U.S. President George W. Bush and his henchmen stole the presidency. They threw thousands of innocent people into prison without even charging them with a crime. They’re gearing up to invade Iraq without bothering to come up with a substantial justification. Now some Democrats and progressive Americans are asking the unthinkable about an administration they increasingly believe to be ruled by thugs and renegades. Did government gangsters murder the United States’ most liberal legislator?
Talk of foul play began hours after Senator Paul Wellstone’s plane went down over northeastern Minnesota on Oct. 25, killing him, his wife and his daughter, along with three staffers and two pilots. “Please tell me I’m wrong to be thinking what I’m thinking,” a self-described “liberal Democrat” from St. Paul e-mailed me that evening. “I want to be wrong, but I wouldn’t put it past the Republicans — THESE Republicans — to sabotage Wellstone’s plane.” Internet discussion groups and e-mail in-boxes quickly echoed her sentiment.
People expressed similar fears after Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan died in plane crashes — the latter weeks before facing an election challenge from future Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft — but the whispers of assassination following the Wellstone tragedy are more widespread and gaining mainstream currency far beyond the usual conspiracy nuts.
The Minnesota senator’s death certainly comes at an auspicious time for the Republican Party. Wellstone’s challenger, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, was considered by both parties to be the GOP’s best chance for recapturing the 50-to-49 Democratic U.S. Senate. Wellstone had been considered vulnerable for two reasons: his principled opposition to Bush’s Iraq war resolution (the Senate voted 77-to-23 in favor) and a strong Green Party candidacy sure to siphon off leftie votes. Bush was so anxious to silence the Senate’s most liberal voice that he personally recruited Coleman to run against him. Bush then campaigned furiously against Wellstone, attending two fundraisers which raised over $2.3 million — more than he raised for any other Republican candidate, including his brother Jeb.
Republicans resorted to Nixon-style dirty tricks in the Coleman campaign. Coleman called Wellstone “extremist” and implied he was a communist. GOP workers phoned senior citizens to tell them that Wellstone was plotting to take away their Social Security. They called members of the National Rifle Association to tell them that Wellstone was plotting to take away their guns. They even ran newspaper ads depicting gruesome photos of late-term abortions.
Despite the money and sleazy tactics being used against him, recent polls showed Wellstone beginning to pull ahead. With Election Day looming on Nov. 5, many analysts were predicting a Wellstone victory and continued Democratic dominance of the Senate. Perhaps, the thinking goes, someone in the Bush regime decided Wellstone had to go.
If Wellstone’s plane was sabotaged, it wouldn’t be the first time that a political figure met his end in the friendly skies. A plane carrying Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s handpicked successor, Lin Biao, crashed under mysterious circumstances en route to Moscow during 1971. The Chinese later claimed that Lin was defecting to the Soviet Union after a botched coup attempt against Mao; guilty or not, most historians believe that his plane was probably sabotaged. On March 3, 2001, a phosphorus bomb blew up a Thai Airways Boeing 737-400 minutes before the country’s new prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was set to board the jet.
Many American politicians — mostly Democrats and liberal Republicans — have died in aviation disasters. “Elected officials expose themselves every day to these kinds of risks as they travel across their states or districts,” Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, commented, noting the perils of frequently using small aircraft.
Anyone who has traveled on what is euphemistically called “civil aviation” can tell horror stories about sudden drops, lurches and violent thunderstorms. But it’s also true that security at the regional airports and small terminals at major airports used for such flights — Wellstone flew out of St. Paul — is more easily penetrable than that at JFK and LAX. It would hardly be impossible to sabotage a plane chartered for an inconvenient politician.
According to aviation consultant Robert Breiling, the plane that carried Senator Wellstone — the King Air A-100 “business turboprop,” also known as a Beech King Air — is remarkably safe, with 25 percent fewer fatal accidents than other planes in its class. Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, says: “It’s a great airplane.”
So why did Wellstone’s go down? Weather is the lead suspect. Freezing temperatures, which can be severe in Minnesota, came early this year. “This airplane would typically be equipped with de-ice equipment but there are icing conditions that are beyond the measure of any equipment to remove,” Morningstar notes.
Local pilots, however, doubt that ice was a problem. “There was little ice. It was normal. We see it all the time,” said Don Sipola, a flight instructor with 25 years experience.
“Black boxes” — a flight data recorder and a cockpit voice recorder — are often crucial for discovering the cause of airplane crashes. According to Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Paul Takemoto, the plane was required to be equipped with both. Contradicting the FAA, Carol Carmody, acting chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the site of the crash, says that the plane apparently carried neither. Were the black boxes lost or were they never aboard? Someone may know, but thus far no one’s saying.
Odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a natural or mechanical explanation for the crash of Paul Wellstone’s plane. For one thing, substitute candidate Walter Mondale is expected to retain Wellstone’s senate seat for the Democrats. That’s predictable. The victories of last-minute substitute candidates like Missouri’s Jean Carnahan in 2000 and New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg this year provide ample evidence that losing a candidate needn’t mean losing an election. If anything, Mondale is more likely to win than Wellstone was, notwithstanding the inadvertent prediction of China’s president Jiang Zemin, who offered his “deep condolences for the loss of the Senate.”
The fact that we’re having this discussion at all is a symptom of the polarizing effect that Bush and his top dogs have had on the United States since assuming office and even more so in the hard-right free-for-all that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. Presidents routinely cause their political detractors to take offense, but one would have to go back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempt to stack the U.S. Supreme Court or Richard Nixon’s wiretapping and enemies list to find another American leader who crossed the line of acceptable discourse as extremely as George W. Bush has done.
Ronald Reagan may have been a hardline conservative, but had Wellstone died during his watch you wouldn’t have heard liberals asking whether the Gipper had had him offed. Bush is different. Asking mailmen to spy on ordinary Americans, creating military tribunals for anyone deemed an “enemy combatant,” locking prisoners of war in dog cages, spending a decade’s worth of savings in six months, allowing journalists to die rather than provide them with help in a war zone, smearing Democratic politicians as anti-American, invading sovereign nations without excuse — these are acts that transgress essential American reasonableness. A man capable of these things seems, by definition, capable of anything.
Ironically, Paul Wellstone would have been the last person to suspect Republicans of such a monstrous crime. One of his final acts in the Senate was to praise the career of retiring Senator Jesse Helms, his ideological counterpart on the right. Like most idealists, Wellstone thought the best of humanity, that people would do the right thing if the choices were properly and clearly explained. Wellstone wouldn’t have wanted to believe that he was assassinated.
Neither do I. So let’s hope those black boxes turn up.
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