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.”
Certainly, Wellstone impressed more members of that exclusive club as the years went by. He entered the Senate, after his surprising win in 1990, saying he “despised” Jesse Helms. Yet he went on to forge a cordial relationship with the right-wing zealot and even co-sponsored legislation with him. And his alliance with Republican Senator Pete Domenici on legislation that requires health insurers to cover mental illnesses demonstrated Wellstone could form coalitions and do the heavy lifting. (Wellstone’s older brother Stephen suffered a severe mental breakdown while a college student. Wellstone, then 11 years old, visited him every other weekend at the Virginia State Mental Institution. He later wrote, “The institution was a scary, depressing place: decrepit buildings, patients in institutional uniforms sitting on benches or wandering aimlessly. I didn’t see how anyone could get better in that place. I was more angry than frightened. I could not believe that vulnerable people who were sick, especially my own brother, could be treated so badly. These visits were a radicalizing experience. I didn’t know what to do about it, but I knew this was an injustice.” His brother eventually improved, was able to finish college, and became a teacher, all the time struggling with mental disease.)
Was he the “soul of the Senate”? Senator Tom Harkin, the only politician chosen to speak at the memorial for Wellstone and the others in Minnesota, echoed Daschle’s phrase in saluting his best friend in Congress. No doubt, Wellstone, as self-effacing as he was, would have taken pleasure in that description. Yet he would have asked, why does the Senate need a soul? Why is it that not every Democratic senator is renowned as a gallant fighter for the less fortunate? Wellstone, now gone forever, is acclaimed for having voted his conscience–having chosen conviction over political calculation, as if that was a remarkable act. In Washington, such behavior ought not to stand out.
But it does. Wellstone was liked, but hardly emulated. He was not the toast of the town, not the big “get” for the talk-show bookers. He was not lauded as the “soul of the Senate”–except by his ardent supporters. People snickered in 1999 when he considered running for President. If he took an unpopular position–forcing a recorded vote on a savings-and-loan bail-out, or pushing Senators to relinquish receiving gifts from lobbyists–the common line was not, “There goes Mr. Integrity, looking out for the little guys.” It was more, “Wellstone’s being a pain in the ass again.” But grudges were not held because he was personable, and kept his politics from becoming personal.
The real example he set was not that he was friendly to all–politicians, pundits, and commoners. There are plenty of amiable men and women in Washington. (Jesse Helms, after all, is reputed to be a wonderful boss.) Wellstone might have been the most good-natured member of the Senate, but he set a more important standard in how he achieved power and what he did with that power. It’s easy to talk to cafeteria workers; he crafted legislation and voted with them in mind.
Wellstone came to the Senate as a community organizer. A professor at Carleton College, Wellstone had taught students how to organize and gain political power outside the classroom. When he ran for the Senate in 1990, as an impoverished candidate, he stuck to the same model: taking clear and strong progressive stands and motivating like-minded volunteers to devote their time and energy to the grunt work of campaigns. He invited them to join not just a political party but a cause.
His path to the Senate was unlike that of most of his colleagues, many of whom rely on either personal fortune or big-money donations from millionaires or special interests to buy a campaign structure and television ads. He demonstrated that modern democracy can be a meritocracy in which an ideas-driven candidate can claim high office by convincing enough of his neighbors to help.
Shortly after his reelection in 1996, I saw Wellstone and congratulated him. It had been a tough race. Rudy Boschwitz, the incumbent whom he defeated in 1990, had tried to regain the seat by spending millions of dollars on attack ads that depicted Wellstone as a welfare-loving, out-of-touch 1960s throwback. Yet Wellstone won with a comfortable nine-point margin. (That was more than the 5-point win he had secretly predicted when I saw him before the election. During that visit, at my request, he had taken a blank page from my notebook, written down his guess of the final results, and sealed it an envelope.) So, I said to him, you figured out a strategy to counter all those nasty Boschwitz ads. Wellstone explained it was not a matter of strategy, it was a matter of work. Becoming excited, his right hand chopping the air, he exclaimed: This is how we did it–5000 volunteers, 400 phone lines, 200,000 windshield flyers, 50,000 door-hangers. He hadn’t won because of any clever strategic positioning. He bagged 1.1 million votes the old-fashioned way–with an organization. “What we did was a model for others, he said. “I want to make sure people realize that.”
But most in Washington don’t play politics that way. (One exception is Senator Russell Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, who was encouraged to run for the Senate, in part, by Wellstone’s 1990 victory.) I have wondered if Wellstone’s colleagues were jealous of the guy who made it to the Senate on his own terms in a way that comes straight out of the anybody-can-grow-up-to-become-a-senator civics textbook.
The manner in which he was elected rendered it easier for him to vote his conscience. He owed only his constituents–a group that extended beyond Minnesota’s borders and included Americans who shared and fought for the progressive values Wellstone championed. (His non-Minnesota fans became an essential part of his political base; much of the money he raised in 1996 and this year came from national direct-mail solicitations.)
He rarely let them down. He did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that was designed to block gay marriages. Gay and lesbian activist were outraged, and so were other Wellstone fans. “What troubles me,” he later wrote, “is that I may not have cast the right vote on DOMA. I might have rationalized my vote by making myself believe that my honest position was opposition. This vote was an obvious trap for a senator like me, who was up for reelection. Did I convince myself that I could gleefully deny Republicans this opportunity?…When Sheila and I attended a Minnesota memorial service for Mathew Shepard, I thought to myself, ‘Have I taken a position that contributed to climate of hatred?'”
All elected officials in Washington take dives. Most take many. This was one of the few for Wellstone. He was the only Democratic senator facing reelection in 1996 who voted against the so-called welfare reform legislation. GOPers rubbed their hands together, eager to run against “Senator Welfare.” But he survived that challenge. And weeks before he died, he was the only Democratic senator in a close race who voted against the measure authorizing President Bush to launch war on Iraq whenever he sees fit. Republicans considered that vote a gift–potent ammunition they could use in Wellstone’s neck-and-neck race with Norman Coleman. Following that high-profile vote, though, polls indicated Wellstone had opened a slight lead over Coleman. Was it due to the fact that Wellstone had followed his conscience? No one will ever know. But there was no immediately recognizable harm.
Shortly after the Iraq vote, I ran into an adviser to a Democratic senator who had voted in favor of the resolution. That senator, too, was also up for reelection. “Don’t tell me,” I said to the adviser, “that Senator ______ really believes voting for this was the right thing to do.” The adviser shook his head, “Of course not.” So why vote for it? “Listen, this thing is going to happen, they had the votes. So should he have sacrificed himself? Would you rather have a war with _______ in the Senate or a war without _______ in the Senate. That’s the real choice.”
What about leadership? I asked. “Remember the two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964,” the adviser responded. “They both lost their next election.” But Wellstone voted against the Iraq measure, I shot back. “That’s Wellstone,” the adviser replied. “He’s different.”
Different, indeed. He never fretted about being on the wrong side of a 99-1 vote. Not that he liked it. But he realized this would occasionally happen. I always thought it would be tough to be that alone, that exposed (politically). But Wellstone, as far as I saw, was ever optimistic, always upbeat–almost to an annoying degree. As a quasi-pessimist, I often tried to coax him into conceding that a situation looked grim, perhaps hopeless. He never obliged. After the 1994 elections handed the Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time in decades, Wellstone was upset but not down. “We don’t have time for despair,” he said. “The fight doesn’t change. It just gets harder. But it’s the same fight.” The ebb and flow of political power in Washington concerned him, but never weighed upon him. Wellstone viewed himself a participant in a long-term struggle for social and economic justice and for a safe and sound world, an endeavor which was under way before he hit the scene and which would continue after he departed. And he always seemed truly grateful for having the chance to play his part. When politics is a calling, rather than a career, the inspiration never ends. And there are few in Washington who inspired others as much as did Wellstone, a short, balding man, with a loopy smile and an awkward gait.
Politics, he once said, “is what we dare to imagine.” Before he came to Washington, many Americans could only imagine a senator like Paul Wellstone. But he proved that the dream of having passionate, caring, for-the-people representation in Washington–of having an utterly unabashed populist liberal who lived his principles in the hallways of power–could happen. He demonstrated that he could find his place in Washington, even if he was not embraced by the town; that he could find common ground with ideological foes in pursuit of the public interest; that he could joust with the pundits; and that he could serve nobly and effectively without ceding too much to the capital’s culture of calculation and compromise. Wellstone showed progressives how much is possible. His presence here, these past twelve years, expanded their imagination.
[To read a sample of Wellstone’s own words, click on the link below.]