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Barry Crimmins

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Don't Mourn — Organize! Monday, October 28, 2002

By Barry Crimmins


I wasn't immune from sinister suspicions when Senator Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash last Friday. Just as I had when Texas Congressman Mickey Leland perished in a plane fatality in Africa some years back, I calculated the great odds against one of the few truly principled people in Congress meeting such a cruel and random fate.
Only this time I added, "AGAIN?"


My suspicions were amplified because on the day of the fatal crash I was reading Ariel Dorfman's chilling book, Exorcising Terror (Seven Stories Press, 2002). In it Chilean native Dorfman examines the case against his country's former dictator, Agosto Pinochet. Actually he makes the case against this murderous former beneficiary of US foreign policy.


Before Pinochet learned that democratically elected president Salvadore Allende had been "found dead" (at the time the National Lampoon pointed out Allende had apparently committed suicide by shooting himself in the back several dozen times) he had been using a two-way radio to order Allende's murder. The 9/11/73 (that's right, 9/11) conversation was taped and, after many years, has become available to the public. On the recording the Chilean thug spoke with an Admiral Caraval. Pinochet declared that even if Allende surrendered he was to be put on a plane for deportation, but not to worry, that plane would never arrive anywhere.


Caraval asks, "So the offer to send him out of the country holds?"


Pinochet responded, "The offer to take him out of the country still holds – but the plane is going to fall, viejo, my friend, when it's flying away."


As I finished reading Pinochet's remarks the phone rang and I received word that Paul Wellstone's plane had fallen. I thought about Wellstone and all of his principled stands and couldn't help but contemplate if we were being asked to believe he had shot himself in the back several dozen times.


I also wondered how the Democrats could lose yet another Senate candidate in an air fatality just prior to an election. Hadn't Missouri's Mel Carnahan met a similar demise at almost the exact same stage of a close race in 2000?


Within the hour I began receiving e-mails that raised questions about just how accidental the plane crash had been. The private ones (sent to me from friends) made some sense but the public ones (sent to me from a few mailing lists) seemed hasty. Speculation on such matters is much more sensibly done in private.


As I learned more details, my suspicions weren't quelled. According to the TV experts, Wellstone went down in a generally reliable plane. His wife Sheila was on board and had also died, provoking my inner cynic to spout, "looks like the bad guys learned from the Carnahan precedent."


Then when I heard Teddy Kennedy had been campaigning with Wellstone earlier on the fatal morning, I really got skeptical. Had this been intended to move Senate liberals from the "endangered" to the "extinct" list? Was Teddy supposed to have been on that plane? Was someone looking to clear up all old family business? Advise Moe Green to skip the massage.

About this time my inner cynic began to make discreet inquiries about switching sides. When you find yourself projecting assassination attempts upon the Kennedys, you're asking to spend a lot of time gathering "documents" and arguing with other conspiracy buffs. It's not that I don't believe in conspiracies, it's just that I've concluded that if they do exist then at least a secondary reason for them is to tie up as many bright and committed individuals as possible.


Conspiracies send people over the edge. Mort Sahl was an erudite political comic before he became obsessed with the JFK assassination. When we next heard from him he was hanging around with the Reagans. Now that's crazy.


I've tried for years to explain to Kennedy conspiracy addicts that it isn't politically expedient to spend all of your time trying to save dead people - particularly when such efforts concern decades old cases that might only result in bringing other dead people to justice.


So I was at an impasse with myself. I had legitimate questions about Wellstone's death and judging by my e-mail, I wasn't alone with my doubts. But I also had anything but an affinity for conspiracy theorists. Having sufficiently nurtured my paranoia, equal time was due for devil's advocacy in support of the hypothesis that Wellstone simply died in a coincidental and tragic accident.

I returned to the death of Mel Carnahan. The Missouri electorate had chosen his corpse over John "Kaiser" Ashcroft in that Senate race. The Forces of Darkness surely must have remembered that. One scoundrel in particular must have recalled the events in stark detail.


And then there was Norm Coleman's campaign against Wellstone, which was a campaign against Wellstone and that was about it. Much like post-Torricelli Douglas Forrester in New Jersey, Coleman would now have to answer the political question: OK, what else do you have for us? And unlike Forrester, who is fading fast in the Jersey race, Coleman is associated with a several-month slur against the now martyred Minnesota Senator.


Maybe someone so despised Wellstone that they wanted him eliminated because they knew he had seized the momentum and was headed for victory in his re-election bid. If such villains exist, they had to understand that it wasn't particularly likely for a Republican to take away his seat after such a tragedy. But then maybe they figured just getting him replaced and silencing one of the only voices against the ensuing massacre in Iraq, the devious Plan Colombia, the environmental carnage that is at the center of all things dear to the Court-appointed Bush Administration, and the subjugation of the government to nefarious corporate interests would be enough.


Still, the more I considered it, the more I felt electoral logic was not on the side of conspiracy theorists. Wellstone's death wouldn't simply keep his seat from falling to Republicans, it would also serve as a booster shot for nationwide Democratic election hopes. For example, Jean Carnahan would rather have lost than have her own wounds so graphically and tragically reopened, but, in her tight race, rekindled sympathy brought on by the Wellstone tragedy might make the difference with Missouri voters.


Friday's catastrophe resulted in numerous network and cable replays of detailed interviews with the articulate Wellstone. He's had a lot of face-time laying out the progressive agenda as well as the case against Bush. This had to sway more than a few voters in more than a few states. Op-ed pages have burgeoned with Wellstone tributes. Even conservative commentators have had to allow that the fallen Senator managed to be assertively progressive without sprouting horns.


Even if someone somewhere did make this accident happen, a case is unlikely to be proven between now and this crucial election. Public pronouncements that this was an assassination will only seem (and may well just be) shrill and unseemly. Paul Wellstone did not belong to the party of especial persecutor Ken Starr. This is no time for the Senator's disciples to adopt Starr's tactics. And we must not even flirt with the Court-appointed Bush Administration's disdain for open and fair examination of criminal allegations.


Before Joe Hill was executed for folk singing in Utah in 1915, he had a succinct message for his comrades. He advised, "Don't mourn. Organize."


I think that's just what Paul Wellstone would suggest we do over the next ten days. We must redouble our "get out the vote" efforts. We must work arduously to hold and extend the Democratic majority in the Senate — a goal he died attempting to achieve. We must strive towards winning every tightly contested House race and thereby stunning the Bush camp by regaining Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature.


When those Democrats take office, we'll remind them of how the late Minnesotan stood up and refused to acquiesce to Bush's Iraqi bloodlust and then immediately surged in the polls. We will demand similar principled behavior. This could lead to a new generation of legislators representing the views of their constituents rather than the edicts of their handlers.

No matter what caused last Friday's tragedy it should inspire us to become better and braver citizens like Paul Wellstone. This could lead George W. Bush to thinking of the late Senator in the way Agosto Pinochet thought of Salvador Allende. A few hours after his order to make sure Allende never left Chile alive, he learned that el Presidente was dead and the coup had succeeded. Over the same two-way radio he began to puzzle over what to do with the body. He wondered if they should put the slain leader in an unmarked grave or if they should they deport his remains.


Reporting again on the audio recording Dorfman writes: And then I hear him add a lament. "Even when he dies," Pinochet complains, "this guy is a nuisance, even dying he's causing us trouble."


When the polls close on November 5 let's hope another unelected leader will say the same of Paul Wellstone.

© 2002 Barry Crimmins

updated: 11 years ago