Washington loved Paul Wellstone more in death than in life.
In the days following his demise in an airplane crash–which also claimed the lives of his wife, his daughter, three campaign associates, and two pilots–the senior senator from Minnesota was widely praised by all. Robert Novak hailed him as a “happy warrior” quick to engage in playful banter. (“Oh no. Call off the press conference, Novak’s here.”) Fred Barnes complimented Wellstone for not being a “hater” and for being “a wonderful guy…an unswerving liberal, always true to his conscience.” David Gergen called him, “A brave man who always remembered the little guy and fought for him in the Senate.” Vin Weber, a Republican congressman-turned-lobbyist, observed, “He was in it for the things he believed in, whether people agreed with him or not.” Morton Kondracke praised him as a “small-d democrat…[who] loved to talk…on the floor of the Senate and also just talk with ordinary people.” Chris Matthews described him as “an academic man who had the guts to run for office,” and noted “people respected his integrity, his fidelity to his beliefs….It’s good to have some people in the Senate who read some books.” Tony Snow remarked, “Paul Wellstone was a good, truly good, human being, whose personality and example will outlive his causes.”
On Wellstone’s side of the aisle, Ted Kennedy said, “all of us admired his fight.” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called Wellstone “the soul of the Senate…a gallant and passionate fighter, especially for the less fortunate.””
It is true that Wellstone was well-liked. He was a high-energy, jovial man who relished a fierce debate. And he was as un-self-important as senators come. Many have noted he would even chat with the elevator operators and cafeteria workers in the Capitol–a remark that says more about Wellstone’s colleagues than Wellstone himself. (Wellstone’s mother was a cafeteria worker, which embarrassed Wellstone when he was a child. As an adult, he made it a point to meet and talk to cafeteria workers when he visited schools and other places.) Wellstone was boisterous and good-humored, never bitter. The compliments are not insincere.
As a friend of Wellstone, I appreciated all the kind words about him and his wife Sheila, who was a full partner in and out of the Senate office. But there was something disquieting about the flood of tributes. Why, we might ask David Gergen, is it so noteworthy that a senator looked out for the interests of “the little guy”? Isn’t that what every member of Congress should do? NBC News correspondent Lisa Myers made the same man-of-the-people point in a report on Wellstone’s death: “Today the little guys lost a giant voice in the Senate.” If speaking up for the “little guys” is an honorable deed, why was Wellstone not widely celebrated for doing so when he was alive? Earlier in his career, Wellstone notes in his book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Myers did a segment on him and was asked by an anchor, “Does anyone in the Senate take him seriously?” She answered, “Not really.”