Six years ago, my wife and I slid into the bleachers at our local community college to see a debate between Paul Wellstone and Norm Coleman. Sunday night, I slid into those same bleachers to hear the first scheduled debate among Al Franken, Dean Barkley and Norm Coleman, but this time I was attending without my wife. We were childless then, but now we have two young children. We have bills, and we didn’t want to pay for a sitter.


I remember only a little about the last debate. I remember how I was struck by Wellstone’s pressed dark blue business shirt and tie — you sort of expected to see him in a sweater. I remember the strange vulnerability that hovered over him at the time — how he had decided to break his pledge to serve only two terms, and how he had recently announced that he had M.S., and how he had taken the lonely decision to vote against the Iraq war resolution. Perhaps all that has happened has made the six years seem like an eternity.

For the debate last Sunday I wore my decidedly nonpartisan Adrian Peterson jersey (it’s a small town), filed into the uppermost bleachers, and anxiously awaited a chance to begin to make sense of the incomprehensibility that has been the last six years in this country. Coleman looked older up close, game for the battle but a little too lean for a man of his age and almost ashen. Dean Barkley appeared like a stranger burdened with dire if gnawingly pertinent prognostications about our nation’s books. And then there was Al Franken, unsuccessful at staying on the sidelines yet successful in keeping a lid on what must surely be the primary motivation for his decision to get into the race: grief, like all of us, over a terrific loss.

I wondered whether Paul, sitting at the same long table six years earlier, could haveimagined the six years that have followed. Iraq and Abu Ghraib. The no-WMD embarrassment and the horror of the big bridge collapsing under all those good people. And now this stomach-turning episode with the banks. Could he have imagined how we would collectively begin to sag, and how seven out of 10 of us would come to feel as though we had woken up in the political equivalent of being trapped in an abusive marriage? He surely couldn’t have imagined the chaos that followed his death: The listless entering of Walter Mondale’s name onto the ballot, the curious spectacle of his memorial and its use as a football within the echo chamber; then the way the state just sort of exhaled and let the ambitious mayor of St. Paul have his wish.

Two of the candidates remembered Wellstone on Monday, but not the candidate you would think. Barkley explained how he had used his short appointment in the Senate to set in motion the building of a community center in Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s name. Coleman made mention of his vote for the bailout package that had placed the Paul Wellstone Mental Health Parity Act into law, Paul’s way of avenging the "snake pit" of a mental institution his brother had once been thrown into. But Franken did not make mention of our ghosts, of that which Robert Bly calls "the long bag we drag behind us." He worked soberly to connect Coleman to the pain of the years that have passed since 2002. But the scale of that pain ultimately undercut his efforts. Coleman may have been along for the ride, but this has been Biblical. We even had a flood.

My mother in law lives on the 35th floor of the Galtier Tower in St. Paul. She lives in a lovely condo overlooking the small airport where the Wellstones lifted their feet from terra firma for the last time. The view is spectacular, but whenever I take it in I can’t help but think of the family, their friends and the two pilots. I picture a woman who is nervous of flying, a group of wary travelers with a funeral awaiting them at the other end of a rainy runway, an event on the calendar. Would he have won? Does the candidate who did win wish he had won differently?

It is Shakespearean, our Minnesota tragedy. But we cannot see it at this time. All we can see are these events on our calendars.

Paul Scott is a writer in Rochester.