There was a time when I took enormous pride in the quality of candidates that Minnesota elected to high public office.
Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, Al Quie and Don Fraser, Bill Frenzel and Bob Bergland — all impressive public servants and students of government. Most of them had experience in state or local government, they had won the trust of their constituents and they had grappled with important public policy questions.
During my nearly 40 years as a Minnesota political reporter and commentator, I interacted extensively with most of these folks and came to respect them. One can appreciate a well-researched, well-thought-out position, whether it comes from the left or the right.
Over the last several decades, however, Minnesota voters too often have chosen not the most qualified candidate, but the most famous. We have become infatuated with celebrities!
Think back to some of the officeholders we have chosen: Rod Grams (TV anchor), elected to Congress and then the U.S. Senate in the early 1990s; Jesse Ventura (ex-wrestler and radio talk show host), elected governor in 1998; Al Franken (comedian and humor writer), elected U.S. senator in 2008, and Jason Lewis (radio talk show host), elected to Congress in 2016.
Of course, Minnesota is not alone. American voters have elected celebrities such as Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono and the beat (er … the list) goes on.
“Americans love celebrities; Americans hate politicians,” commentator Eleanor Clift observed in the Daily Beast. “Those sentiments gave us Donald Trump, fresh from the set of ‘The Apprentice,’ and proudly unschooled in the art of politics.”
Exactly what political and government experience did Minnesota’s celebrity pols bring to the table? Nothing. What did they learn about our political norms, standards and values? Very little. What did they contribute to the betterment of our state and nation? You tell me.
In varying degrees, all of them have embarrassed the voters who elected them.
The late Sen. Grams, who struck me as a very nice guy, seemed like a fish out of water. His legislative accomplishments were sparse, and he had some well-publicized issues involving his marriage and family. His staff spent most of their time keeping Grams walled off from the press, lest we ask any tough questions.
Ventura, who was not a very nice guy, was the first governor in Minnesota history to try to personally profit while serving as governor. He wrote books, officiated at a pay-for-view wrestling event and pursued other moneymaking ventures. Ventura’s saving grace was that he didn’t really want to be governor. He just emerged occasionally to play governor.
Lewis probably hasn’t had enough time in office to demonstrate his political worth or lack thereof. I will say I once had a protracted discussion with him about health care, during which he demonstrated a pronounced lack of understanding of the issue. When it comes to “alternative facts,” Lewis was way ahead of his time.
Franken came to Minnesotans with some clear warning labels — chief among them, his crude definition of “humor.” He had, after all, proposed a “comedy” skit that involved drugging and raping CBS reporter Lesley Stahl. Very funny … and very senatorial, indeed! Franken’s explanation: He was a comedy writer and he was “just doing my job.”
It turns out that Franken’s moral values apparently were flawed in other ways as well, as we have now learned from a half-dozen or more women. And his explanations and apologies were feeble at best.
There is a lot to be said for aspiring politicians starting out at the local level, knocking on doors, talking to their neighbors and addressing their concerns. It’s not a perfect process, but it prepares candidates far better than fulminating on talk radio, performing on TV or otherwise achieving celebrity status.
Franken acknowledged as much Thursday in his Senate floor speech announcing his resignation. “I did not grow up wanting to be a politician,” he said. “I came to this relatively late in life. I had a lot to learn on the fly. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun.”
Steven Dornfeld, a retired journalist, worked for both the Minneapolis Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press.