War Torn

As a young radical, Norm Coleman protested the Vietnam War. Now his support for the Iraq quagmire may swallow his political career.

Herbert Rosenbaum, a political science professor at Hofstra, compares his onetime student to the character Ralph in The Lord of the Flies. "He had the conch in the form of a bullhorn," Rosenbaum says. "He put himself forward and he was able to influence other people to come along with him."

Tom Buggeln enrolled at Hofstra in 1968 after serving five years in the Navy, including a stint in Vietnam. He resented what he viewed as the privileged college kids protesting the war and lambasting U.S. policies. Buggeln allied himself with Young Americans for Freedom—a conservative campus group associated with William F. Buckley—and frequently clashed with Coleman.

Buggeln remembers one particularly heated confrontation with Coleman after some antiwar students roughed up an ally who was distributing literature on campus. "I went to him and I bitched about it, and we got into it," recalls Buggeln, now a sheriff's deputy in Maricopa County, Arizona. The dustup culminated in Buggeln slapping Coleman across the face, giving him a bloody lip. "He ran down the hall screaming, 'First blood of the revolution!' or some shit like that."

Although Coleman styled himself as a hippie, he had no shortage of ambition. He successfully ran for president of the student senate during his junior year, and adeptly cultivated a network of professors and administrators. "Just like he has access to Bush now, he had access to those people," says Carolyn Sofia, who was co-editor-in-chief of the Hofstra Chronicle student newspaper during Coleman's senior year.

In the spring of 1970, Coleman picked a fight with the Chronicle, which had been critical of his decisions. Coleman thought that the senate should have greater influence over the direction of the newspaper, which was partially funded through student fees. In years past, the newspaper's staff had elected its editors, with the senate's approval a mere formality. But under Coleman, the senate refused to ratify Sofia and her co-editor, Martin Skrocki, and even cut $600 in funding to feed newspaper staffers working late nights on deadline. The Chronicle ran a special edition featuring blank pages to protest the senate's meddling. "We looked at this as a power grab, basically," says Skrocki, who now works in pubic relations.

The Coleman-led senate eventually approved Skrocki, but insisted at least one of the editors be selected by the student legislative body. But after refusing to swear in Sofia on four different occasions, the senate finally backed down.

"From my point of view, Norman wanted to take over the Chronicle," says Sofia, who now teaches writing at Stony Brook University. "He wanted to be a politician and control the press at the same time."

The other hallmark event of Coleman's college political life occurred at the close of the 1969-70 school year. The Nixon administration had recently invaded Cambodia, and campuses across the country erupted in civil disobedience. On May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four unarmed students at Kent State University. Nationwide, violent clashes broke out between students and police on 26 campuses.

At Hofstra, students staged a campus-wide strike. Protesters took over the student center and the main administration building. Classes were canceled and many professors held teach-ins.

"Everybody went nuts," recalls Buggeln. "A lot of the faculty joined, and the university was effectively shut down."

Coleman was at the forefront of the unrest, but his triumph in shutting down the school was short-lived. When students returned to campus in the fall, they voted to replace Coleman with Paul Hearne, a wheelchair-bound student who went on to help draft the Americans with Disabilities Act before dying in 1998.

With graduation from Hofstra looming in 1971, Coleman faced the unhappy prospect of being drafted. But the antiwar activist flunked his physical. He was deemed too skinny to fight.

 

More than a decade after those tumultuous times, Herbert Rosenbaum was visiting family in the Twin Cities. Flipping through channels one morning, he came upon a public affairs show featuring the familiar face of Norman Coleman. The former student was now a prosecutor with the Minnesota Attorney General's Office.

"I was surprised because he took a very hard, law-and-order line," Rosenbaum says. "I said to myself, 'He is on the move. He is obviously on the move.'"

Indeed, Coleman's career had been on a steady upward trajectory since his shaggy-haired Hofstra days. Following graduation, he briefly worked in the administration of New York Mayor John Lindsay, who famously converted from Republican to Democrat. Coleman then earned a law degree from the University of Iowa, further nursing his political ambitions by winning election as student body president.

Shortly after graduating, Coleman landed in Minnesota, taking a job as a prosecutor working for state Attorney General Warren Spannaus. Coleman stayed at the agency for 17 years, rising to the post of solicitor general and honing his law-and-order bona fides.

Coleman's return to politics came in 1989, when he sought the DFL endorsement for St. Paul mayor. He lost the endorsement to Jim Scheibel and subsequently became a fierce critic of Mayor Schiebel's administration, laying the groundwork for another campaign. After the embattled mayor opted not to run for re-election, Coleman again sought the DFL endorsement and again lost—this time to Andy Dawkins.

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