Paul Wellstone Remembered
Of all the conversations and interviews I had with Paul Wellstone, perhaps the best was--sad irony of ironies--on a plane. It began one morning in late April of 1997, and I had just been dispatched by US News & World Report to the North Dakota-Minnesota border, where the Red River of the North had catastrophically flooded, all but engulfing the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. I was running through the Minneapolis airport, struggling to make my connecting flight--a somewhat challenging endeavor, as I was lugging four duffle bags laden with bottles of booze for the staffers of the beleaguered Grand Forks Herald--and as I staggered toward the gate, someone lifted a bag off a shoulder. "Look like you could use a hand," I heard a voice behind me say.
Stressed and bleary-eyed, I offered my thanks, unable to turn around, as we were part of a tightly packed group tumbling down the jetway. The liquor bottles clinked audibly in the bags, and I heard the voice behind me ask, with a hint of mischief, if I was going to Grand Forks to try to corner the black market on booze. As we got to our seats and stowed the bags overhead, I introduced myself, explained that I was a reporter and that the night before, a friend from Knight-Ridder who'd been seconded to the Herald called with a whisky request for the staff--not only had the poor ink-stained, waterlogged wretches been flooded out of three offices in as many hours but they were now victims of an emergency management order that had closed all the bars and liquor stores. "Newspapermen not allowed to drink?" the voice asked, humorous but truly indignant. "Anything I can do to help prevent that tragedy, I'm happy to do."
I turned around to a short--even shorter than me--unassuming but cheerful looking man. "I'm Paul Wellstone," he said. "Glad a fellow Progressive contributor was here to help me," I responded, and he lit up. "Wait a minute," he said. "You did that really good piece on Burma last year, right? That US News thing threw me. It's great to meet you!"
What unfolded over the next hour was one of the best--and most genuine--conversations I've ever had. In over a decade of journalism, I'm not sure I've spent time with someone who had such a unique blend of passion, compassion, erudition and honesty. He truly personified the Happy Warrior.
As I look back, I define that talk more in terms of what we didn't talk about--our conversation was all over the map, from our respective childhoods in northern Virginia to adoption of our respective Midwestern states as home; to healthcare to the absurdity of the drug war and Star Wars; to the history of Prairie Populism to the future of the left in America; to the conservatives in the Senate he disagreed with but genuinely liked and respected, and those he didn't. I walked off the plane inspired--a feeling I rarely get from any politician. He had the same rare effect on me--and a few hundred people--in 2000, when I was covering the death throes of the largely uninspiring Bill Bradley campaign. Before the rally in Brook Park, Ohio, a guy in the crowd pointed to Wellstone and asked a friend, "Who's that little guy?" A few minutes later, after a rousing call to arms from the little guy that had everyone fired up, the same guy said, "Screw Bradley, let's run Wellstone!"
There are politicians you encounter who practically ooze insincerity--if you ran your finger over them you'd behold a digit covered with scum. There are those for whom the words "public service" are little more than an empty phrase to deflect the reality of sheer ambition, and who can never, however hard they try, speak from the heart. There are also those for whom ideology and political orthodoxy loom so large it becomes all but impossible to see the humanity in those who aren't exactly alike or, more tragically, the humanity in the people who really matter: the citizenry. Paul Wellstone was the antithesis of these archetypes, largely, I think, because of an uncommon, intrinsic empathy and a desire to learn--and, flowing from those things, a sense of obligation to act on whatever that matrix produced.
One of the most remarkable things about Paul Wellstone has so far gotten the least attention: He was deeply committed not just to progressive ideals but to the hard work of building a social movement to make those ideals a reality.
Unlike many progressive politicians and even activists who disdain the hard work of organizing a mass constituency for justice, Paul knew in his guts that major social change in our country is impossible unless large numbers of low-income and working-class people are organized to demand it. He was always willing to use his position and clout to put grassroots people and movements front and center.
This commitment was a defining feature of his life. He taught community organizing at Carleton College, where he inspired a generation of community organizers. He organized community support for strikes in Minnesota and walked picket lines and led marches. He worked at my organization, the Center for Community Change, where he focused on how to build a movement of the rural poor. And Paul chose to get on the plane he was on because he decided to honor a union leader at his funeral rather than participate in a rally and fundraiser with other politicians.
His grassroots sympathies would often show up in small but significant ways. Earlier this year Paul convened a subcommittee hearing on the working conditions of low-wage immigrant workers. When the hearing room wasn't big enough to accommodate all the workers who bused in to participate, he invited them to sit up on the dais next to him. And when food-stamp recipients were denied entrance into the hearing room where the Agriculture Committee was meeting this past spring, Paul intervened with the Capitol Police, got them inside and insured that they were seen and heard.
Two years ago, at a Chicago rally of 2,000 poor people to launch a new national campaign against poverty, Paul electrified his audience, telling them he truly believed they were the only real hope for social justice in this country. He said: "Speeches won't make the change. Introducing legislation doesn't mean we pass legislation. This is a historic gathering, because we're going to have to turn up the heat. We're going to have to do more direct action. We're going to have to be out there speaking for our children. We're going to have to be out there organizing for our children. I'm here as a United States senator because I believe this campaign is an effort to build a movement for economic justice. Let's organize in our communities, but let us have a national presence, and let us be clear today: We are not going to give up. We're going to keep on marching and keep on fighting and keep on marching and keep on fighting and keep on marching and keep on fighting."
We've lost a genuine American hero at a terrible moment in our nation's history, and the temptation to despair is real. But Paul left us a roadmap for how to get out of the dark times we're in. We can best honor him by traveling further down the path he blazed with such grace.