted: February 11, 2006 01:19 AM

Reflections on the Wellstone Memorial and the King Funeral


I think a little more perspective is needed when addressing the comparison that right-wing bloggers and now some mainstream journalists (Howard Kurtz) have been making between the Wellstone Memorial and the Coretta Scott King Funeral.

To this day, there are still a lot of people, including Democrats, who've bought the right wing line on the Wellstone Memorial. Specifically, that it was a cynical, premeditated political event that included endless booing of Republican politicians who came to pay their respects to their fallen colleague. I wrote a pretty detailed account of the Wellstone Memorial in my book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, and nothing could be further from the truth. I did write that "reasonable people of good will were genuinely offended." The memorial was raucous and a couple of speakers said some things that were inappropriate - basically, let's win this (upcoming Senate) election for Paul.

There were also honest Republicans of good will, including Jim Ramstad - the Congressman from the Minneapolis suburban district I grew up in - who acted like human beings and cut the speakers who offended (Rick Kahn and, to a lesser degree, Mark Wellstone) a little slack because they understood that Rick had lost six very close friends and Mark had lost his father, mother, and sister.

The chapter was mainly about how cynically Republicans used the memorial politically as they complained that the Democrats had used it politically. And how the mainstream media, many of whom had neither attended the memorial nor seen it on TV, bought into the Republican spin.

Mainly, there was a lot of lying. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the audience was "planted," when, in fact, Twin Cities' radio and TV had to tell people to stay away because Williams Arena was jammed to capacity three hours before the Memorial was scheduled to begin. Thousands were crowded into an overflow gym to watch on a screen and thousands watched outside on a cold, late October night.

A pained Limbaugh asked his audience the day after the memorial: "Where was the grief? Where were the tears? Where was the memorial service? There wasn't any of this!"

This was a lie. I was there. Along with everyone else, I cried, I laughed, I cheered. It was, to my mind, a beautiful four-hour memorial.

I didn't boo. Neither did 22,800 of the some 23,000 people there. This has been a much discussed, much lied about aspect of the memorial. A number of Republicans, like Peggy Noonan and Weekly Standard writer Chris Caldwell claimed that 20,000 people had booed Trent Lott. (Caldwell claimed that 20,000 people booed a whole litany of people who weren't booed at all.) We'll never get an actual count - but I'd say about two hundred people booed Trent Lott when his face came on the Jumbotron. This was about a minute after 23,000 people cheered for Bill Clinton when his face appeared on the Jumbotron.

The Jumbotron was carrying the C-SPAN feed, and unless you were watching live, you almost certainly have never seen the moment that Trent Lott was booed. That's because none of the cable news shows repeated it. That's because you can't hear him being booed. And that's because so few people booed him. Also, I swear, it was a good-natured "kill the umpire" boo, (and Lott actually grinned) but I could never prove that. What I have proven is that you couldn't hear the boos on TV because on my book-on-tape I played the audio of the C-SPAN video to compare the 23,000 cheering for Clinton with the smattering of boos for Lott, and you CANNOT hear the boos.

Caldwell, who never saw the memorial, also wrote that there was almost no mention of the others who died on the plane. That was complete bull. There were beautiful eulogies for Will, Tom, and Mary.

Kellyanne (Fitzpatrick) Conway went on TV the day after the memorial and told a nationwide audience that the Jumbotron instructed the crowd "when to cheer and when to jeer." (The speeches were close-captioned and would indicate when there was LAUGHTER and APPLAUSE.)

Even though the words on the closed captioning followed the speaker's words by five or so seconds and were often misspelled, Sara Janecek, a Minnesota Republican lobbyist, said the speeches on the Jumbotron were proof that the speeches had been written and vetted by the cynically politically motivated Democrat who ran the event. Actually, the people who spoke at the Wellstone memorial were all chosen by the families of those who died. No one's speech was vetted. The Wellstone people had all spent the previous five days going to funerals. It never occurred to them to vet the speeches. The irony is that because they weren't thinking politically, they opened themselves to being accused of staging a political event..

It was the Republicans that tried to cheapen Paul Wellstone's life by dishonoring his death. It was the right-wing media, not the friends and family who spoke at the memorial or the people who came to it, that seized an opportunity to use a tragedy for political gain.

Now to the King funeral, which I did not see in its entirety.

Coretta Scott King was 78 when she died. Her death followed a long illness and was not a big shock. Her family and friends had had time to prepare for her death and had not lost five other friends and/or family members in a tragic plane crash.

Four presidents spoke. One of them, Jimmy Carter, made a passing reference to the fact that Martin and Coretta King had been the victims of domestic wiretapping by the government. Was it a shot at President George W. Bush, who was sitting right behind Carter? Probably. Was that inappropriate? Maybe.

Would Coretta Scott King have enjoyed the moment? I don't know. You know who would have a better idea than me? Jimmy Carter. He knew Mrs. King. Those who are currently complaining - most of whom claim to be offended on her behalf - didn't know her at all.

Coretta Scott King was a political woman. Most of those complaining on her behalf are against everything she stood for. In her later years she spoke passionately on behalf of affirmative action. Should her family have been offended that President Bush didn't mention this and apologize for it? Should they have been offended that the first President Bush didn't mention that he had campaigned for Congress in 1964 against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill and didn't apologize for that?

I don't think so. I think they were happy the two Bush Presidents showed up and paid their respects. I think they were also happy that Carter mentioned the wiretaps and that Joseph Lowery mentioned that there had been no WMD's in Iraq. Because that's probably what their mother would have wanted.

But I don't know. You'd have to ask them.