Knock, knock

Memories of a political education, 12 years later

Back in 1990, I was one of the brigade, the door-knocking, fund-raising foot soldiers for Paul Wellstone. I was good at it. I think my natural stand-up comedy stage demeanor – non-threatening, smile-heavy, a thin veneer of intelligence – worked well in the door-knocking game.

All these many years later some encounters still stand out, including a few with the fabulously wealthy.

For example, over in St. Paul on Summit Avenue, one warm summer evening, I clambered up the stone front steps of a splendid four-story piece of Midwest monumentalism, feeling unworthy, like Frodo at Rivendell, and pulled a chain that rang a distant chime. The weathered, dignified man who opened the door had, at age 80, the unmistakable presence of one who had once played linebacker. I mentioned Paul Wellstone. "Paul Wellstone!" he thundered. "He just wants to take all our money and give it to people who don’t work for it!"

At that moment, in the face of his mighty certainty, I could kind of see what he meant. But more striking was how the very concept of Paul Wellstone made him so angry. I think it had to do with hard work, in which he really believed. "As does Paul Wellstone…" I began, but the force of the slammed oaken door blew me the 40 yards back out to the street.

That attitude was not universal among the rich. Over here in Minneapolis, up by Lake of the Isles, I ran into plenty of Wellstone enthusiasts. There was the doctor’s wife (so said the check) in the home I’m pretty sure was once a wing of the British Museum. There was the short, solid fellow in the low-slung modernist manse who came to the door in a silk smoking robe nursing a tumbler of single-malt– Lagavulin, I’m guessing. With his aura of reined-in power he called to mind Bob Hoskins’ mob boss in "The Long Good Friday." Carelessly, almost sneeringly, he scribbled a check for $27,000 (or perhaps slightly less) and headed back inside to pleasure Helen Mirren.

I’m not sure why he and others up there gravitated to Wellstone, although I think it’s possible that some Kenwood-style super-rich consider themselves urban pioneers, more honest and funkier than their Wayzata and Orono cousins.

Most days, of course, we didn’t work in places like Kenwood. We were assigned more modest neighborhoods, the kind where people actually live. In fact one evening I found myself in the vicinity of my future and current home, east of Penn and south of 54th, in Kenny, although I didn’t know that name back then. I was still a Wedge beatnik. For some reason, I had a tough night. I took in $12 or something. And for the second time I ran into elderly anger at the words "Paul Wellstone."

This time from a woman, older and frailer, in a far smaller house, and yet the power of her rage was no smaller. There was just something about Paul Wellstone that set her off.

Later that night at the Leaning Tower I complained to my funny and not-so-funny pals that these people seemed "too busy living their lives to pay attention to anything." In other words I was blaming the neighborhood, just like a bad comedian will blame an unresponsive crowd. ("Have you just considered the idea that you’re not very funny?" No one ever says that.)

What I realize now, of course, is that my complaint about busy-ness held a clue to understanding the woman’s fury. It again had to do with working hard. She, like her soul-brother over on Summit, suspected instinctively that Paul Wellstone represented a key to a locked box of societal laziness, that he would lead to a plague of even more people who want it all handed to them rather than work hard and earn it, honestly.

Hard work and honesty: those were two characteristics you heard most about Paul Wellstone after he died. That’s why public men cried in public at his death.

So I guess those old people were right: the "hard work and honesty" combination must be getting real rare. I don’t know if that’s surprising, but it’s definitely noteworthy.