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Paul Wellstone, RIP

By W. James Antle III
web posted October 28, 2002

There are two kinds of people who enter politics. There are those who wish to be someone and those who wish to accomplish something. Those who seek office for its own sake and those who wish to use public office to advance a cause larger than themselves. Those who are attracted to power and those who are animated by their values and ideas.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was killed along with his wife, daughter, several campaign aides and two pilots in a plane crash in northern Minnesota, was among the latter. While most politicians rely on polls and focus groups to make decisions, Wellstone followed his convictions even when they were unpopular. Washington is a city filled with people who want to be part of a crowd, yet Wellstone was unafraid to stand alone.

In the latest issue of National Review magazine, John J. Miller said that Wellstone "inhabits a world in which health-care coverage is never complete enough, the minimum wage never high enough, 'the rich' never taxed enough, and government never big enough." Suffice it to say, I profoundly disagreed with Wellstone's ideology and his positions on most important issues. But I admired his tenacity, his commitment to following his beliefs and what even his opponents have described as his kindness and decency.

His father was a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union who had written for the Boston Transcript before resigning in protest over the newspaper's isolationism as Adolf Hitler was coming to power and later became a writer for the U.S. Information Agency. A champion wrestler at the University of North Carolina, Wellstone decided to fight for political causes instead, obtaining a doctorate in political science and moving to Minnesota to teach at Carleton College in 1969. One of the classes he taught there was "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing," drawing on his experience as a community activist.

Paul Wellstone
Wellstone

After decades of teaching and activism, Wellstone ran for the U.S. Senate against established Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. He was given little chance to win and was outspent 7-to-1. He took to touring Minnesota in a rickety green bus, relying on the passion of mainly young liberal activists to fuel his campaign. Improbably, he became the only challenger to defeat a sitting senator in 1990.

Initially, it did not appear that Wellstone would fit in with the collegial atmosphere of the Senate. He proudly proclaimed that he detested Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC). At a White House reception for new members of Congress in 1991, he broke protocol by repeatedly and strenuously questioning President George Bush's policy of using military force to expel Iraq from Kuwait, prompting the president to mutter, "Who is this chickenshit?"

Yet he grew in office, not in the usual Washington sense of abandoning his convictions out of political expediency (especially desired of conservatives) but in a more important way. He came to see his political opponents as he people he continued to disagree with but not as caricatures. He learned when to rock the boat and when to work within the system. Thus, he was able to put aside his original animosity toward Helms and work with him in opposing most-favored-nation trade status for China. (He even gave a warm tribute to the retiring senator on the Senate floor just weeks ago.) He worked with Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) on mental health issues and with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) on curbing international trafficking in women.

Even many of his liberal fellow travelers did not appreciate this maturation. After the 1990 election, Mother Jones magazine exulted Wellstone as "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate," but in 2001 ran an article lamenting his "consummate insider" status entitled "The Seduction of Paul Wellstone." The left-wing webzine CounterPunch ran an article titled "Paul Wellstone's Tattered Legacy" by Green Party activist Jeff Taylor attacking the senator for everything from failing to honor his pledge to run for only two terms to his rare nonliberal position on gay marriage. Minnesota's Green Party was running a candidate against Wellstone in this year's tight Senate race.

But the fact that Wellstone learned to work with his colleagues within the process didn't dampen his liberalism. He gave his maiden Senate speech opposing the Gulf War in 1991, he was the only senator seeking reelection in 1996 to vote against the popular welfare reform bill and he was the only Democrat in a tough race for reelection this year to vote against the resolution President George W. Bush (43) sought to authorize military intervention against Iraq. Even though he represented the state that gave America Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale - the only state that never voted for Ronald Reagan - his continued pattern of voting against the polls prevented him from enjoying a safe Senate seat. Reason's Jesse Walker called these votes "proof that, for all the inevitable compromises he's made over the years, he was willing to give his conscience its due. Few others in Washington can say that."

This is precisely the lesson that all of us, regardless of our own views, can take from Wellstone's life and career. It is no coincidence that his book The Conscience of a Liberal borrows its title from Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative. The two men shared a passion for their beliefs and a commitment to making sure that their respective political parties didn't lose their souls. Conservatives also need leaders who will adhere to principles even in the face of political risk.

As vehemently as I disagree with liberals, I have never subscribed to the idea that they are all horrible people consciously seeking to subvert America. Many of them are good people whose opinions I disagree with, but whose commitment to justice I don't question. Perhaps the late senator's old nemesis Helms said it best: "Despite the marked contrast between Paul's and my views on matters of government and politics, he was my friend and I was his. He unfailingly represented his views eloquently and emphatically."

Not a bad summary of what public service should be about.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.


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