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Rick Kahn says he has no regrets about Wellstone eulogy
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Rick Kahn (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
More than seven months after the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others, the man who changed the tone of the public memorial service for the victims into a political rally-like atmosphere says he doesn't understand why. In an in-depth interview with Minnesota Public Radio's Mark Zdechlik, Rick Kahn spoke about his memorial service comments and the ensuing political fallout.

St. Paul, Minn. — Until he spoke at the public memorial service for the victims of the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, his daughter and five others, most Minnesotans had no idea who Rick Kahn was.

In the overflow crowd at the University of Minnesota, regular Minnesotans joined well-known political dignitaries such as Bill Clinton and Trent Lott. Democrats and Republicans stepped away from campaign battling to mourn together.

More than 20,000 people turned out for the service. Hundreds of thousands more watched live on television and listened on the radio. Several speakers shared moving stories about the lives of deceased.

But when Rick Kahn took the stage, the tone changed. Suddenly the memorial service began sounding much more like a political rally than a remembrance.

"We're going to organize, we're going to organize," Kahn shouted.

I would feel very badly, very badly if people came up to me and said, 'I voted against Mondale because of what you said.' If that's the case I would consider that to be so extraordinarily unfair.
- Rick Kahn

Visibly distraught, Kahn pleaded for people to support someone in the fiercely contested Senate race who would continue on with Wellstone's legacy.

"We are begging you all to help us win the Senate election for Paul Wellstone. We need to win this election for Paul Wellstone," he said.

Some mourners, Gov. Jesse Ventura among them, walked out of the service, irritated by the political tone. Republicans accused Democrats of orchestrating a political rally under the guise of a memorial gathering.

Polls immediately following the event showed Democrats took a significant hit. Overnight, Vice President Walter Mondale, Wellstone's eventual replacement on the DFL ticket, lost nearly half of the double-digit lead internal polls showed he had over Republican Norm Coleman.

A week later, Coleman won the election. Mondale has said very little about the memorial service. Sources close to the Mondale campaign say they'll never know why Minnesotans voted the way they did, but that memorial service fallout was a crucial and key factor in their defeat.

The day after the election, Mondale conceded defeat and responded to reporters questions about the service.

"The eulogizers were the ones who were hurt the most. And can we now -- it doesn't justify it, I'm not saying that, but we've all made mistakes -- and can't we now find it in out hearts to forgive them and go on and do what we must do as citizens," Mondale said.

Seven months later, Rick Kahn says he's not spoken to Mondale. Kahn doesn't think his memorial service comments were inappropriate, and he doesn't understand why so many people felt the remembrance crossed a line.

"I would feel very badly, very badly if people came up to me and said, 'I voted against Mondale because of what you said.' If that's the case I would consider that to be so extraordinarily unfair," Kahn says.

"I would never be able to say ... what caused people to vote they way they did."

Mondale wasn't the only Democrat to suffer memorial service backlash. DFL officials say post-election polling showed their candidates, across the board, took a four- to five-point hit.

"If you told me that there were a million people in the state of Minnesota who hate me because of what I said, I would say that I am truly sorry that they feel that way," Kahn says. "But even knowing that, I would still say I don't regret what I said because I was pouring my heart out ... and that's what I will always do in my life because I learned that from Paul Wellstone."

Kahn says he regrets that many voters apparently became convinced his memorial service comments were part of a DFL strategy to convert sorrow into votes.

"I could live with that, that people say, 'I hate Rick Kahn because he said that.' But I don't understand why they would then say, 'And therefore I'm going to vote against all the Democrats,'" says Kahn. "That's the part that even to this day, that really bothers me. Because it seems wrong, it seems very unfair to the Democrat candidates who had nothing to do with me, don't know me, don't have any connection with me, had only perhaps a minor connection to Paul himself."

Kahn served as treasurer for all three Wellstone Senate campaigns, but says Wellstone's sons asked him to speak at the memorial service because Kahn was Wellstone's best friend. They met at Carleton College in 1969.

"I really viewed Paul over the years as a brother, not just as a friend."

And it's in that context Kahn wants people to consider his remarks. Kahn says he and Wellstone developed a very close relationship over more than 30 years, since meeting at Carleton.

With everything going on following the crash, Kahn says he had just a few hours on the day of the memorial service to come up with a speech. He's adamant that no one told him what to say, and no one screened his speech. He says about all he was told was where and when to show up.

"Not one person, not one, said to me, 'Express this, convey this, we want you to do this. This is what we're trying to accomplish, you know this is your part, this is what we want you to do, help us do this, help us you know try and do whatever.' No one. No one. No one."

So Kahn says he spoke from his heart.

"When I was standing up there, I felt his presence and, again, I'm not saying this in a cosmic, mysterious way. I just felt very tangibly that this was his conviction, this was his passion, his conviction that I was talking about," Kahn says.

"Rick was simply trying to honor the memory of a true friend, Paul Wellstone, and keep Paul's legacy alive," says U.S. Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., who from the outset never bought into the theory that Kahn's comments were somehow orchestrated to drum up support for whomever would take Wellstone's place in the U.S. Senate race.

"I just think it was unfortunate that there was fallout as a result of Rick's statement. I know it hurt him very deeply," Ramstad says. "I think it's unfortunate that some people tried to politicize it, but you know as I told people at the time, 'Let Rick grieve and let it go.'"

Kahn says he still thinks of Wellstone many times throughout each day. Inside the entryway of his Minnetonka home, propped up against a staircase, is a pristine green-and-white Wellstone campaign sign.

Kahn says he has no interest in running for elected office, but wants to do something to convey to others the inspiration Wellstone instilled in him.

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