[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
Phoenix Woman, Host:
Jay Weiner’s book is to my knowledge the first on a race and recount that captured the nation’s (or at least the press’) attention throughout much of 2009. Unfortunately, I suspect that it is likely to be the only one, as the media has long since moved on to other things. This is a pity as the race was too big a happening to be covered fully by just one book, even one written by MinnPost’s Jay Weiner.
The U.S. Senate race in Minnesota in 2008 was indeed a historic event, but not altogether unprecedented. In fact, its course and outcome were largely dictated not by Marc Elias, Fritz Knaak or any of the high-profile players in the recount that followed, but by how Minnesota’s legislators responded to similarly-close races in the past. While altogether too much of the airwaves and too many computer and TV screens were taken up by self-proclaimed experts simultaneously bemoaning the “chaos” (and who used language remarkably similar to those Republican operatives and their media pals who were urging Al Gore to just give it up already back in December of 2000), persons who were old enough to have taken an active interest in Minnesota politics in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s were calmly and accurately predicting what would happen next and why it would happen. The law and the procedures for following it were and are, despite the shrieking of the talking heads, quite clear for the most part; the error of the talking heads was to confuse lengthy and painstaking deliberations with unendurable chaos.
While Weiner does a very good job at providing a tightly-focused “you are there” perspective to his narrative, doing an almost hour-by-hour retelling of the major occurrences of the recount, there are things that of necessity get left out of his slim tome, things that the tight focus on day-to-day events does not allow tend to get neglected; one of these things being the climate, culture and legal framework that made the recount possible. It was in large part the work of Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor governor, Rudy Perpich, and the DFL state legislature of the early 1980s that made possible the relatively orderly progress of the recount. Joan Growe, the secretary of state from 1975 to 1999, set up an elections system capable of withstanding the worst insults inflicted upon it by Mary Kiffmeyer, who thankfully had been succeeded by the upright and capable Mark Ritchie in 2007. (How bad was Kiffmeyer? Among other things, she worked to have fellow Republican Tom Heffelfinger removed from his U.S. Attorney appointment because he’d complained about her efforts to suppress the vote on college campuses and Native American reservations, groups that tend to vote for Democrats when they do vote. ) Ritchie had just finished cleaning up Kiffmeyer’s messes when he was confronted by the Franken-Coleman recount; to his lasting credit, he did not let the constant stream of verbal abuse, harassment and death threats from Republicans in and out of Minnesota rattle him, but did his job for the most part calmly and effectively, something Weiner does have the space to document.
Another thing that gets somewhat short shrift, again no doubt because there’s only so much that can fit into a 288-page book, is the essential Minnesotan essence of Al Franken, and the thread of involvement in Minnesotan affairs that runs through his adult life. One thing that has always irritated me (and I hasten to add that Weiner is not guilty of promoting this frame) is the standard media narrative that the New York transplant Norm Coleman, whose wife spends most of her time in Los Angeles looking for acting jobs and promoting her various business enterprises such as Blo-n-Go, is a genuine Minnesotan; whereas Franken, who not only was born and grew up in Minnesota but kept up his contacts with the state –particularly with Paul Wellstone, who he knew and admired long before Wellstone’s death in 2002 — during his years living and working elsewhere, is (again per the standard media narrative) framed as a carpetbagger from New York and/or Hollywood. Yet it was Al Franken who, when the national Democratic party had written off the underdog progressive Democrat Wellstone in 1990, came and did two fundraisers for Wellstone that kept his scrappy underdog campaign going against the forces of incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz, who had $11 million – a tremendous sum for a Senate candidate at the time – with which to bludgeon Wellstone. Wellstone went on to shock the world by winning the election, but he couldn’t have done it without Al Franken.
All in all, Weiner’s book is an engaging read, and I hope that there’s still enough interest in the subject to allow him to do a fuller, revised and broader-focuses edition in the future.