The Republicans are meeting down the hill from my house, helicopters are pounding the air, and there are more suits on the streets and big black SUVs and a brownish cloud venting from the hockey arena where the convention is assembled. A large moment for little old St. Paul, which is more accustomed to visitations by conventions of morticians and foundation garment salesmen and the Sons of the Desert, and so we are thrilled. It makes no difference that the city is Democratic. What matters is that, for a few days, TV will show a few pictures of the big bend in the Mississippi, the limestone bluffs, the capitol and cathedral, and a tree-shaded avenue or two, and some of the world will know that we exist.
Too bad that the Current Occupant and Mr. Cheney canceled their St. Paul appearances so they could focus on hurricane-threatened New Orleans and lend their expertise to rescue operations. As it turned out, they weren't needed, which has been generally true for a long time. Their reporting for duty now only served to remind everyone of what happened three years ago. And Mr. McCain, as of this writing, seemed torn between coming to St. Paul to address the convention and comforting hurricane victims in Mississippi, if any could be found.
Meanwhile, he posed a stark question for voters to ponder: How much would you like to see Sarah Palin of Wasilla, Alaska, as the next president of the United States? And what does the question say about Mr. McCain's love of the country that she might suddenly need to lead? No need to discuss these things at length, really. The gentleman played his card, a two of hearts. Make of it what you will.
The challenge for Republicans is how to change the subject from the dismal story of Republican triumph the past eight years and get voters to focus on, say, the old man's war record or Mrs. Palin's perkiness or the oddity of the skinny guy's last name. If they can succeed there, they can win this thing.
The Senate race in Minnesota is a good example. The Republican, Norm Coleman, has scored points by whooping up a couple tiny scandalettes -- some old jokes that, like a lot of old jokes, aren't so funny, and a tax snafu by some bookkeeper with dandruff on his shoulders -- against Democrat Al Franken, which may yet succeed in distracting voters from Coleman's important role as whistle-plugger in the $23 billion Iraq scandal.
From 2003 to 2006, Coleman was chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which is responsible for investigating, among other things, "fraud, waste, and abuse in government contracting," and on his watch, the subcommittee held no hearings on the disappearance of billions of tax dollars into "reconstruction projects" in Iraq that didn't seem to reconstruct anything whatsoever. Bundles of newly minted $100 bills on pallets in Baghdad that simply vanished. No-bid contracts lavished on people with connections. What may be the biggest case of war profiteering in the history of buzzardry.
The PSI is a big hammer. It's the subcommittee Joe McCarthy used to go after the U.S. Army and Sen. John McClellan used to go after labor racketeers with the young Bobby Kennedy as chief counsel, but as the Coleman subcommittee it went after federal employees who were traveling business class instead of economy, meanwhile money was pouring out of the Treasury for any Republican who could write "Iraq" with fewer than two spelling errors, and an old Bush retainer was appointed special inspector general to oversee the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, but without authority to oversee money spent on reconstruction by the Pentagon, which was where most of the money went. All of this Sen. Coleman watched with a cool eye, and he now calculates that Minnesota voters won't have the attention span to read a story with a lot of dollar amounts and acronyms like PSI and IRRF and SIG. Maybe, maybe not.
The simple truth is that, while more than 4,000 Americans gave their lives in the war in Iraq, the war was an enormous financial opportunity for neocons and their friends, and Sen. Coleman was a passive observer of one of the biggest heists in history. The cynicism is staggering to the normal person. He was the cop who busted the hot dog vendor for obstructing the sidewalk while the McGurks were cleaning out the bank. This is no joke. A crook is walking around looking for votes. And the truth is marching on.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.