Kennedy Funeral: “Wellstone Memorial on Steroids”?

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There’s been a lot of speculation that the death of Teddy Kennedy will somehow make passing health care reform easier by pulling at Republican senators’ heartstrings. This is wishful thinking, and it’s not going to happen.

The crucial example in this case is the death of progressive giant Paul Wellstone just before the 2002 election. Wellstone’s memorial service was a sort of rally, a tribute to the life he led and the causes he so passionately supported. It was liberal and political. It was, presumably, as he would have wanted. But Republicans slammed the memorial, criticizing its “politicization.” (One of the speakers who “politicized” the event was Wellstone’s son, Mark.)

Conservatives are already starting to warn that Kennedy’s funeral will be a “Wellstone memorial on steroids,” as Instapundit wrote. Al Franken, who now holds Wellstone’s senate seat, wrote a chapter in his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them about the memorial. In a piece about similar dynamics surrounding Coretta Scott King’s funeral in 2006, Franken explained:

The chapter was mainly about how cynically Republicans used the memorial politically as they complained that the Democrats had used it politically. And how the mainstream media, many of whom had neither attended the memorial nor seen it on TV, bought into the Republican spin.

Mainly, there was a lot of lying. Rush Limbaugh claimed that the audience was “planted,” when, in fact, Twin Cities’ radio and TV had to tell people to stay away because Williams Arena was jammed to capacity three hours before the Memorial was scheduled to begin. Thousands were crowded into an overflow gym to watch on a screen and thousands watched outside on a cold, late October night.

A pained Limbaugh asked his audience the day after the memorial: “Where was the grief? Where were the tears? Where was the memorial service? There wasn’t any of this!”

This was a lie. I was there. Along with everyone else, I cried, I laughed, I cheered. It was, to my mind, a beautiful four-hour memorial.


It was the Republicans that tried to cheapen Paul Wellstone’s life by dishonoring his death. It was the right-wing media, not the friends and family who spoke at the memorial or the people who came to it, that seized an opportunity to use a tragedy for political gain.

Now Ted Kennedy isn’t even buried and you can see the same narrative reemerging. I wrote below that Kennedy’s funeral will be an important moment in the history of the Democratic party and the nation. It’s true. Democrats, especially the president, are going to face a choice on that day. Will they confine their eulogies and their speeches to talking about Teddy’s life? Or will they talk about what Teddy lived for: Democratic politics, liberal policies, and making people’s lives better. If it’s the latter, they better be ready. Because if President Obama goes out and says the obvious: that the best way to honor Ted Kennedy’s life is to complete his quest for health care reform, you’ll hear the inevitable holier-than-thou criticism from the right: “How dare you politicize something like this!” 

When it’s politically convenient, the Norm Colemans and Rush Limbaughs of the world like to pretend they are the protectors of the legacies of the Ted Kennedys and Paul Wellstones and Coretta Scott Kings of the world. But Norm Coleman was no Paul Wellstone, and the people who will be telling you to “be respectful” and ignore Ted Kennedy’s most closely-held beliefs and values are sure as heck no Ted Kennedys. Don’t believe it for a minute. 

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