The Minnesota Model—Unglued

Indeed, the state gave the world the Mississippi River; Paul Bunyan’s forests, and the iron ore that fueled the nation’s steel mills during two World Wars; Charles Lindbergh, Sinclair Lewis, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; civil rights pioneer Roy Wilkins; the brothers Mayo; Spam, Scotch tape, Wheaties, Betty Crocker, Rev. Billy Graham, and the supercomputer; the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads; Northwest Airlines and the Greyhound Bus Co.; the Peanuts gang; sports heroes Bronko Nagurski, George Mikan, and Roger Maris; entertainers Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, and Prince—such a place could hardly avoid producing a yeasty political culture.

Bordered on the north by another country and linked to the rest of the world by the Mississippi and the Great Lakes, Minnesota has always been connected to the rest of the world in a way no other Midwestern state was. Minnesota’s politics and government have been influenced by the anti-Eastern populism of the Non-Partisan League that spilled over from North Dakota and by the reform-minded idealism of the LaFollettes’ Progressive Party in Wisconsin.

The hallmark of the Minnesota Model is an essential decency and pragmatic common sense, coupled with a rejection of corruption and bossism, a distaste for extremist factions, a belief in education as the key to economic opportunity and social stability, a willingness to engage with the rest of the world, and a deep-seated conviction that government exists to improve the lives of all Americans.

Both Democrats and Republicans have been shaped by this public-spirited view of government. As a result, Minnesotans have left their mark on legislation affecting education, organized labor, civil rights, rural America, the environment, international trade, humanitarian assistance programs like Food for Peace and the Peace Corps, and, in the case of McCarthy’s anti-war candidacy, the moral conduct of foreign policy.

It’s instructive to consider the 1946 merger of Minnesota’s urban-dominated Democratic Party, then little more than a patronage-dispensing arm of the Democratic National Committee, and the rural-oriented, radical Farmer Labor Party, which formed the present day Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Both Humphrey and Freeman were instrumental in forging alliances among various rural and inner-city constituencies which made the DFL so dominant until the 1990s. As one might expect, that dominance has since been undermined by the decline of the family farm, the erosion in the ranks of organized labor, and the rise of the affluent exurban areas and their more socially conservative populace. This may present a problem for Minnesota Democrats (and for the Democratic Party nationally) for years to come.

Consider the contributions that Paul Wellstone made to the national political dialogue. Wellstone, who like Humphrey and Coleman came to Minnesota from elsewhere to launch his political career, has been accorded the status of political sainthood since his untimely death. But the fact is that he was a marginal figure in the Senate who was regarded by many colleagues as a gadfly. Nevertheless, there was the definite smack of Minnesota style about him: He won the respect of diametrically opposed Republican senators like Jesse Helms of North Carolina (whom the greenhorn Wellstone had personally attacked shortly after arriving in the Senate), John McCain of Arizona, and Pete Domenici of New Mexico. Like Minnesota legislators of an earlier time, he connected with his colleagues and his constituents the old-fashioned way—by his steadfast adherence to principle, and his passionate pursuit of an unapologetically progressive agenda.

Orville Freeman, who died on February 20 at the age of 84, was one of the Big Four of modern Minnesota politics, along with Humphrey, McCarthy, and Mondale. The son of a Minneapolis clothier who went bankrupt in the Depression, he became involved in politics as an aide to Mayor Humphrey in 1945. After several unsuccessful campaigns for public office, Freeman was elected governor in 1954. Reelected twice, he reorganized the state government and secured increased funding for education, health programs, conservation, and the elderly, as well as landmark civil rights legislation.

He must have been doing something right, because Freeman’s stock rose considerably on the national level. In 1960, John F. Kennedy considered him as a running mate. Freeman gave Kennedy’s nominating speech at the Democratic National Convention (after his old boss Hubert Humphrey dropped out of the race). Ultimately, Freeman was passed over by Kennedy in favor of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson of Texas. Back in his home state, he lost his bid for reelection, partly, it was said, because of his support for a Roman Catholic presidential candidate. In a 1971 interview, Freeman told me that he was convinced he lost votes among Minnesota Lutherans because he went on television to defend Kennedy on the religious issue. But he insisted, “It was one of the best things I ever did.”

Freeman didn’t have to worry about a job, though. Shortly thereafter, President Kennedy named him Secretary of Agriculture, and he served both Kennedy and President Johnson in that capacity. Secretary Freeman was instrumental in implementing the Food for Peace program, expanding the Foreign Agriculture Service, promoting food assistance for poor people in the War on Poverty, and exporting American agricultural products overseas. He remains one of the most respected Cabinet members from the Kennedy-Johnson era.

Ironically, Freeman may have come closer to being president than either Humphrey or Mondale. In the same 1971 interview, Freeman told me how he almost became Kennedy’s vice president, and thus president after Kennedy’s assassination. He said that in 1967, as he and President Johnson were sitting around the pool at Camp David, Johnson said to him, “Jack Kennedy told me that if I had not taken the nomination, he was going to pick you.”

As for MacGregor, who died at age 80 just 10 days before Freeman, he is destined to be remembered as the chairman of President Nixon’s successful but ill-starred re-election campaign in 1972. An amiable and urbane Dartmouth graduate from the affluent western suburbs of Minneapolis, he was a middle-of-the-road Republican who served eight years in the House before being pressed into taking on the hopeless task of trying to stop Humphrey’s bid to return to the Senate in 1970. (MacGregor caused a bit of a furor when he said that if Humphrey were a woman, he’d always be pregnant.)

After his defeat, MacGregor became Nixon’s chief congressional lobbyist. One month before burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate complex, he was named chairman of Nixon’s re-election committee. It was an exquisite case of bad timing, putting him in the unenviable position of defending Nixon as the Watergate scandal unfolded in all its explosive dimensions. Yet, as one after another of Nixon’s top political aides, and ultimately Nixon himself, became victims of the burgeoning scandal, MacGregor was never tainted nor implicated. Indeed, he retired from politics in 1972 with his reputation intact, even as other top Nixon aides were led off to prison. The fact that it was a Minnesota Republican who was the only one among Nixon’s top campaign aides to remain unscathed by the Watergate scandal, speaks volumes about Minnesota’s clean-cut political reputation.

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