When Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash along with his wife, his daughter and three members of his staff in October 2002, the horror of his death nearly overshadowed the meaning of his life. His devoted supporters, including his two surviving sons, were understandably overwhelmed by the immediate pressures of trying to hold on to his Senate seat. His conservative adversaries, in Washington and elsewhere, were tempted by the opportunity to misuse his memory for their own purposes–to diminish his liberal colleagues, to emphasize liberalism’s quixotic frustrations, to reiterate the complacent perspective he rejected.
In Wellstone’s immediate secular canonization, through mass media rituals that allowed us to transcend our grief about that terrible event, he suddenly became vulnerable to television’s trivializing effects. This was a mixed benediction from a medium that had rarely paid him much attention before his death. He was presented as the quixotic radical, the gregarious populist, the lovable dissenter, the rare honest liberal, the minority of one. Wellstone was certainly all those things, and he was surely a great man. But what made him great seems to have escaped our understanding, even at the moment when the nation was transfixed by his image. He deserves much better than to be remembered as a cliché, whether condescending or flattering.
One clue to Wellstone’s greatness is his rise to political prominence from utterly ordinary beginnings. He suffered through the kind of unpromising adolescence that, in America, sometimes precedes an extraordinary life. Growing up in suburban Washington during the 1950s, he was just a short, awkward kid with a learning disability, poor grades and bad test scores. His middle-class Jewish parents both worked, struggling to earn enough money to cope with the crippling depression suffered by Paul’s institutionalized older brother. For a while, the problems in school and at home drove him into delinquency, vandalizing buildings and stealing cars for “joy rides” that probably brought him little joy. He once called that period his “rebel without a cause” phase, as if Woody Allen had understudied James Dean.
Wellstone’s chance to escape mediocrity arrived by the grace of that most American form of social and academic advancement, the athletic scholarship. He had discovered discipline and achievement as a high school wrestler, a sport in which he excelled because of strength, tenacity and aggression that far exceeded his small size. The scholarship took him to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he developed a passion for political science. He earned his undergraduate degree in three years, had his first child with his wife, Sheila, and won a regional wrestling championship.
He did well enough teaching political science at Carleton College, where he took the academic job that consumed the first two decades of his career. But Wellstone was hardly contented with scholarship. He was an indefatigable community organizer with enormous rhetorical talents. At Carleton, he spent much of his time involved in a variety of left-wing and community-organizing efforts, like many other New Left veterans. Few of those endeavors, however worthy, achieved their objectives. To the horror of the college deans, he also had a habit of getting arrested, first at a Vietnam War protest at the federal building in Minneapolis, and later at a local bank where he was protesting farm bankruptcies. In 1974 Carleton tried to dismiss him. He organized students and alumni to fight the decision and win him tenure.