Where Are They Now?: “The Good Life In Minnesota”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Time magazine cover that featured former Gov. Wendell Anderson

On Aug. 13, 1973, the state of Minnesota was featured on a Time magazine cover, a shot of publicity that garnered a variety of responses. The cover featured Wendell Anderson, former governor of Minnesota, holding a northern pike while grinning from ear to ear. Yellow block letters say, “The Good Life In Minnesota,” a title that invites readers to find out just what makes the state unique.

The core of the story explains how Minnesota is a “state that works,” a place where American values of hard work, honesty, and fairness are just as preserved as the sprawling acres of nature. It documents items that have contributed to Minnesota’s success: acclaimed universities and colleges, “unnaturally clean” politics, and a lively theater and music scene. It features a number of Minnesota residents, who gush about quality of life in the state of 10,000 lakes. It concludes with a quote from advertising executive Chuck Ruhr, who says, “California is the flashy blonde you like to take out once or twice. Minnesota is the girl you want to marry.”

The cover reveals an additional part of the equation. As governor, Anderson oversaw passage of pivotal laws, together known as the “Minnesota Miracle,” which tackled high levels of property taxation and inequity in school funding. In the following year, Anderson also increased education spending and services for Minnesotans with disabilities, and created open-meeting requirements for state and local governments, along with protections for organized labor. Under Anderson (who died in 2016), the story argues that Minnesotans thrived as progressive, civic-minded citizens.

“Anderson was an effective and accomplished governor who just happened to make an uncommonly photogenic state mascot,” says Dave Kenney, who covered the 40-year anniversary of the cover a decade ago for MinnPost. “Many of Wendell Anderson’s achievements … were the result of genuine bipartisanship.”

In 2023, the rest of the United States might be hesitant to label Minnesota as “progressive.” While Minnesota swings Democratic in presidential elections, it does not have the liberal reputation of, say, California or Vermont. However, since the re-election of Gov. Tim Walz and the gaining of narrow Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate, socially progressive legislation, such as marijuana legalization,  has been picking up momentum. In fact, Walz recently called for a “second Minnesota Miracle” in April, saying that, for the first time in decades, Minnesota has the “political will to get it done”—with “it” referring to an agenda of increased spending for schools, families, and vulnerable groups.

The modern “Minnesota Miracle” might be difficult to achieve. The unified politics that existed during the publication of the article has largely disappeared, even if the “political will” is there.

“While it’s true that Walz and the DFL are having some real success in advancing progressive goals during the legislative session, they’re doing it largely on their own. Bipartisanship seems much harder to come by these days than it was in the early 1970s, when the ‘Minnesota Miracle’ was built on a broader base of support,” Kenney says.

The world views that dominated Minnesota 50 years ago—and what perhaps gave it the title of “A State That Works”—have also changed, and the article founded its thesis on some problematic narratives.

“The Time article dispensed with the state’s overwhelming whiteness [and] in three paragraphs suggested that racial tensions here were nearly nonexistent: Black people had ‘not yet forced Minnesotans into any serious racial confrontation,’” Kenney remarks.

Minnesota may still be exceptional in its bountiful nature and thriving arts scene, but the legacy of redlining and racial covenants, and everything George Floyd’s murder has represented, are not reflected in the “Minnesota Nice” moniker.

“[It’s a] widespread tendency among us Minnesotans to consider our state exceptional … [yet] it’s hard—knowing where we are now—to look back on [the article] and not conclude that Time ignored at least some facts that failed to support its thesis,” Kenney says.

Time actually included the cover as one of 13 options in its “worst covers” reader contest at the turn of the 21st century. Dating back to 1928, the contest included the Minnesota cover as one of three options from the 1970s. Maybe “The Good Life In Minnesota” wasn’t for everyone after all.