Arne Carlson longs for the days of compassion

"The purpose of government is to make life a little better for other people," says the state's 37th governor.

"The purpose of government is to make life a little better for other people," says the state's 37th governor.

The 13-year-old boy from a working class Swedish family in the Bronx peered at the class list posted on the wall. Something had to be wrong. His name was there staring back at him with a class assignment at The Choate School.


Earlier in the day, he'd taken a pair of two-hour tests. The first covered grammar, the second algebra. He'd never heard of either word during his own schooling.

The young Arne Helge Carlson had registered the lowest scores on both proficiency tests in the history of the prestigious prep school located in in Wallingford, Connecticut, whose alumni include President John F. Kennedy and actor Paul Giamatti.

Thinking he had already flunked out of school before the first day of class, Carlson returned to his room. He cried "on the inside" as he packed his bags and waited for someone from the school to take him to the station where he would catch the six o'clock train and return to his New York City life of indigence.  

Nobody came. "Maybe they forgot about me," he thought.


Kids were milling about. More time passed. Carlson decided to follow his peers into the mess hall for dinner. He would graduate from the storied institution four years later in 1953.

It's now an overcast weekday morning inside an eatery along the I-394 strip. Besides an impending knee replacement surgery scheduled for later this summer, Minnesota's 37th governor is a spirited 80-years-old. He looks good and speaks better despite a raspy voice caused by the steroids he's taking to knock down the inflammation in the gimpy joint.

In between bites of breakfast, Carlson, who fills his days with blogging, meetings, and swimming laps or biking, shows he hasn't lost his A-game.

"I think government has to realize it's in the business of humanity," he says. "I think it has a tremendous obligation to help people help themselves and help them succeed. That's why the stadium thing is offensive. It's not offensive because we built the stadium. It's offensive because through incompetence the wrong person became enriched and the wrong people are paying for it. You can't have money constantly override everything else and that's what's happening to us."

Whether it's the Vikings' stadium debacle, the loss of humanity in today's politics, or the "imperious" attitude wielded by too many businesspeople and lawmakers, Carlson talks as if he never left the governor's mansion.

How do we pad Zygi Wilf's net worth at the same time "we in February had 2,500 children living in parks homeless?" asks Carlson "And we say we're a caring, compassionate society. That bothers me." 

Back in 1995, then-Governor Carlson and wife Susan had bailed on the Summit Avenue address. They were spending the weekend at their private home on a canal in Forest Lake. On Saturday afternoon, there was a knock on the door.

Neighbors, he thought.  A young mother and her son stood before him. When the woman finally stopped apologizing for disturbing him on the weekend, she related how a pending change in caregiver rules by his Department of Human Services was going to affect her autistic son.

"One of the rules we were promulgating at the time was to professionalize caregivers," he says. "In her case, a teenage girl, who really connected with her son — and who, by the way, wanted to get into the profession of caring for kids like him — would no longer be permitted to care for him. Now, what we were promulgating was going to affect her and her son on two levels. First, financially. But second and far more important, it was going to result in taking away somebody, a caregiver who had really connected with an autistic child."

Carlson pledged he would find an exception to the new rule. He called DHS.


"I haven't got a clue as to what it was, but I know it was there. I was able to call this woman back and tell her we'd made an exception," he says.

Every year around the holidays over the four years that followed, Carlson received a lollipop Christmas tree. A present from the autistic boy. 

"I've never forgotten that," Carlson says. "What it brings home is laws can be rigid and applied in a rigid fashion. But the purpose of government is to make life a little better for other people.… I think we lose this when we get this imperious attitude."

He cites two prime examples. 

When the University of Minnesota was called out for its treatment of psychiatric patients, President Eric Kaler didn't express compassion. He lawyered up. When questions were raised about the transparency of the negotiations involving the football stadium deal, politicians with Governor Mark Dayton leading the pack, didn't step up, they fled. 

"I don't understand these people who become so smug and so arrogant that somehow they have the entire truth and they don't have to listen to anybody," says Carlson. 

Tonight the former governor will crash around a quarter past ten o'clock unless there's a good Carol Burnett rerun on channel 246. He'll be up at five. 

He understands that in these times, when so many Minnesotans are enjoying the good 'ol days, how humility might escape a state, a city, an individual. It's easy to get lost.

He's here to remind us.

"I grew up in World War II and the Depression and the butcher was always giving people a break.… it reflected something that is bigger, and it's that we're all in this together," Carlson says. "Everybody has a break. You name me any person who's been successful and I'll name you a person who was the recipient of an invisible hand that came down and helped them. We're all blessed in a sense that we had help in getting where we are. We owe. We just owe. And we should pay it back."

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