Fame is fleeting, prophets are without honor in their own land and idiots rule.

During Tuesday's proceedings at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, a photograph of former Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy was shown during a roll call of the honored dead -- departed stalwarts of the Democratic persuasion who have gone to their rewards since the last convention, four years ago.

It would have made a nice moment. But they called him "Joseph McCarthy."

Some little Democrats should get spanked.

It was as insulting as if they had put up a picture of Ted Kennedy and called him "Dick Cheney," confused Hillary Rodham Clinton with Ann Coulter, or called St. Paul "Minneapolis."

Minnesota's Gene and Wisconsin's Joe shared a surname (though Gene's middle name, ironically, was Joseph), but they were not related and were polar opposites in their political views, their intellectual capabilities and their lasting impact on the landscape. Joe, a Red-baiting Republican demagogue whose tactics paralyzed Washington, was discredited and disgraced and left his name on an era of fear. Gene, a Democratic congressman from St. Paul who didn't move up to the Senate until 1958, the year after Joe McCarthy died, was a McCarthy of a different kind. To mix them up is as ignorant as it is hilarious.

That the Democrats would do so while conjuring the names and trying to capture the luster of some of the party's dearly departed (including Lady Bird Johnson and Gov. Ann Richards) would amuse Gene McCarthy, who died in 2005, at 89.

He challenged the Democratic Party, and he changed it. But he never got credit.

Being called Joe was the final indignity. But what may have been worse is that the Pepsi Center crowd of Obamiaks clapped loudly for Lady Bird but there was only a low murmur of protest when the mislabeled photo of McCarthy came up.

There should have been a big shower of rotten vegetables.

"Unbelievable," said Carol Connolly, the poet laureate of St. Paul and a longtime McCarthy friend. "It's horrible how fast your greatest heroes disappear into the ether. To mix up the great peace leader with a warmonger? That's pathetic."

Connolly pointed out that the fervent support among young people for Barack Obama in today's Democratic Party is reminiscent of the support for McCarthy among young people during the height of the Vietnam War. But McCarthy carried more than "the audacity of hope." He also had the courage of his convictions.

Taking on a president of his own party, McCarthy's insurgent campaign drove Lyndon Johnson from office, lured Robert F. Kennedy into the race and set the stage for a raucous Chicago convention in which an unpopular war and administration were directly and forcefully challenged. No one would wish for a rerun of the chaos of 1968, but 40 years later, the Democrats are opposing another unpopular war without seeming to have the guts to say so directly.

McCarthy was a thorn in the side of the party, a brooding intellectual who irritated as much as he provoked. He never made peace with the party after it rejected him for Hubert Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon. But he deserves better from his old friends, three years after his death, than he got in Denver. He should stand in the pantheon of Democratic giants, not just be lumped in with Lady Bird.

But Minnesota never gets any respect. In 1980, after the death of Humphrey, the former vice president and senator, Jimmy Carter accepted the Democratic nomination to a second term as president (he lost to Ronald Reagan) by saluting the contributions of "a great man who should have been president, who would have been one of the greatest presidents in history: Hubert Horatio Hornblower."

You know: That guy who grew up in South Dakota, became a druggist, got elected mayor of Minneapolis and went on to be lord admiral of the British Navy.

"This is flyover country for a lot of people," says Matt Lindstrom, a political science professor who is director of the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University in Collegeville, near McCarthy's hometown of Watkins. "It's a shame some low-level staffer with little historic knowledge thought it was Joe McCarthy, not Gene. It probably made it through spellcheck, so he thought it was OK. It was spelled right."

Our McCarthy was one of the few in Congress who stood up to Wisconsin's McCarthy, Lindstrom says. Our guy also supported national health insurance in 1948, when he left his teaching position at the College of St. Thomas to run for Congress. "He was clearly ahead of his time and should be an inspiration to Democrats today," Lindstrom says.

The McCarthy Center, which opened last year, embraces all political philosophies and affiliations. Lindstrom says its purpose is to "honor and emulate" McCarthy's legacy and to be "a catalyst for intellectual growth and inspiration in terms of politics and policies. It's a vehicle to help challenge the status quo and guide students to find their path into civic affairs and life."

In the end, that's a more fitting tribute than a picture in a slide show -- even if it was labeled correctly. Still, the Democrats should be ashamed of themselves.

Or my name is not Norm Coleman.

ncoleman@startribune.com • 612-673-4400