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Who’s Wellstoning Who?

This morning, our Minnesota colleague Paul Schmeltzer noted that a conservative attack line that the coverage of Ted Kennedy’s death would be a “Wellstone memorial on steroids” had “taken off, with pundits on Fox, MSNBC and conservative media piling on.” This afternoon, Ben Smith filed a story on the same topic, naming Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Gary Bauer and some bloggers and activists as “key conservatives” who were charging “that Democrats are inappropriately politicizing the senator’s death, his memorial and his legacy.”

This story is something of a mobius strip. The references to the memorial to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), who died in a plane crash shortly before the November 2002 election, seem to come out of nowhere.

Kennedy’s funeral hasn’t happened yet. Democratic appeals to honor his memory by passing a health care bill have existed, but there haven’t been too many of them; one from MoveOn.org, one from the DCCC, one from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Reporters ask Democrats what effect, if any, Kennedy’s death will have on the health care debate, and unless they’re lying they say it’ll galvanize Democrats. It simply seems gauche for this to be so easily transformed into a scandal of Democrats “exploiting” Kennedy’s death, which the party knew was imminent. And it’s being transformed so easily. Drudge is linking Tim Reid of the UK Times for a story headlined “Democrats accused of using Edward Kennedy’s death to promote reforms.” The accusers? Rush Limbaugh and the president of the Heritage Foundation.

The comparison between the Wellstone funeral and, well, *anything *else, is strange. The 2002 memorial was an unexpected reaction to an unexpected event, and it turned Minnesota politics upside down. Gov. Jesse Ventura (I-Minn.), who had promised to leave Wellstone’s seat open, reversed course and angrily appointed a friend, Dean Barkley, to serve until January 2003. Norm Coleman, who had suspended his campaign to honor Wellstone, re-launched it.

The odds of Kennedy’s funeral turning out similarly seem vanishingly small. And if politics are completely absent from the funeral, it would be highly unusual. President George W. Bush, remember, paid tribute to Ronald Reagan at his funeral by tying Reagan’s foreign policy to his own.

He was optimistic that a strong America could advance the peace, and he acted to build the strength that mission required. He was optimistic that liberty would thrive wherever it was planted, and he acted to defend liberty wherever it was threatened.

And Ronald Reagan believed in the power of truth in the conduct of world affairs. When he saw evil camped across the horizon, he called that evil by its name.

Should Bush have clipped those lines out of his speech for fear of seeming political? No, and it’s ridiculous to suggest as much. In the same way it’s ridiculous to pretend that a few conservative shouters have a veto over how Kennedy’s family should conduct his funeral or how Democrats should honor Kennedy. If anything, as Smith’s piece points out, the pre-emptive cry of “no more Wellstone funerals” tips their hand and defeats their purpose.

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