In Minnesota we’ve had the opportunity to get to know Senator Mark Dayton up close and personal. In mid-2003 we took a look at the theological musings set forth in the senator’s homily (“If we’re so right, why are there so few of us left?”) at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. The text Senator Dayton chose for his homily was, somewhat surprisingly given the occasion and the venue, the Bhagavad Gita. Thus spake Senator Dayton:
Our country has moved decidedly to the right. Our citizens, many are less involved. Our social system is less compassionate, government is less effective and liberalism is more distrusted….Where is God in the midst of all this injustice? I don’t have a clue. I don’t know if He, or She, or Whatever doesn’t exist, died, is incompetent, doesn’t care, is laissez faire, or has a master plan I don’t understand.
Yeah, that’s the problem with God. She’s too incompetent to smite Republicans the way she ought to. In normal times, this would be considered extraordinarily pathetic. These days, it’s pretty typical Democratic hysteria. But Dayton has all the earmarks of a one-termer.
In June 2003 Senator Dayton visited Iraq. At a telephone press conference held with Twin Cities reporters Senator Dayton unburdened himself:
The contrast between these oil fields, which are just 15 minutes away, and the total poverty of the people living in that region, was just unbelievable. They’re now waiting up to nine hours in line to get gasoline for their vehicles, which is pretty absurd when you have all of this oil 15 minutes away.
In May 2004 the whole country witnessed Senator Dayton’s weirdly dissociated performance at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Secretary Rumsfeld. Dayton hectored Rumsfeld:
You’re increasing the number of forces, the number of tanks over there. How can this have anything to do but to escalate the level of violence, the opposition of Iraqis, intensify the hatred across the Arab world to the United States, and more atrocities? How can this have any result other than to put us deeper into this situation and make the conditions there worse for our forces and for our nation and for the world?
Last September the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported on Senator Dayton’s telephone press conference announcing his intention to boycott Prime Minister Allawi’s speech to Congress:
Dayton described the speech as “a production” staged by the Bush administration and said that Allawi “ought to be over there running his country.”
On October 12 Dayton became a national laughingstock when he evacuated his Washington office in the face of what he declared to be “a heightened risk” of terrorism. Fox News correspondent Brian Wilson archly referred to the hallway outside Dayton’s office in the Russell Senate Office Building as the “Zone of Death.” We noted the evacuation in “Yellow alert” and posted Dayton’s Star Tribune column explaining the rationale for the evacuation of his office in “Terminated with extreme precaution.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Nick Coleman took up the defense of Dayton in his column “Dayton fires back at ‘rats’” (now unavailable). The column quoted Dayton defending his actions, first before a Minneapolis Rotary Club audience and then a teachers’ union gathering:
“They try to destroy you in order to defeat you,” he says with anger in his voice. “They are sewer rats, and they’re down in the sewer. If people want their politics down in the sewer, they’re going to end up with sewer rats rather than public servants.”
Dayton, 57, isn’t up for reelection this year but has inadvertently found himself in the cross hairs in a brutal election battle fought against a backdrop of muddled terror threats and juvenile name-calling.
The scion of a wealthy department-store family, Dayton sometimes seems wide-eyed, has a stiff, formal manner and sometimes stumbles over his syntax – making him a popular target for right-wing hatchet bloggers [Ed.: He was talking about us -- the guy really has a way with words, doesn't he?] and operatives…
Coleman then moved on to Dayton’s appearance before the Minnesota teachers’ union:
Dayton gives the teachers a rousing talk, telling them that the toughest job he ever had was as a public school teacher in New York City and amusing them with a reference to keg parties at Yale, where the president of his fraternity was one George W. Bush. “I’ve seen the president take positions that none of you have,” he jokes. [Ed.: Dayton is not known for his sense of humor.]
When he is done speaking, a teacher from Minneapolis comes up to say, “I commend you for the courage to shut your office and for the courage to be different.” [Ed.: "The courage to shut his office..." Sounds like a campaign slogan!] In politics, however, being different can be risky. Except for West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, few Democrats have come to his aid. With his friends leery, it is no surprise his opponents smell blood and have seized the issue to soften him up for 2006, when he will be up for reelection.
The same kind of gutter talk aimed at him has been aimed at other Democrats in recent years, he says, including Senate colleagues John Kerry and the late Paul Wellstone. His attackers, he says, accuse him of what they fear in themselves.
“They don’t see me,” he says. “They don’t know me. There’s a Zen saying: ‘If a pickpocket sees the Buddha, all he sees is pockets.’ [Ed.: Heavy! Maybe he'll use it for his next homily at St. Joan of Arc.] They are reflecting themselves with their verbiage. They are just sewer rats who have never done anything themselves or won anything themselves, and they just want to put a notch on their belt. They want to destroy me in order to defeat me. In some places, they assassinate leaders, but here they don’t want to go to prison, so they character-assassinate their leaders.”
Coleman then quoted Dayton addressing the question of his mental balance, but it is not clear if this was in response to Coleman’s question or part of his talk to the teachers’ union:
As to insinuations about his mental health that surfaced in his 2000 campaign and have returned with the storm over his office closing, Dayton says:
“I’m 57, I know myself pretty well, and I know I’m a lot healthier than most politicians I’m around. I’ve never been arrested; I’ve never acted irresponsibly or inappropriately. I’ve talked freely about my two divorces and my recovery from alcoholism, but don’t owe my personal medical history to anyone. I’m not running for president. I’ve been in public service for three decades, and I’ve performed honestly and honorably, and I’ve never disgraced the public cause [Ed.: I think we'll be the judge of that], and I’ll stand on that record.
“That’s what people are entitled to from me.”
Coleman then returned to Dayton’s address to the Rotarians:
“It should be considered unpatriotic,” he says, “to brag at the country club about not paying taxes.” [Ed.: We still have no clue whom he was talking about.]
The Rotarians listen respectfully, then brace themselves when he finally is asked why he closed his office.
He explains that, given the terror briefing he attended, he could not let his staff remain in Washington while he and the rest of Congress were back home, politicking. It would be immoral and cowardly for him to leave “other people’s sons and daughters” at risk while he was safe at home.
“I pray to God I’m wrong,” he says. “I probably am.” [Ed.: And not just about that!]
The Rotarians relax and seem reassured that their senator is not from another planet.
We didn’t entirely credit Coleman’s interpretation of the Rotarians’ response to Dayton. Indeed, Coleman’s spin suggests why we describe Coleman as a reliably partisan hack. But we understood Coleman’s message: Minnesotans were to join the teachers and the Rotarians in appreciating Senator Dayton’s special brand of courage, “the courage to shut his office.”
Coleman is by far the Star Tribune’s worst columnist, but last week Star Tribune columnist Doug Grow took the baton from Coleman in detecting courage in the senator where it would not otherwise have been apparent: in opposing the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. Grow’s column is “Sen. Substance lays it on the line.” Grow admiringly quotes Senator Dayton’s floor speech on Rice last week:
Mark Dayton was speaking, from his soul, on the hallowed floor of the U. S. Senate.
The Minnesota Democrat’s passionate speech was delivered Tuesday in the so-called debate over whether the Senate should confirm the nomination of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state.
“I don’t like to impugn anyone’s integrity,” Dayton said in the final moments of his speech. “But I really do not like being lied to repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally. It is wrong. It is undemocratic. It is un-American and it is dangerous. It is very dangerous and it is occurring far too frequently in this administration.”
Grow adds a quotation from a follow-up phone call:
In a phone conversation Wednesday morning, Dayton recalled a pre-war meeting he had on Sept. 28, 2002, with Rice, then-CIA Director George Tenet and four senators.
“They passed around a 6-inch section of a metal tube,” Dayton said. “They repeatedly said that this was absolute proof that Iraq had a program” for building nuclear weapons.
“I learned later that even their own experts didn’t agree with that assessment. If she [Rice] didn’t know it at the time, she certainly knew it later, but there was never a call saying, ‘We misinformed you.’”
That’s good enough for Grow, although it leaves a few questions in my mind regarding the courage necessary to impute deliberate dishonesty to a high government official who appears to have been operating on the same intelligence information that other government consumers of intelligence were.
Last summer the Senate Intelligence Committee released its 511-page report on the intelligence community’s pre-war assessment of Iraq (click here for the report in PDF). At the time of the report’s release, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts stated (click here for the CNN story):
“The committee found no evidence that the intelligence community’s mischaracterization or exaggeration of intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities was the result of politics or pressure.”
You might expect Dayton to understand what it means to be the victim of imperfect intelligence, and of the responsibility to take action that errs on the side of safety for those whose safety is in your hands, but you would of course be mistaken. Such an expectation would be based on the assumption that Dayton’s public comments on the evacuation of his office were bona fide, or that he applies a principle of consistency to his actions.
In his opposition to the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice last week, Senator Dayton stood shoulder to shoulder with former Ku Klux Klan Grand Kleagle Robert Byrd as well as eleven other Democrats. Recall that Dayton is the occupant of the senate seat once held by Hubert Humphrey. The word that comes to my mind in connection with Dayton’s remarks and his vote against Condoleezza Rice is not “courage,” but rather “disgrace.”
HINDROCKET adds: Reader Tom Mckeown makes a good point:
Was any other Minnesotan struck by the contrast in courage between the Iraqi women waiting in line to vote today with the retreat from Washington by Senator Mark Dayton on the hint of some threat, which was ignored by every other elected official in DC…Such courage by our sentaor would not merit a chapter in “Profiles in Courage” and deserves his early retirement.
UPDATE: Reader Mary Ledbetter writes to point out that St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church is not “Catholic” in the sense that it is in union with the Church of Rome. Rather, it appears to be a Christian “new age” church (my interpretation of its mission statement at the linked site). Reader Mitch Gossman describes the church as the local epicenter of so-called “liberation theology.”
On a note related to the post above, Monday’s Star Tribune carries an article reporting that Dayton’s approval rating among Minnesotans has dropped 15 points, to 43 percent.
UPDATE 2: Another reader who asks to be left unidentified writes:
Hi! I’m a faithful reader of your blog. I hate to correct your other readers, but Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis is a Catholic parish. It is listed on the archdiocesan website as such.
It’s sad, because clearly they have completely departed from anything resembling Catholic liturgical practice and belief. I have e-mailed the archdiocese linking them to this Dayton nonsense, as having non-biblical readings and lay people giving political speeches is utterly and absolutely verboten in Catholic liturgical celebrations. I know this because I am a Catholic priest!