In the darkness of death, it is hard to line up thoughts, to arrange memories, to process feelings and ideas. Instead, we can, in this instance, let the dead speak.
Paul Wellstone spoke a lot when he was alive. He could speak torrents. On the Senate floor and off. And occasionally he wrote it down. Last year, he produced a book, The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda. It was an explanation of his beliefs, peppered with reminiscences of his life before and during his career as a U.S. senator. In an inscribed copy he gave me, he wrote, “It is my best 5:00 AM to 6:00 AM writing effort!” (Paul, I once told him, you do use a lot of exclamation points.) Rather than produce an insta-reflection–not even half a day has passed since Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, three campaign aides, and two pilots died in an airplane crash in northern Minnesota–I’d prefer to share his own words. There will soon be time–too much time–to reflect upon his life, his legacy, and, most of all, his example.
Below are some of the portions of The Conscience of a Liberal that prompted highlighting when I read the book. Imagine Paul’s voice, often cracking and crackling with emotion, as you read these, and you can still experience his passion, his conviction, and his goodheartedness.
I came to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1969…determined not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles. If this sounds a bit too romantic, remember that I was only twenty-five. And yet today I still feel the same way! …
First, I supervised studies of housing, health care, and nutrition needs. We identified needs but made no policy recommendations. It was controversial work. The college was not used to this kind of community research. And when it became clear that the data would be used by poor people for poor people, neither the county nor college officials were pleased. I remember one of my many confrontations over this research. The then-president of Carleton said: “One would think that in good political science public-policy research, there would be a clear set of policy recommendations for the relevant decision-makers.” The untenured assistant professor–me–replied: “This isn’t for the politicians and the elite, it is for poor people that are affected by the problems. It is to help empower them to take action.”
The First National Bank, Paynesville, had called in the demand note on the Kohnen dairy farm. Land values had plummeted, and therefore the farm’s debt-to-asset ratio had changed dramatically. The bank said the farm was no longer solvent, and it intended to foreclose. At the first sign of trouble, this huge branch bank wanted out of its farm loans. Farmers then organized an “action” on the bank: They marched into the bank with the Kohnen family and demanded negotiations.