Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

Of passion and politics

Sally Hanley, Ph.D. '83

Sally Hanley, Ph.D. '83, often drew on political and historical documentaries as teaching aids during the 20 years she taught history at Franklin College in Indiana.

"But I was usually disappointed in the ones that were available," says Hanley, who decided to remedy the situation a few years back by taking a sabbatical to study filmmaking at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco.

She channeled her debut efforts into an examination of the 2002 Minnesota Senate race, which pitted incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone against Republican St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, the handpicked candidate of the Bush White House. The result is a heartfelt and inspiring 75-minute documentary, The Green Bus vs. The White House, which was screened to Lehigh students in November when Hanley returned to the campus where she was one of the first Lawrence Henry Gipson Fellows in the 1970s.

"From the beginning, I thought this race was dramatic," she says. "It represented the wildest possible political conversation in the country at the time: a lefty populist against a man appointed by a conservative White House. Then, when I got to Minnesota, I realized the dialogue was as deep as it was wide because of the amazing political culture there—robust, daring, and engaged."

The climate in Minnesota mirrored the polarization that's characterized national politics the past few years, but distinguished itself through several anomalies: There are four viable political parties, state-funding for elections, same-day registration for voting, and a nearly 70 percent turnout for elections.

"In Minnesota, the voters are so engaged and the dynamics were so intriguing," she says. "It's an incredible state in that regard."

The Senate race was close for several weeks as Coleman, fueled by contributions from corporate and GOP supporters, was successful in making a dent in Wellstone's grassroots popularity. After online organizers put out the word that Wellstone—who enjoyed a reputation for being one of the Senate's only true progressives—was threatened, Hanley said contributions to his campaign coffers poured in from all over the country.

"His stock really went up after he voted against the [Iraq] war," she adds. "Even though he felt it might cost him this election, he voted his conscience. In Minnesota politics, voters really admired that kind of integrity and his poll numbers shot up."

Hanley and her crew trailed Wellstone as he made campaign stops, but focused on the perceptions of the race on the part of a broad cross-section of voters.

"We didn't want to do another of the inside-out documentaries," she says. "We wanted to present the race through the eyes of Minnesota voters of all kinds."

Tragedy strikes

Mourners left flowers at Wellstone's legendary Green Bus after the plane crash that claimed the senator's life.

Filming took them all over the state in the frantic weeks leading up to the election, including the state fair, a major event in Minnesota politics. On the morning of Oct. 25, 2002, Hanley and her crew were interviewing loggers in the Iron Range, a few miles from Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, when word reached them that Wellstone's plane had crashed in a wooded area about 7 miles from the airport in snowy, frozen rain.

On board were Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia, as well as three staff members and two pilots. All were killed.

Hanley and her film crew were among the first to reach the airport.

"The sadness was palpable among his supporters around the state," she says. "Almost instantly, it changed from this energetic, hopeful campaign to this incredibly sad event. So many people admired him for his honesty and genuine compassion, and felt that was something that couldn't be replaced."

With less than two weeks until the election, the Democratic Party enlisted 74-year-old former Vice President and U.S. Sen. Walter "Fritz" Mondale to replace Wellstone on the ballot.

"For the next 10 days, I was very aware that our film was both completely unimportant, yet much more important than it had been," Hanley says. "Still the original point of the film remained, which was to show the intensity and decency of Minnesota politics and what it had to offer the nation as a model. I came away convinced still that democracy is like good silver: It shines if you use it, tarnishes when you don't."

At the end of the tumultuous campaign, Minnesota voters sent Coleman to the Senate.

The documentary briefly touches on the suspicions voiced by some supporters that foul play may have been involved in the crash that claimed the senator's life, before relaying the official finding of pilot error.

"I was reluctant to get drawn into any conspiracy stories," she says. "I think it's something about being an historian. I didn't want to get all Oliver Stone over it, but so many people expressed their suspicions that this wasn't an accident that we felt it had to be addressed in the film."

Narration for the documentary was provided by actor Peter Coyote, whom Hanley described as having an "incredible presence and passion for politics." Contacted through a mutual acquaintance, Coyote -- who has had roles in such blockbusters as E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial and Erin Brockovich, as well as in numerous critically acclaimed independent films and documentaries -- readily agreed to work for Hanley for what she says was a vastly reduced rate.

"I met him for the first time at his recording studio in Sausalito," she recalls. "He hopped off his motorcycle, went into the studio, and did a great job. Afterwards, we had a chance to talk about politics, which was wonderful."

Hanley's November visit to Lehigh was co-sponsored by the Science, Technology and Society Program and the university's history and political science departments. For Hanley, who was one of the first Lawrence Henry Gipson Fellows at Lehigh in 1975-76, it was a special homecoming.

Hanley, who earned her Ph.D. in British and European history from Lehigh in 1983, was awarded research grants for three summers by the Lawrence Henry Gipson Council for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and did her dissertation research in Scotland under a University Fellowship from Lehigh in 1978-79.

In addition to the Lehigh screening, the documentary has been featured at several film festivals around the country, including the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in Florida, the Northern Lights Documentary Film Festival in Massachusetts, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana, and the Carolina Film Festival. She has secured a distributor for educational release through the National Film Network, providing a broader audience with what she feels is a timeless lesson on politics.

"Be true to your principles," she says. "Paul Wellstone embodied that philosophy, and people of all political persuasions were drawn to him, even if they disagreed with him on certain issues. The approach expressed by his campaign workers we dealt with was simply, tell the truth. 'If you tell the truth,' they used to say, 'we'll win.'"

--Linda Harbrecht

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2006

Posted on Friday, January 20, 2006

share this story: