United They Sit

Minnesota's senators were supposed to be the type to stand up for social programs, the environment, and civil liberties. So why are critics left and right accusing them of lying down on the job?

In late September Mark Dayton picked up the phone and called a local radio talk show with the apparent hope of quelling Minnesotans' fears in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The state's junior senator and a self-proclaimed liberal, he arranged to visit KSTP-AM 1500's St. Paul studios to appear on Post 9/11, a temporary midmorning program that addressed the aftermath of the tragedy.

"We didn't know if we were going to be bombing Afghanistan or what the next step was, so I looked forward to having a U.S. Senator on the show," recalls Ron Rosenbaum, one of the show's hosts and a local attorney who is more properly described as a provocateur than as a liberal or a conservative. It was soon clear, he says, that Dayton was there less to inform listeners of any actual congressional activity than he was to shore up the notion that he was on board in the war against terror.

"Anything we asked him, it was like he had a mantra," Rosenbaum continues. "'I support the president'--that's all he said."

Shawn Barber

Co-host Mark O'Connell, a news-radio veteran, concurs. "He was almost robotic," he says. "He was in a suit, and as nice as could be. But he always came back to supporting the administration and its efforts." The two, along with co-host Dan Conry, a former New York cop, were surprised that Dayton would fall in line so easily with such a conservative administration.

To make matters worse, Senator 100--as Rosenbaum has dubbed Dayton in reference to his lack of seniority in the Senate--seemed to be slightly deficient in his understanding of "geopolitical issues"; complex questions about Afghanistan brought quizzical looks from Dayton, Rosenbaum remembers. After a little discussion, the attorney began to wonder whether the senator had been even keeping up with his newspapers. When the segment was over, the senator left the studio without ever making eye contact with the hosts, they say.

"None of us came away from that interview feeling like we knew more about what was going on," Rosenbaum says with an uneasy chuckle. "In fact, it seemed like we knew less. We were more frightened." It was not, he continues sarcastically, "a confidence-building measure."

Still, the talk-show appearance was notable. At a time when many Americans were looking for leadership, the senators had seemed deafeningly silent. Even their harshest critics concede that the first few weeks after the attacks were hard times to do anything but seek to support a sense of national unity. But even so, both seemed cowed by the conservative currents of life during wartime. "In times like these, some boats rise and some boats sink," Rosenbaum says. "I was going to say our senators are missing in action, but I guess I'd say they are just simply missing."

As those painful weeks lengthen into months, however, the number of political insiders and onetime supporters voicing frustration with Minnesota's famously progressive senators is growing. Can it be, they're asking, that Minnesota, the home of populist legends like Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy, and, yes, even Jesse Ventura, is now represented in Washington, D.C., by a couple of status quo politicians?

 

In the days and weeks after the attacks, White House officials and lawmakers alike were eager to appear hawkish. Talking centered on preventing another attack and fighting terrorism on our own shores. To that end, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was pushing a far-reaching anti-terrorism bill. He wanted Congress to grant federal agents unprecedented authority to tap phones; monitor computers, e-mail, and Internet use; and crack down on money-wiring services--all things that in other times have been considered violations of people's basic rights.

On October 11, the day the bill was to be debated in the Senate, panicked civil libertarians spent hours lobbying lawmakers. They were concerned that few senators knew that Ashcroft was working last-minute changes into the legislation. Though they pressed Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, to strike down the bill's most draconian provisions, the only senator who expressed any sympathy was Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold.

At 8:00 p.m., the Patriot Act hit the Senate floor. Feingold had reserved an hour to speak against the bill and propose three amendments severely limiting surveillance powers to be granted to the FBI and CIA. A handful of other senators also wanted floor time; Paul Wellstone reserved ten minutes.

Wellstone began by expressing appreciation for the "time and energy" his colleagues had put into the drafting of the bill. He praised two of Feingold's provisions, which mostly authorized grants to local governments to "respond to and prevent acts of terrorism," including the purchase of "needed equipment," and to provide more training to firefighters and emergency personnel. The week before, he added, he had traveled to Moorhead, Mankato, and Rochester and spoken with firefighters about their needs.

Despite some misgivings--namely provisions allowing federal authorities to use "roving wiretaps" on "multiple communications devices"--Wellstone urged immediate support for the bill. "Although I still have some reservations about certain provisions of the bill as they might affect civil liberties, I am pleased with the inclusion of several civil-liberty safeguards," he said. "Nearly all of us have said since September 11 that if that day's terror is allowed to undermine our democratic principles and practices, then the terrorists have won a victory. We should pass this bill today."

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