Paul Wellstone: In His Own Voice | The Nation


Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Paul Wellstone: In His Own Voice

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.

A former student of mine, Joel Chrastil, asked me to come to Paynesville to support this effort. When I left home, Sheila said to me, "Don't get arrested!"

I said, "Of course not, don't worry about it. I am working for the governor. I certainly can't get arrested." Famous last words!

Sheila knew me too well. The problem is, I made the mistake of jumping on a table and giving a speech about how we would "stay until there is justice for the Kohnen family." I thought the bank would surely work out a compromise.

But not so. At closing time, one of the farmers, Mike Laidlaw, announced, "Some of us are staying!" They turned to ask what I was going to do. I had no choice. I'd given the speech! I couldn't walk out on the farmers or him. I made the lead story on the 6:00 and 10:00 P.M. news, being handcuffed and led away by the police. Not a good move for a special assistant to the governor and not a great strategy for getting elected to the U.S. Senate.

* *

A trip to Houston in June 2000 provided powerful testimony about our health care crisis. I held a hearing with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee on mental health and children. The room was packed with parents desperate to tell their stories.

The most jarring words, however, came from the director of the Harris County juvenile corrections system. (Harris County is the fifth-largest county in the country.) After making clear his no-nonsense, law-and-order philosophy, he said, "A lot of people think that if these kids are locked up they did something bad to deserve it and should be locked up. The truth is that forty percent of them struggle with mental health problems, and the reason they are incarcerated is that the parents couldn't get any help for their illness. The only way the parents could get any treatment for the kids was to see them locked up." This is today, in America!

* *

My trips to Washington, D.C., [in 1990] as the Democratic candidate from Minnesota were a disaster. I met with Senator John Breaux, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and explained to him how we would win: an all-out grassroots campaign in an old green bus, lots of volunteers, cafe politics, populist economics, and campaigning against big-money politics. John (whom I like and whose company I enjoy) wanted to know how much money I had raised. That was the end of the conversation.

* *

Too many Democrats learned the wrong lessons from the 1993-1994 health care battle. They think the only way to go is in small steps acceptable to vested health care interests. The truth is we need bold proposals that will really help poor people and that an aroused public will fight for.

* *

I once traveled to East Los Angeles and visited a wonderful Head Start program. After spending time with the children, I sat down to talk with the parents. One mother told me that she had been on welfare but was now working. She emphasized how much she wanted to work. All of a sudden, she broke down and started crying because while she wanted to work, she was frightened every day for her little girl, who was a second grader. She was scared because she was no longer there to take her daughter to and from school. She had instructed her little girl that, once home (in the housing project) each afternoon, she was to take no phone calls and not go outside. How many children cannot go outside to play?

We do not know what will happen when state by state all women and children are cut off from welfare assistance. Will there be jobs for children who had children or have not graduated from high school, mothers who struggle with substance abuse, mothers with severely disabled children, or women who have been battered over and over again? If they can't work, these families will receive no assistance.

There is already some disturbing evidence....But so far I have not even been able to pass legislation requiring the Department of Health and Human Services to collect relevant data from states and report it to Congress. We, as policy makers, must insist on this. The first time I proposed this, I lost by one vote, 50-49. The second time, the Senate accepted this amendment (the Democrats said to the Republicans, "Do you want him on the floor for several hours on this?"), but then it was dropped in conference committee. The third time, I attached the welfare amendment to an education tax-credit bill. It passed 78-21. But the bill may go nowhere.... I need to look for another piece of legislation to which to attach this amendment.

* *

I knew all along that it would be a tough race [in 1996]. I was the only senator up for reelection who voted against the "welfare reform" bill, and this vote alone was supposed to have cost me the election. I was at odds with most of the powerful economic interests in the country, including in Minnesota. My friend Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, told me, "Paul, you are the most difficult senator to raise money for!"

* *

Disproportionate among the ranks of nonvoters are "minorities" and blue-collar and low-income citizens. It is the Democrats' natural constituency, if we are willing to speak to the concerns and circumstances of their lives and include them. If you don't say anything important to them and hardly ever show up in the community, people don't vote. Why should they?

Somehow, too many Democrats have failed to make a key distinction. It is true, as the conventional wisdom goes, that if you speak only about the poor, you lose. This is fairly obvious. But to say you should not focus only on the poor doesn't mean you should never deal with issues of poverty. The same holds for issues of race and gender. The Democratic Party, which is supposed to be the party of the people, has far too often been silent about these issues. To do the right thing and to win, they must be put back on the table.

* *

In 1993-1994, I observed one senator closely as he cast several votes he obviously didn't believe in. One time, he came up to me, noticing the disapproval on my face, and said, "Paul, understand, I have to get through this election." This senator had served many distinguished years. I especially admired his ability to manage a bill on the floor. He was thoughtful, articulate, and a great debater. He was a great senator. And yet he was a shell of himself and miserably unhappy that election year. And he lost.

* *

One early morning in August 1994, during the height of the Senate health care debate, I spoke to a gathering of 350 orthopedic surgeons. It was not a fund-raiser but a favor to a childhood friend who was in the field.

I arrived five minutes early, and as I entered the room I heard the group's PAC director tell the doctors, "When you go to see your representative or your senator, you cannot give them a PAC check in their office. That is not legal. So they might want to just tell you where to send it instead." And then he hesitated and said, in an awkward way, "But they will take it." There was an uneasy laughter in the room, because these doctors clearly didn't feel good about their role in the process.

Then I was introduced....I told them that while I would speak about health care policy, I wanted to respond first to what I had heard. I told them that I didn't think representatives or senators should take any health care PAC money before voting on health care legislation. I was certain these remarks would be met with a wall of hostility. Instead, to my surprise, the surgeons literally came to their feet and gave me a long standing ovation. Their reaction made me hopeful: People feel ripped off, and they are angry--even prosperous orthopedic surgeons!

* *

I had just given a speech on the floor and felt pretty good--I had spoken with passion and eloquence, I thought. Senator Hollings came up to me and said, "Young man, you remind me of Hubert Humphrey." I was really proud and ready to burst when he went on to say, "You talk too much."

* *

When Sheila and I attended a Minnesota memorial service for Matthew Shepard, I though to myself, "Have I taken a position that contributed to a climate of hatred?" Of course, I had never believed this when I voted for [Defense of Marriage Act, an effort to prohibit same-sex marriage.] But if you deny people who are in a stable, loving relationship the right to marry, do you deny them their humanity? I still wonder if I did the right thing.

* *

Quite often, it's important as a senator to take on vested power. I think this is where the Democratic Party is weakest. On large questions dealing with power in America, on "class issues," most Democrats are nowhere to be found. When it comes to funding for Head Start, affordable child care, more investments in job training, housing, health, and education, the differences between Democrats and Republicans make a difference. But not when it comes to challenging economic power in America. The same powerful investors control both parties. I hate saying this--it is the most discouraging thing about being a senator--but it is a reality.

* *

Policy is not about techniques of communication. Over and over again I hear my Democratic colleagues talk about how to better deliver our "message." But the question is not how to communicate our agenda, but whether we have an agenda worth communicating. ...One student at a the University of Michigan said to me, "Senator, I want to be able to dream again--about a better country and a better world. And politics today doesn't give me a chance to dream."

* *

There is, of course, no guarantee of success. But politics is not about observations or predictions. Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine.

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.