In the Spotlight

News & Features
Remembering Wellstone
Remembering Wellstone
DocumentObituary: Paul Wellstone, 1944-2002
DocumentReflections on a Political Career: Paul Wellstone
DocumentSheila Wellstone's life
DocumentThe memorial service
DocumentCampaign 2002: The Wellstone campaign
More from MPR
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
Former Vice President Walter Mondale reflects on 2002 Senate election
Larger view
Former Vice President Walter Mondale took Paul Wellstone's place on the DFL ticket after last fall's plane crash. Mondale lost the eleciton to Republican Norm Coleman. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
One year after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone threw the race for U.S. Senate into chaos, former Vice President Walter Mondale is talking about his brief return to politics. Mondale replaced Wellstone's on the DFL ticket and lost the race to Republican Norm Coleman after a history -making one week campaign. For the first time the former Vice President talked about his last campaign and about the legacy of Paul Wellstone.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Walter Mondale thinks last fall's plane crash in northeastern Minnesota cost the country much needed national debate on critical public policy issues.

"It meant that his voice was gone, which we sure have needed the last couple of years, when I think we've been led by government that is sometimes arrogant; taking steps that I think are ill advised," Mondale said. "Paul would have spoken out. His voice was silent."

Larger view
Image Mondale accepts nomination

Until now, Mondale has made few public comments about his brief return to politics last fall.

Within hours of the plane crash that killed Paul Wellstone and the others, Mondale says it became apparent that, at 74 years old and almost two decades away from his last campaign, his reputation made him the logical choice to step into the Senate race.

"I don't think it's arrogant, but it was just a kind of a cruel predicament. There was really no one else who could quite do anything in that one week," reflected Mondale. "So I think it more of less became a consensus that I should run."

Five days after the plane crash, DFL activists gathered at the Historic State Theater in downtown Minneapolis to unanimously crown Mondale their candidate.

To the roar of Democrats, Mondale gracefully navigated through the major issues of what had been the Wellstone-Coleman campaign. Like Wellstone, Mondale pledged to protect Social Security, and the environment, and to work toward fair tax policy.

I have a greater appreciation for what he was trying to accomplish.
- Sen. Norm Coleman

Mondale also picked up where Wellstone left off on the divisive debate over the war on terrorism, telling delegates to the special meeting, "Iraq is dangerous, but going it alone is too."

Looking back, Mondale says ramping up his one-week campaign was challenging.

"I tried to quickly outline where I stood so that that could be a message that could be used around the state and I don't think that was very difficult," Mondale said. "One thing that proved difficult toward the end of the campaign is that there were different issues around that I was not as familiar with that were starting to press themselves on us where I had to do a quick take and quick read and that sort of thing."

Mondale traveled Minnesota on campaign bus tour. At most of his stops, including an appearance at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Mondale underscored, if elected, he would immediately be thrust into a position of power in Washington.

"A vice president who returns to the Senate is automatically a part of the Senate leadership."

It was a joy, Mondale says, to reconnect with supporters. It was also very difficult to campaign under the circumstances.

"Any kind of normal human being, having suffered a tragedy like this, would want to spend significant time trying to get over the tragedy. But the way the political calendar was pushed on us with so little time yet to go you had to quickly turn around psychologically and suddenly get political and try to make your case in the few days remaining," Mondale said. "I hope I did alright, but I know it was tough for me emotionally because part of me felt you shouldn't be doing this now."

Even before Mondale's bid became official, his campaign took a blow, many political analysts think, could very well have cost Democrats the race.

The night before Mondale's nomination, a memorial service for the victims of the plane crash held at the University of Minnesota, turned into something of a political rally.

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics with the tragedy, largely because Wellstone's friend and campaign treasurer's pleadings with the crowd.

"We are begging you all to help us win the Senate election for Paul Wellstone," Rick Kahn said.

Mondale says the service was largely appropriate, but that mistakes were made. He refuses to publicly speculate as to whether he would have won, absent memorial service fallout.

Larger view
Image Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

"I'd just like to repeat on that what I said the morning after that. I take responsibility for what happened. It was my campaign and I did the best I could. On the memorial service, I think most of it was just fine, but there was a couple of remarks that went over the edge and were received as political, instead of in the spirit of memorial that people wanted. But I also think it's very important that we remember that one the few occasions where that occurred, the people who did it had just lost everything. They were in about as sad a situation as you could imagine. These were no scripted speeches and they, just like all of us, kind of lost control for a while."

Sen. Norm Coleman, D-Minn,, says he's thought a lot about last year's campaign. "The circumstances surrounding my election were just so surreal, so strange that there's a lot reflection."

Amid the memorial service analysis, Coleman says he doesn't know exactly why he won.

"Whether it's providence, whether it's God, whether it's what you bring to the table, I don't know. All I know is that we worked very, very hard; non-stop in those last five days."

Coleman says he now understands why Wellstone choose to run for the third term he had previously said he would not seek.

"It's easy when you're on the outside you look in and say, 'Oh they want to be part of this club,'" says Coleman. "But when you're there and you see the opportunity to touch people's lives, it's so unique. And I could see Paul Wellstone and understand even better now -- and certainly with his passion -- and what he wanted to do for people that this was a place to do it. So as I kind of look back on where he was at and where I am at, we bring some different visions and difference approaches but the Senate is a unique place to make a difference in people's lives and I have a greater appreciation for what he was trying to accomplish."

Walter Mondale says more than anything Paul and Sheila Wellstone's legacy lies in their attention to most vulnerable and often overlooked people.

"The two of them really were almost unique in American politics," Mondale said.

"They always wanted to spend time with people who needed to be heard and weren't being heard. So I think that kind of sympathetic political connection where it's not just sympathy but practical efforts being made, the voices being raised in the halls of power that we will remember Paul for, his standing up and fighting I think that's, those are the sorts of things they'll be remembered for. They've left a real legacy not only in Minnesota but in the country."

Vice President Walter Mondale says he still has not gotten over the deaths of Paul and Sheila Wellstone.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects