Thursday, June 10, 2004

Battle Royale: Reagan and Wellstone finally have it out


I had an argument about the Wellstone funeral shortly after that debacle with the boyfriend of a good friend of mine. He defended the funeral as well within the spirit of Wellstone as a leader and a man, and probably what he would've wanted.

My argument was fine as it was, but with the eulogy to Ronald Reagan that Dick Cheney provided the other night, I think I see what I was missing: a broader philosophical point.

At the time I just argued that even if it was true that the funeral/rally was precisely what Wellstone would've wanted, it wouldn't necessarily have made it right. If I wanted an orgy to occur on my grave during the ceremony, the living wouldn't necessarily have an obligation to provide such a service.

But with Dick Cheney's eulogy to provide contrast, I see now that it's more basic than that. It's an issue of taste. Although taste certainly provides some subjective give and take, there are basic standards of what is proper that, defended contextually, can give rise to objective judgments. (I wrote a paper on this topic and how it relates to art, David Hume and Ayn Rand, but didn't see the connection to this case until tonight.)

So to revive an argument nearing two years in age: When Wellstone himself entertained the possibility of a presidential run in 2000, he compared himself to Barry Goldwater, and yes, Ronald Reagan. He said that even if Gore's victory in the primary was a foregone conclusion, or that any run against a more mainstream candidate from the Republicans would end in disaster, he could lay the groundwork for a leftist counterpart to Reagan to bring the Democrats to victory. From this self-characterization, for purposes of this discussion, I'll say Wellstone is as much of a liberal within the Democratic Party as Reagan was a conservative within the Republican Party.

With that in mind, and with Wellstone's funeral in mind, take note of what Cheney's eulogy lacks. He does not breath a word here about the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or anything about how conservative Reagan was, or how important it is that we go out and defeat the liberal Democrats. He does not lead the crowd in an angry chant of “We will win!” that sounds like something out of a Leni Riefenstahl film. He does not ask the Democrats to show proper respect to the deceased Reagan by dropping all campaigning until Election Day, and thereby conceding the race to Reagan's heir (or the closest equivalent thereof), Bush 43. Instead of reducing Reagan down to his political causes, Cheney eulogizes Reagan as a man. Wellstone's followers eulogized him as as a cause, and crassly, cynically, used the occasion of a funeral (the proper function of which is to memorialize a person's character) to try to win a few more votes for Wellstone's heir, Walter Mondale.

And I think this is why the Wellstone memorial backfired, and if anything, drove more votes to Norm Coleman. (I think it was David Letterman who said after Election Day: “Call me sentimental, but wasn't it great to see Mondale come out of retirement for one last ass-whoopin'?”).

One of the ways taste functions, as I've alluded above, is it reflects the perception that things are put in their proper places and functions. Things belong in particular contexts, and not in others. A funeral's function is to memorialize a man or woman's character. It can either be a solemn occasion, or it can be tastefully done with levity, as in an Irish wake or a New Orleans grave dancer.

But one does not go to a funeral to pick up women; one does not play a Gameboy while someone is speaking, one does not express glee that the person is now deceased and one stands to inherit considerably. It's one thing to note that a person was a politician or a Democrat, and that their respective cause was very dear to them. It's another thing entirely to do something other than memorize the person, as in the above examples, and hold a political rally in leau of a memorial service to an audience expecting the latter. One reason is that rarely is someone's character reducible to their political opinions (and if it is, the person is a truly sad human being). Another, more particular to this case, was that trying to exploit the free media coverage here is even more immature than the political statements celebrities often make at awards shows.

I noticed that even one of the Wellstone Memorial's defenders acknowledged something like this point, that one mistake was that the partisan and non-partisan aspects of the Memorial should have been distinct events, and I couldn't agree more. No one would have cared if Mondale's people chanted "Win this for Wellstone!" at a rally or a march. The place and context here were all wrong.

There are at least two other sources I could find that made the comparison between the Wellstone and Reagan memorials. National Review Online's Corner Blog brought it up Sunday – according to Drudge (so take with a grain of salt), someone in the Clinton camp was already starting to complain that the Reagan funeral would be mere Republican grandstanding, so Katherine Jean Lopez suggests that they bring out the tape of the Wellstone memorial. This is what made me first start wondering how the Republicans would handle this, and to what extent the Wellstone comparisons would be justified.

Rush Limbaugh also explicitly made the same comparison on his show today. There are some audio links here that compare the two speeches, and as much as I disagree with Limbaugh with other issues, it's beautiful that he juxtaposes the two events here so well. Fortunately, Limbaugh's staff also has the transcript here, if you'd rather not mess with the audio. Limbaugh, of course, forgot about the most obnoxious part of the Wellstone memorial, where Wellstone's manager asked the Republicans to drop their entire campaign and allow Mondale Wellstone's Senate seat without a fight. Imagine if Cheney asked Kerry to do that for Reagan...

In case the Limbaugh links don't work, try also this page with audio and video from the Wellstone Memorial. If memory serves, the last three of the audio links are the obnoxiously partisan speeches that closed the memorial.

See also...

No Contest
Paul Wellstone's memorial service turns into a pep rally.
By William Saletan
http://slate.msn.com/id/2073324/

CNN: Tone of Wellstone memorial generates anger
http://www.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/10/30/elec02.memorial.fallout/

Time: Fallout from a Memorial
Did the memorial service for Paul Wellstone cost Democrats the election?
http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,388903,00.html

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