Empty victory for a hollow man

How Norm Coleman sold his soul for a Senate seat.

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Norm Coleman won Minnesota because he was well-financed and well-packaged. Norm is a slick retail campaigner, the grabbiest and touchingest and feelingest politician in Minnesota history, a hugger and baby-kisser, and he’s a genuine boomer candidate who reinvents himself at will. The guy is a Brooklyn boy who became a left-wing student radical at Hofstra University with hair down to his shoulders, organized antiwar marches, said vile things about Richard Nixon, etc. Then he came west, went to law school, changed his look, went to work in the attorney general’s office in Minnesota. Was elected mayor of St. Paul as a moderate Democrat, then swung comfortably over to the Republican side. There was no dazzling light on the road to Damascus, no soul-searching: Norm switched parties as you’d change sport coats.

Norm is glib. I once organized a dinner at the Minnesota Club to celebrate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday and Norm came, at the suggestion of his office, and spoke, at some length and with quite some fervor, about how much Fitzgerald means to all of us in St. Paul, and it was soon clear to anyone who has ever graded 9th grade book reports that the mayor had never read Fitzgerald. Nonetheless, he spoke at great length, with great feeling. Last month, when Bush came to sprinkle water on his campaign, Norm introduced him by saying, “God bless America is a prayer, and I believe that this man is God’s answer to that prayer.” Same guy.

(Jesse Ventura, of course, wouldn’t have been caught dead blathering at an F. Scott Fitzgerald dinner about how proud we are of the Great Whoever-He-Was and his vision and his dream blah-blah-blah, and that was the refreshing thing about Jesse. The sort of unctuous hooey that comes naturally and easily to Norm Coleman Jesse would be ashamed to utter in public. Give the man his due. He spoke English. He didn’t open his mouth and emit soap bubbles. He was no suck up. He had more dignity than to kiss the president’s shoe.)

Norm got a free ride from the press. St. Paul is a small town and anybody who hangs around the St. Paul Grill knows about Norm’s habits. Everyone knows that his family situation is, shall we say, very interesting, but nobody bothered to ask about it, least of all the religious people in the Republican Party. They made their peace with hypocrisy long ago. So this false knight made his way as an all-purpose feel-good candidate, standing for vaguely Republican values, supporting the president.



He was 9 points down to Wellstone when the senator’s plane went down. But the tide was swinging toward the president in those last 10 days. And Norm rode the tide. Mondale took a little while to get a campaign going. And Norm finessed Wellstone’s death beautifully. The Democrats stood up in raw grief and yelled and shook their fists and offended people. Norm played his violin. He sorrowed well in public, he was expertly nuanced. The mostly negative campaign he ran against Wellstone was forgotten immediately. He backpedalled in the one debate, cruised home a victor. It was a dreadful low moment for the Minnesota voters. To choose Coleman over Walter Mondale is one of those dumb low-rent mistakes, like going to a great steakhouse and ordering the tuna sandwich. But I don’t envy someone who’s sold his soul. He’s condemned to a life of small arrangements. There will be no passion, no joy, no heroism, for him. He is a hollow man. The next six years are not going to be kind to Norm.

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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