The last day that I spent with Paul Wellstone began on a sunny morning in the living room of his St. Paul home. I’d arrived to join him as he campaigned for reelection in what was widely seen as the most hotly contested Senate race in the nation.
But when I walked in, Wellstone was not making calls for campaign contributions or rehearsing soundbites.
He was reading.
Wellstone was a passionate reader. He always had a new book under his arm. And he read widely — far beyond the confines of the history, biography and public-policy shelves that political figures tend to frequent.
On that last day, he was reading Michael J. Fox’s 2002 book, Lucky Man: A Memoir.
Wellstone couldn’t stop talking about the actor’s autobiography, especially the sections where Fox wrote about his struggle with Parkinson’s disease. The senator from Minnesota, whose parents had suffered from that ailment and who had himself been recently diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, related to what he was reading. He went on at some length about how important it was for prominent people to be open about their chronic conditions. He felt it helped promote understanding and empathy, which in Wellstone’s view was often the first step toward political engagement. And, as the senate’s most passionate advocate for medical research and a national health care system, he felt that engaging the great mass of Americans in a discussion about the importance of federal and state funding of groundbreaking — and sometimes controversial — studies was essential.
Wellstone believed, as many scientists do, that with proper support, embryonic stem cell research could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne’ Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.
After President Bush’s 2001 decision to sharply limit federal funding of medical research that uses embryonic stem cell lines, Wellstone said, “The sharp limitation of federal support may well close the door on some of the life-saving promise of embryonic stem cell research, which can be conducted consistent with basic ethical and legal principles that respect the value of human life. I do not believe that President Bush’s decision will be the final word on this important federal policy. In light of this disappointing announcement, Congress, and the American people, will now surely be heard.”