Joe Conason's Journal

As the "boo!" turns: When it was Hillary Clinton getting booed, Rush, Drudge and friends cheered along.

By Salon Staff

Published October 31, 2002 1:27PM (EST)

Letters continue to pour in about the Wellstone memorial matter, with a new theme today: "I thought I'd remind you of the situation which Hillary Clinton found herself in at Madison Square Garden last year at a concert honoring the policemen and firefighters who gave their lives on September 11, 2001."

Quite a few had the same thought: "Remember the boos that greeted Hillary at the concert for New York after 9/11? This was after lusty cheers for Giuliani and even Pataki. Radio stations here played it over and over again, finding the incredible bad taste absolutely hilarious. The whole event played more like a Giuliani coronation than an opportunity for friends and relatives to remember and celebrate the victims, which is what it was." Their point was to compare and contrast: "When Hillary Clinton was unfairly booed by firemen at the 9-11 concert she sucked it up and moved on. She knew the events of 9-11 were bigger and more important than her hurt feelings."

Rightly so -- even if the usual media suspects couldn't resist gloating, as MWO documents in detail, with links to Drudge, Rush and the rest of the gang. I came across a strange column by a Boston Herald columnist who praised the drunken cops and firemen for providing her with a "deeply satisfying moment." (She didn't mean it the way it sounds, but the Clinton-haters really did get off on that incident.)

Now let's fast-forward a year, when the firefighters who had cheered Bush and jeered the Clintons found out how deeply the new president valued their sacrifice. No doubt Karl Rove and his White House crew enjoyed the booing of Hillary at the 9/11 event, but that didn't keep them from slashing away at federal funds for the crippled New York Fire Department.

Flash forward again to early September, when the firefighters union joined with Democratic senators to fight the Bush administration's union-busting Homeland Security bill. The picture that accompanies this story on the union Web site shows Clinton standing next to FDNY Battalion Chief Michael Telesca, a real hero of 9/11 with a battered helmet to prove it, who said, "Frankly, I am sickened that certain government leaders believe that union membership and the sanctity of a union contract are somehow anti-American or contrary to the interests of national security." Who are they booing now?
[3:06 p.m. PST, Oct. 31, 2002]

Just let it be
While many cheered my dismissal of Republican/media grousing about the Wellstone memorial, a substantial minority scolded me for letting the raucous stadium crowd off too lightly. Leaving aside the raving wingnuts who litter every mailbag, the most distressed readers are themselves liberals and Minnesotans. Their misgivings should be heard, even if I don't entirely share them.

A constituent who has wept copiously since the crash last Friday wrote: "It was such a strange feeling to have so many luminaries just a few miles from my home, and so much of the evening was a wonderful tribute. However, Rick Kahn didn't just go over the top a little bit in his tribute to Paul. I don't even know if you could call that a tribute, it was so exploitative. Just like so many of us here in Minnesota, I came to love the integrity of Paul and what Rick did was so contrary to the principles that Paul lived by. Paul would have shown every ounce of respect due to those in the crowd from the opposing party. Yes, he would have passionately asked for the people to continue in their support of such principles. But you can see from the way his own sons conducted themselves a far better example of the way Paul himself would have preferred that request to be made ... I'm a liberal and proud of it, and I have no reservation about saying that Rick Kahn made me sad and ashamed with his atrocious behavior."

Others were considerably less troubled: "What I saw was a beautiful and loving tribute to a compassionate and dedicated senator, his wife and daughter, and their staff members ... Sure it was dramatic and partisan -- just like Paul Wellstone."

And this, from someone who knew the Wellstones and their aides: "My husband and I were at the memorial last night ... and Wellstone's family values were obvious in what his kids had to say. The political stuff ... well, Paul was politics for people. We wanted politics last night -- we loved Paul for his politics. Paul would have loved every second of it! The service reflected how this tragedy affected all Minnesotans who loved our senator." (Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman -- presumably no relation to Norm -- took a similar view.)

For some there were important multicultural nuances: "What Wellstone's supporters put on Tuesday was neither rally nor solemn memorial -- it was a good old-fashioned Irish wake, complete with funny stories, singing and an invocation of the loved one's spirit. Of course partisan politics were a part of that -- how could they not be, given Wellstone's passion and the timing of his death?"

And perhaps more pertinently: "What's being lost here is the Republicans' lack of understanding of Judaism. They're decrying the behavior at 'Paul Wellstone's funeral' on Tuesday. The fact is, the funeral was Monday. Tuesday was the post-funeral celebration of his life -- a long-standing Jewish tradition ... This is how his survivors chose to celebrate his life. If the Republicans don't like it, it's none of their damned business." (The Norwegians and Swedes may be too reticent to send in their interpretations.)

The most telling complaints directed at me involved the booing of Trent Lott and Jesse Ventura: "I've always liked your column because I thought you were reasonable and intelligent. Your defense of many Democrats' shameful behavior at the Wellstone service last night has changed my mind, though; you're just like everybody else, claiming that horrible behavior is excusable as long as it's done by our guys. Well, that's a load of crap. I am embarrassed to share party affiliation with the people who booed our governor and the Republican senator at the ceremony last night. These men -- who knew Mr. Wellstone personally, something that few in the crowd could claim -- showed up to pay their respects and commiserate, and their gesture of goodwill was rewarded with boos. Pathetic."

I didn't mean to imply that booing was excusable, of course. In passing, I said the opposite (although I also think the Republicans are making too much of those jeers). While there are plenty of reasons to boo the Senate minority leader, attending a memorial for a deceased colleague is not among them. I ought to have said that clearly yesterday.

Meanwhile, Wellstone's campaign manager has wisely apologized for the excessiveness of Kahn's speech. Again, however, far too much is being made of one person's remarks, which briefly (if not briefly enough) interrupted an uplifting three-hour event. Thankfully, Ventura's tantrum appears to have ended.

As for Vin Weber and the other shrieking Republicans, their conduct during the Clinton years offered no hint of the delicate sensibilities they now display. Their tantrum is undignified and silly, too. Inappropriate remarks are a hazard of unscripted wakes and memorials, as anybody who has attended a few of them probably knows. In fact, with the human emotions arising from this tragedy, and the tensions surrounding the upcoming election, it's fortunate that nothing worse happened in front of TV cameras and 20,000 people.

The opportunism of Rush Limbaugh and the other whiners was entirely predictable. No complaints need be entertained from the ghouls who have exploited so many deaths for political reasons, from Vince Foster to the children of Susan Smith. The most decent responses came from Republicans like Jim Ramstad, a congressman from Minnesota and a close Wellstone friend who was tastelessly singled out in Kahn's remarks, and former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams, who drew a few boos himself.

"This was their event," Grams said afterward. "They can do what they want. We're here tonight to say goodbye to a friend. That's all I'm thinking right now." "I think it's unfortunate that a memorial service has become a center of controversy," said Ramstad the next day. "Last night was about paying our final respects to six wonderful people and beloved Minnesotans who perished in a terrible tragedy. That was where my focus was. People get carried away sometimes with emotions. We all get carried away sometimes with emotions. Just let it be."

He's right. There are a few days left to discuss whether Mondale is up to the job, why Coleman suddenly realized he was a Republican after chairing Clinton's campaign and stumping to reelect Wellstone -- and what turning the Senate back to Trent Lott would mean to Minnesota and the rest of the country. It's hard to imagine that the smart, patriotic Americans who gave Wellstone two terms, and who were about to send him back to Washington for a third, would let their decision be determined by a few minutes of rude behavior at his memorial.
[11:23 a.m. PST, Oct. 31, 2002]

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