The Minnesota Model—Unglued

After more than 50 years at center stage in American politics and government, Minnesota has been relegated to the supporting cast in the nation’s capitol at the beginning of the 21st century. The North Star State’s once-impressive Washington presence has dwindled. A host of nationally prominent figures of both parties who have played leading roles in all three branches of government pass from the scene.

Consider: Since 1948, Minnesota has given the nation two vice presidents and two Democratic presidential nominees; two other serious presidential hopefuls, including the standard bearer of the Vietnam anti-war movement; two secretaries of Agriculture, a secretary of Commerce and a secretary of Labor; a Chief Justice of the United States and an Associate Justice; a Director of Central Intelligence; a White House economic adviser, an executive editor of the Washington Post who became U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations; a host of powerful Congressmen and top federal bureaucrats; and, more recently, the nation’s most visible governor.

Minnesota’s disproportionate influence on American politics and government is a thing of the past, and not likely to be restored soon. This realization was underscored by several events in recent months: Paul Wellstone’s death, Walter Mondale’s defeat, and the passing of two other legends of Minnesota politics.

For Mondale, who followed his mentor Hubert Humphrey into the vice presidency in 1976, eight years after Humphrey had left it, his failed attempt to return to the Senate in 2002 was a stinging defeat that marked not only the end of his long and distinguished political career, but the end of an era for the once-dominant Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

It all began with Humphrey’s electrifying civil rights speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, in which he urged his party “to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” Humphrey’s speech helped Harry Truman achieve one of the greatest upsets in American political history in the 1948 presidential election, and launched Humphrey on a path that took him from the Senate to the vice presidency and ultimately to an agonizingly narrow loss to Richard Nixon 20 years later.

If Humphrey’s defeat and Mondale’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential campaign, and again to Coleman last year, were signs of Minnesota’s declining influence in national Democratic politics, other recent events show that it’s not just Minnesota’s Democrats whose national influence has declined in recent years: Witness the retirement in January of iconoclastic Independent Gov. Jesse Ventura; the deaths in February of former Governor and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, and Republican Congressman Clark MacGregor; and the outbreak of public protests against the war in Iraq in March without the open support of a single elected official. (Never mind Wellstone as the sole opponent of the Gulf War in ’91. Anyone remember Eugene McCarthy? In fact, when McCarthy returned in late March to his alma mater, Saint John’s University in Collegeville, most students had no idea who he was.)

The names of those who held Minnesota’s banner high and helped shape contemporary American history are legion. In addition to Humphrey, Mondale, McCarthy, Freeman, MacGregor, and Wellstone, they include Congressman and Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland; House Public Works Committee Chairman John Blatnik, Congressman and Gov. Albert Quie; House Ways and Means Committee member William Frenzel, and Congressman and Minneapolis Mayor Donald Fraser; U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger and Associate Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the landmark 1973 abortion decision that still roils the political waters; White House economic adviser Walter Heller; CIA Director William Colby; Assistant Secretary of State and Carnegie Endowment President Thomas Hughes; State Department Inspector General Howard Haugerud; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (and former executive editor of the Washington Post) Russell Wiggins. Each of these political giants is either dead, or fully retired from public service.

No other state, except perhaps California, Texas, and Massachusetts, had a higher profile during this period. Can Minnesota regain its national prominence? Not likely. I offer that judgment from the perspective of a native son who has reported on all these Minnesotans, and worked for one of them—Vice President Mondale—during 38 years in Washington. In October 1965, the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press assigned me to its Washington bureau. Since then, I have served as a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul and Duluth newspapers, press secretary for Vice President Mondale, adviser to the founder of Control Data Corporation, William C. Norris, and as founding editor of The Hill, a newspaper that has covered Congress since 1994.

Although it is tempting to focus on the contributions of Minnesota’s name-brand DFL power brokers, the state has had its fair share of influential Republicans and Independents. In fact, getting past party affiliations helps explain what, exactly, made Minnesota the player it was for half a century.

Although each of our great public servants was vastly different from the others in political outlook and personal style, all embodied the essential elements of what has been called “the Minnesota model,” a kind of political franchise that has played well on the national stage and has served to reinforce the positive image of Minnesota’s political system in the minds of many Americans dating back to at least 1947.

That’s the year author and historian John Gunther, in his classic book Inside USA, devoted an entire chapter to former Governor Harold Stassen and described the origins of Minnesota’s social, political, and economic system. Stassen, a moderate Republican who was only 31 when elected in 1938, wasn’t destined for the White House as Gunther anticipated (in a chapter entitled “Stassen—Young Man Going Somewhere”). Instead, “the boy governor” resigned in 1943 to join the Navy, then served on the U.S. delegation to the 1945 San Francisco conference that created the United Nations.

Hoping to parlay that prestigious appointment into even greater things, Stassen undertook a series of futile campaigns for the presidency in 1948 and 1952—and well into the 1980s—that made his name synonymous with unbridled and unrealistic political ambition. Stassen turned out to be too liberal for the party that would soon be dominated by Southern and Western conservatives. Nevertheless, the reform-minded politician left a legacy of good government and corruption-free politics with which Minnesota is still widely identified. In 1947, Gunther knew something was going on here. “Minnesota is a state spectacularly varied, proud, handsome and progressive,” he wrote. “It is a state pulled toward East and West both, and one always eager to turn the world upside down.”

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