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Jim Heffernan column: Nasty election finally over

This has been the nastiest election I have ever seen, including during all the years I was active in covering them, or writing stories and editorial opinions on candidates.

Jim Heffernan
Jim Heffernan
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Well, it’s over. The election, that is. Heaven knows it was the election from hell.

At this writing I don’t know who won what. Newspaper feature deadlines are such that this is being written too early in the week to know all the outcomes of Tuesday’s election. Besides, many races weren’t expected to be decided until much later in the week — like today.

So we likely all know the results by now (as this is being read) and I’m happy for you if things went the way you had hoped, and sorry if they didn’t. The way this election went down, though, was disgusting.

I spent the bulk of my journalism career associated in one way or another with politics at every level. Because of this I’ve met every high-level politician from Minnesota (and to some extent Wisconsin) from the early 1960s through the early years of this century. That’s all the governors, the U.S. senators and Congress members from this part of the state together with state lawmakers from around here. And also many of their challengers who hoped to defeat them. Oh, throw in mayors, city councilors, county board members — the whole kit and caboodle. But I never interviewed a candidate for dogcatcher, more’s the shame.

This is not boasting; it comes with the territory of some aspects of newspaper work.

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And I have to say, this has been the nastiest election I have ever seen, including during all the years I was active in covering them, or writing stories and editorial opinions on candidates.

Will I take sides here? No. Campaigning, one party’s as bad as the other today. You wince at those ubiquitous television ads, showing candidates in dark tones and describing all of the terrible things they have done and will do both in their personal and public lives. They are the scum of the earth, the ads convey.

Jeez, who wants to be that mean? The political parties do, that’s who. It’s called negative campaigning, and it works.

In past elections, candidates often were referred to as “worthy opponents” and “the loyal opposition.” That is history. Instead we have ominous voices telling us on TV that if elected so-and-so will destroy our country (or state or congressional district, or state legislative districts).

In contrast, over the years, in conversing with myriad politicians and their challengers I generally found them to be pretty nice people. They harbored their own ideologies, of course, and proudly stated them, but they stuck to the issues of the day. I don’t recall any of them harshly knocking their opponents in a personal way like they did in this campaign. The best ones were way above that.

And while I might have had my own ideological opinions in meeting with those whose political views I knew were opposed to mine, it didn’t affect our cordial contact at all.

On the personal level, I liked both Democrats and Republicans, some better than others. I suppose among Minnesota governors, my favorite was the late Rudy Perpich. He could make any contact cordial while also espousing knowledgeable policy positions. And he was very common in his demeanor.

Forty years ago Nov. 2, Rudy Perpich was elected governor of Minnesota, returning for two full terms to the office he'd previously occupied for a partial term. He would become Minnesota's longest-serving governor, and the only one to hail from the Iron Range.

One time in a group dining with him in a restaurant, he insisted his security guard (a uniformed state trooper) be seated with the rest of us. After leaving office the first time (he served as Minnesota governor twice) he worked in Croatia, the homeland of his parents. I had the occasion to mention him in a humorous way in a column (he WAS known as “Governor Goofy” recall) and he called me from Croatia to good-naturedly rib me about what I’d written. It was when the Balkans were in upheaval, and I thought I could hear gunfire in the background.

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Perpich was a Democrat. How about a Republican? Former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger was an affable interviewee who seemed intent on doing good for Minnesotans more than promoting ideological precepts of his party. And like Perpich, he openly displayed a light-hearted side of his personality. Unlike so many politicians, especially today’s, he knew how to laugh.

One time during a dinner meeting I mentioned a line I’d heard pointing out that then President Ronald Reagan was “older than Yugoslavia.” Loyal Republican Durenberger burst out in uproarious laughter at that thought. It was true: Reagan was born in 1911 and Yugoslavia wasn’t formed as a Balkan nation until after World War I. Both Reagan and Yugoslavia are now history. Durenberger, 88, is still with us.

But enough wonking around. I only have room here to cite these two politicians who led in a time before politics got as nasty as it has become. Of course political opponents resented one another, and REALLY resented those who challenged them at election time, but it usually didn’t show.

Elderly people (among whom I must ruefully now count myself) often espouse a fondness for the “old days” by longing for the “way things used to be.” I usually don’t subscribe to that, but I hope we can return to those days election-wise, before I get around to finally interviewing candidates for dogcatcher.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org .

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Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.
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