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Wasn't That a Party

There were so many poignant and stirring episodes in the Democrats' election-night bacchanal at the St. Paul Radisson that one would be hard pressed to name a single highlight. For some it was surely the moment when a fiery Buck Humphrey took the stage and ignited the crowd with a torrent of oratory culminating in this exhortation from Mario Savio: "There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you cannot take part; you cannot even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop!"

For others it was Roger Moe's elegant concession speech in the wee hours, in which the elder statesman concluded with this heart-stomper from Robert Browning: "I give the fight up; let there be an end,/a privacy, an obscure nook for me,/I want to be forgotten even by God." When he finished there was not a dry eye in the room.

Okay, so I made all that up. The truth was more pedestrian, the atmosphere more melancholic and undignified. Which isn't to say there weren't memorable moments. There was, for instance, the pathetic and feeble roar that went up at 1:30 a.m. when the big screen TV trumpeted the victory of Democrat Dave Freudenthal in the Wyoming governor's race. Or the desperate cheer that erupted when the televisions showed Missouri's Jean Carnahan stepping to the podium, cheers that quickly dissipated when it became apparent that the widowed senator was not, in fact, claiming victory but conceding defeat.

For most of the night people sat around staring at muted television screens and watching the gloomy truth unfold. What made the scene doubly odd was the fact that the TV stations they watched were very often reporting from the same room the viewers were standing in--yet practically all of them kept on staring at television instead, apparently preferring to hold this particular reality at as far a remove as possible.

Even drunk the Democrats didn't really have it in them to be interesting or eccentric. For the most part it was clear they weren't in the mood to answer questions, let alone ask them. Folks weren't being tight-lipped, exactly; they were just struck dumb. On election night the Democratic Party--in characteristic ass-backward fashion--wound up holding its wake for Paul Wellstone a week after the funeral.

The evening made for grim spectacle almost from the beginning. By 9:30 there was a palpable sense of dread in the room, accompanied by a pervasive reek from what I hoped was neglected cheese trays. A huge ensemble of reporters from electronic media huddled on raised platforms that ringed the room; from this vantage point they spent most of their time sitting with backs turned to Minnesota's beleaguered Democrats, who for their part were staring with rapt horror at television monitors. The print folk hunched over their laptops, surrounded by empty Red Bull cans and bowls of pretzel fragments. Party honchos convened in private rooms or clustered in the hallways talking in hushed tones. At one point a frazzled woman dragged a gaggle of children through the crowd and barked into her headset, "I've got the Mondale kids. Can someone tell me what I'm supposed to do with them?"

Ken Bradley, a DFL organizer and environmental activist, was standing outside the ballroom at 10:15, already engaged in two-fisted drinking. Bradley said he had just talked with former Minneapolis City Council member Jim Niland, who had expressed optimism about some of the numbers that were rolling in: Moe might just squeak by, he said, and Mondale's chances looked good.

Back inside, Sweet Potato Project, an "improvisational ambient" band described on its website as "a consistent favorite with club owners, who may as well send security home due to fans' laid-back vibe," played on a small stage and was mostly ignored. Lead singer Aaron Gorton allowed that the gig, which was booked by local promoter Sue McLean, paid "pretty well." All the same, DFL pooh-bahs may as well have sent the band home.

There was also a twisted nostalgia in the air, as scores of Democrats sported Mondale/Ferraro or Carter/Mondale buttons like so many ratty old concert T-shirts brought out of mothballs for a Rolling Stones concert. But by 11:40, when Mondale and his family took the stage accompanied by the usual diversity mob--union members, children, assorted minorities, and a sampling of the more handsome of the party's volunteers--any whiff of nostalgic triumphalism was long gone. There was near-universal agreement in the room that Eleanor Mondale still looked just fine. Meantime candidate Fritz pledged a long night ahead, which turned out to be the one promise Democrats had no trouble keeping.

By midnight all the valiantly repressed desperation was breaking out in pockets of operatic despair and bursts of inebriated irrationality. On the sidewalk outside the Radisson a woman was screaming into her cell phone, "I heard Saxby Chambliss made his acceptance speech in front of a Confederate flag! I hope somebody throws shit at Saxby Chambliss! I hope somebody anally gang rapes Saxby Chambliss!" A short time later a group of twentysomething males, clutching beer bottles, congregated out front smoking. They exchanged high fives and bellowed to no one in particular, "We're gonna win this shit!"

As Tuesday night lurched into Wednesday morning, the mood turned positively funereal, and the more levelheaded and sober in attendance began formulating half-hearted, and often half-baked, explanations. Interesting how quickly "we" becomes "they" when a party is going down the toilet: "They didn't do enough to expose Norm Coleman for the skeezebag he is," someone said. "They didn't have a message." By now you've already heard it all, and the party line hasn't changed much from the litanies of Black Tuesday.

By 1:30 the crowd in the ballroom had thinned out, and a small group of young people in Wellstone T-shirts made repeated rounds of the half-empty hall waving Mondale and Moe signs and whooping in a wholly unconvincing imitation of life. These outbursts had a dispiriting, boy-who-cried-wolf effect on the remaining people in attendance; the first few times the sign wavers passed through the room, heads turned reflexively toward the large televisions, hopeful that some small bit of good news was being delivered. As this was seldom the case, the desperate efforts of the screechers only seemed cruel and even subversive.

A desultory trickle of party insiders began to flow back into the room in advance of Moe's expected concession speech. Ed Gross, a veteran campaign strategist and party bean counter, admitted that he had gone over the numbers and concluded that Mondale was toast as well.

"Norm was always a major concern of mine," Gross said. "Especially when I looked at the '98 indicators [from the governor's race]. Coleman was clearly popular with conservative Democrats, and that was ignored in this race. Also, as far as Moe is concerned, he spent a lot of time speaking to older voters, and that was a failed strategy. The voters in this state, especially the swing voters, are a lot younger than what Moe's message was going for. He spent millions of dollars appealing to the older voters, the above-55 people, and he did a lot of pissing and moaning about the threat to Social Security, and that was an issue that disengaged the 35-to-55 voter.

"Those people were not addressed effectively by the Moe campaign and that included a lot of swing voters and a lot of the conservative Democrats that you needed to bring on board to win. And Mondale also had a real problem there. Because when you look at the 35-to-45 voter, well, the Father Knows Best campaign is just not where these people are at."

By the time Moe took to the podium it was 2:00 a.m. and the old campaigner took his bow before a hugely diminished audience of a couple hundred beaten souls. Despite the night's disaster, Moe closed by chirping like a man who had just discovered Xanax: "The good news is, by golly, Walter Mondale's gonna win that Senate race!"

Like so many of his Democratic cohorts around the country, he was kidding himself to the bitter end.

 

This story features additional reporting by Mike Mosedale, Britt Robson, and Paul Demko.


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