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.
By that point, as the New Left swiftly declined into violence and irrelevance, Wellstone had established himself as a certain familiar type: the leftist professor and campus gadfly who shows up at antiwar demonstrations, annoys the local veterans’ organizations and occasionally publishes an op-ed article with a “radical” viewpoint. Obviously, he turned out to be something much more significant. The difference was his discovery that he was a politician, with the peculiar gift for charming and, more important, remembering each voter. It’s a quality that wins elections nobody thinks can be won–and a skill that requires the ability to listen as well as talk. He also decided that he was a Democrat as well as a democrat.
That simple choice–to be politically where the people of his adopted state had for so long been–was the foundation of Wellstone’s greatness.
Unlike other celebrated figures on the New Left, he entertained no illusions about leading a revolution or even a third-party movement. Unlike some who had been far better known during the 1960s, he was as much at ease in a union hall or a restaurant kitchen as he eventually became on the Senate floor. Though that quality was not necessarily a function of his populist views, it certainly complemented his outlook. Other politicians exude the common touch, real or counterfeit, and then betray the waitresses and the busboys by voting against the minimum wage. With Wellstone, there was neither doubt nor contradiction.
He had much to teach the left as well. His patriotism was the profound love of country that emerges as deep, passionate concern for the people and the land. His lack of pretension and his dedication to healing the injuries of class belied the stereotype of the “limousine liberal.” His own hero was Robert Kennedy, with whom Wellstone shared a tinge of cultural conservatism.
So there he was, a man of the people with an earnest desire to improve their lives and an unusual capacity to communicate. At the time, in the early 1980s, the populist heritage of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party had been relegated to another era. The party’s most celebrated figure was still Hubert Horatio Humphrey, an object of scorn on the New Left for his abject collaboration in Lyndon Johnson’s escalation in Vietnam. The party that would soon nominate for President another Minnesotan named Walter Mondale hardly welcomed Wellstone’s energy and style, let alone his radical perspective.
Yet however serious his differences with the party’s more centrist leadership, in Minnesota and nationally, Wellstone never hesitated to call himself a Democrat. He liked to say that he belonged to “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” When others of his generation veered off toward apocalyptic insanity or spiritual tangents, or dropped out of electoral politics altogether, he consistently understood that real politics and real power were located in the struggle between the major parties.
After an abortive and slightly silly race for state auditor, Wellstone persevered to seek a seat on the Democratic National Committee. If not a party hack, he was undoubtedly a party functionary, albeit of a particularly rambunctious stripe. He could not be deflected from that fundamental insight, even when the state party establishment tried to kick him off the DNC in 1988. Two years later, that perseverance was rewarded with the Senate nomination. The political and press establishment gave him little chance of defeating a popular and entrenched incumbent Republican. But he crafted a campaign that brought together a “blue-green” coalition of unionized workers, urban and suburban liberals and environmentalists, along with a slice of independent populists, that won an amazing victory.
Much has been made of the fact that as a senator, he often found himself at the short end of a 99-to-1 roll call. He took pride in that principled obstinacy. But whenever he talked about his own record, Wellstone put equal emphasis on the things he had accomplished with more conventional Democrats and on occasion with conservative Republicans. Those Senate conservatives, who had regarded him from the beginning as a rather dubious radical, came to know a quintessential American, the son of immigrants who loved sports and married his high school sweetheart.
He was in many ways an exemplary senator, not merely a maverick showhorse. When nine miners trapped in a Pennsylvania pit became a national news story, politicians and pundits suddenly started to ask a few questions about mine safety. They found Wellstone already there, demanding better funding and exposing the deficiencies in the federal mine safety bureaucracy. Until that moment, mine safety wasn’t “hot,” and the issue quickly lost its momentary cachet after the Quecreek miners were saved. That didn’t matter to Wellstone, who pursued the issues he cared about–universal healthcare, minimum-wage increases, the lobbyist gift ban, campaign finance reform–not the fads and fashions that attract TV cameras.
What may stand as his single greatest achievement–the federal law mandating insurance parity for mental healthcare–came about through his unlikely but close alliance with New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici (a tough old conservative Republican who wept openly on television the day the Wellstones died). During his final campaign, Greens and various ultraleft poseurs increasingly denounced his pragmatism, as if the sole legitimate purpose of a principled senator is to irritate colleagues and achieve nothing.
But Wellstone could speak as the conscience of his party and his country because he had earned the right to demand a hearing. He had long since left behind the theatrics of tantrum and posturing for the grinding, frustrating, joyful discipline of campaign and governance. What he had learned–and what he taught us by example–was the vast difference between illusions and dreams.