October 26, 2004

Cry Satire!

Brian "Saint Paul" Ward, perhaps one of the Twin Cities' most capable satirists, turns his pen on WELLSTONE!, a documentary about the late senator who was killed in a plane crash two years ago yesterday. This piece in the Strib, written under the pen name Susan Lenfestey, is as deft a skewering of the myopia, the provincialism, and the disabling paranoida of Twin Cities left as any I've ever seen.

Saint starts:

"Wellstone!", the locally made documentary about the lives of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, is both a comfort and a painful reminder of all that was lost two years ago today in the piney bogs of northern Minnesota.
And, thanks to Brian's deft satire, we'll see what we lost many, many times during the forthcoming editorial.
Clearly a labor of love, the film also touches on some of the more loopy moments of the firebrand professor's unlikely trajectory to the U.S. Senate, and even revisits the controversial memorial service that followed the plane crash.

While several images burn brighter than others -- such as Wellstone's prescient speech on the Senate floor, risking his reelection by voting against the invasion of Iraq -- the lingering impression the film leaves is how quaintly old-fashioned Wellstone and his quixotic campaigns really were, in several ways.

"Quixotic" is a satiric yet polite term for "on his own frequency". Although Wellstone! was half of our Senate delegation, he really represented the tiny fraction of the population that loved politics as spectacle, as entertainment, as politics for its own sake. He represented the part of Minnesota that not only takes politics seriously, but lives for it.
First, of course, was the low-dollar campaign and the use of the lumbering green bus, its jury-rigged speaking platform reminiscent of the old whistle-stop campaigns conducted from the back of trains.

Second, detractors could find fault with Wellstone for his views and his votes, but he spoke his mind with refreshing clarity and passion, unfettered by pundits and polls.

Former students of Wellstone's have wished he'd allowed his conservative students the same unfettered speech.
And third, like Illinois' Democratic Senate shoo-in Barack Obama, he cared more about public morality (the policies that define a culture's decency) than private morality (the actions that determine an individual's character).
More excellent satire. Brian is lampooning Wellstone's impassioned defense of Rod Grams, who with his relatively moderate views achieved much more in six years in the Senate than either Wellstone or Mark Dayton, but was mugged over "personal morality" issues by the local press - mostly the morality of Grams' son (whom Grams had mostly not raised). Wellstone's supporters (especially in the press) were so forthright about abjuring the cheap, hateful smear against Senator Grams...
Contrast that to today's mind-boggling millions being spent on everything from voter-registration (worth every dollar, if new voters turn out) to a panoply of mind-numbing TV ads.
Brian capably satirizes the double standard of the Minnesota media. Everyone knows that if a dotty baby-boomer neo-marxist professor takes to the road in a jury-rigged green bus, he's a folk hero; if a conservative free-marketeer hit the bricks in such a contraption, he's be dismissed as an eccentric crackpot.
The irony of the major networks -- those civic-minded corporations that preempted most of the national party conventions in favor of the usual sleaze and rot -- profiting from these ads would be delicious if it weren't so fundamentally undemocratic and wrong.
Brian seems almost, but not quite, over the top with this; no Minneapolis leftist coud possibly be this myopic. We laugh along, knowing the Networks ably split the divide between statist authoritarianism and rapacious capitalism. "Civic-mindedness" is for poli-sci majors!
Then there's the dependence on polls, a drag on a healthy democracy as damaging as any addiction. Not only does it force candidates to tailor their views in ways that range from disingenuous to dishonest, it limits the excitement of live campaigning to a handful of key states. You'd think we'd reverted to 13 colonies for all the action the not-in-play states are seeing.
Saint's satire is hilarious here; "Excitement of live campaigning?" To most of the world, that's like "the excitement of a Star Trek convention"! Wellstone was indeed the baby-boomer wonk's dream - and the things those wonks dream about...
And then there's the morality thing. Though Wellstone's last campaign was only two years ago, his lack of moralizing makes it feel like a generation ago.
I almost spit my coffee on my monitor. Lack of moralizing! His hectoring, nagging reprise of RFK's "Poverty Tour" was, of course, the most masturbatory moralistic melange since Jimmy Carter.
Compare that to the flap over Sen. John Kerry's debate reference to Mary Cheney, Vice President Dick Cheney's openly lesbian daughter.

Predictably, columnists soft on Republicans like William Safire and David Brooks cluck-cluck over this simple statement of fact and suggest Kerry should apologize. The pea-brained buzzards of right-wing talk radio are having a field day with it, saying it's evidence of Kerry's moral depravity.

Brian's on a roll; the image he's satirizing - praising an open-minded, non-moralizing man with closed-minded, hateful and facially erroneous moralizing - is a modern-day Archie Bunker stereotype. This is the sort of thing that makes Brian the best satirist in town today!
Call it what you will -- crossing a boundary, invading family privacy, a calculated political move -- none of it would have mattered if, say during a discussion of middle-class families struggling to make it under a Bush-whacked economy, Kerry had referred to Cheney's other daughter, Liz, as a mom.
I can barely go on. The cliches ("bush-whacked"?), the illogic (like Kerry would have found any political advantage in mentioning a "mom")...Brian really has the local loopy left dialed in.
Shame is the vicious undertow beneath this tsunami of criticism, and President Bush, so skilled at dividing the country he promised to unite, knows it. His Rovian goons pounced on the reference with the laughable ferocity of a lion smiting a mouse.
Here, again, Brian only seems over-the-top if you're not familiar with the grating, preening hypocrisy of the local left.
Bush and his evangelical army (now joined by a right-wing Catholic archbishop who thinks he has a moral leg to stand on) are so busy shaming everyone from gays to prochoice Catholics that they deflect the glare from Bush's own truly shameful ineptitude in office.
Saint lampoons the left's schizophrenic dodging between irrelevancies and strawmen with a glee almost seems to be forced by this point. Its hard to restrain yourself, though, when lampooning the local left, as often as thoroughly as they swerve into self-parody.
In ancient Japan, samurai warriors (known as the Bushi, hmm) who failed in battle committed seppuku, disemboweling themselves, believing that an honorable death was better than a life of disgrace and shame.

The film "Wellstone!" reminds us of what an honorable life Paul and Sheila created together. They deserved a far better death.

As for Bush and Cheney, their heads are so far in the sand that they no longer know disgrace from deceit. Luckily for them, in America we don't expect seppuku; we just vote our failed leaders out of office and give them a hefty pension to write their self-aggrandizing memoirs.

And Brian sticks the landing! In the closing, we see brilliant parody of:
  • The incipient violence under the surface of the local and national left, manifested in means as diverse as thugs beating up Bush/Cheney volunteers and the teeth-clenching hatred that causes local lefties to dream of Bush and ritual self-disembowelment in the same breath
  • The overwrought view of the Wellstones as messianic figures who "deserved better", as if the virtue of one's life has anything to do with how one checks out (barring those who dive on grenades or race into burning skyscrapers to save their fellow humans)
Bravo, Saint!

UPDATE: I'm informed that Susan Lenfestey is not, in fact, Brian "Saint Paul" Ward writing under a pen name, but in fact an actual Minneapolis writer who apparently intended no irony whatsoever. Indeed, Ms. Lenfestey is not just any free-lance writer, but appears to specialize in anti-Bush, pro-left articles.

My apologies to all involved.

Posted by Mitch at October 26, 2004 06:43 AM | TrackBack

I suppose the familiar saying is true: You can't make s**t like this this up.

Posted by: Dave in Pgh. at October 26, 2004 08:14 AM

You bastard! You had me going with that one.

Well done, sire, well done.

Posted by: James Ph. at October 26, 2004 10:58 AM

You bastard indeed! LOL. Now shame yourself and ask... WWWD?

Posted by: calebcharles at October 26, 2004 11:28 AM

Masterful, Mitch. Just plain masterful.

Posted by: Bob Kunz at October 26, 2004 01:12 PM

One of the patrons at the bar I work was commenting on all the Wellstone coverage. A self described Democrat, Jon feels it is time for Wellstone to die. When I pointed out he was Mr. 99-1, Jon nodded his head saying he wasn't a great Senator but rather one who was took too suddenly.

Posted by: Matt at October 26, 2004 05:19 PM

Wow, you almost had me fooled for a second. Then I remembered, I'm not that good. Nobody short of Jonathan Swift could parody a bleeding heart Wellstone! review as good as that.

Plus when I start ghost writing at the Star Tribune, I'll be sure to choose a slighlty more believable name than "Susan Lenfestey. " I'm thinking "Axward Buttkeuch."

Posted by: Saint Paul at October 26, 2004 08:30 PM