These days, if you ask typical politicians where their conscience is, they will promptly direct you to their pollster’s office down the hall. Not Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.). I wouldn’t be surprised if the only poll he perused this year was the pre-election survey.
It’s not that he didn’t care. He did. It’s just that polls are irrelevant when you know the people are in good hands, compassionate hands, hands that would be raised by the people themselves if they were given the same mandate to choose what is best for them. Wellstone saw his election as a mandate, the very heart of republicanism. He was responding to a call to rely on the same conviction that he demonstrated on the campaign trail and promised to incorporate once he was on The Hill.
Power did not corrupt Wellstone’s passion. Reelection concerns did not compromise his fervor. With a country behind a popular president’s call to war, and yet another daunting challenger threatening his reelection bid, Wellstone did not hesitate to defy the laws of Washington politics. He was the only senator up for reelection in November to vote against giving the president the ability to declare war on Iraq. Wellstone once said he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”
But he wasn’t what was called a “limousine liberal.” Since his success in 1990, Wellstone has kept that old green bus in which he’d ride around the frigid Minnesota countryside, preaching the gospel of liberalism. He was for the little people. He was only five foot five in wingtips. He used to say, “I’m for the little fellers, not the Rockefellers.”
In a call yesterday to Wellstone’s fellow Minnesota leader and mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak, I asked about Wellstone’s commitment to all his constituents. “Anyone who feels alienated or leaderless, no matter how small you are, you have to make a change,” said Rybak, relating the message of his deceased colleague. “We have to pick up [where Wellstone left off], and figure out how we’re going to move the green bus.”
Friday, at a memorial service in front of the Minnesota state capitol, a preacher told the crowd, “We cannot park the green bus.” If it were a practical choice, Wellstone probably would have taken the bus up to northern Minnesota for the funeral he was scheduled to attend. He was known to hate and fear flying in those small planes.
The press liked Wellstone too. CNN Political Analyst Bill Schneider said Saturday that Wellstone was “the most authentic voice of the 60s left in American politics. Clinton came out of that same 60s tradition but was willing to trim and compromise in order to move ahead.”
Rybak remembered the first time he met Wellstone. “I was a complete long-shot for mayor,” he said. “Didn’t have a lot of money, up against an incumbent, no one wanted to get near me. Then I’m at a party event, and [Wellstone] comes up to me and gives me a big hug. And he whispers in my ear: ‘Just keep fighting. Tell the truth. And good things will happen.’” And for that, you couldn’t help but appreciate his dedication, perseverance, and yes, spunk too—even if you’re on the other side of the aisle. Pragmatist Republicans derided him as an anachronistic idealist, but they certainly had to respect the unpredictability of a vote that came not from calculation but from conscience.
There is a good deal of irony in the Republican sympathy and obligatory sentiments of reverence for the integrity Wellstone displayed. The awkwardness of their championing him for his conviction before debasing the same principles is palpable. President Bush hand-picked Norm Coleman, Minnesota’s Republican senatorial nominee, to remove Wellstone from office. The Republican National Committee openly targeted Minnesota as a top prospect for gaining the much-needed majority-swaying seat this November. Now, Republicans will face a backlash of support from Minnesotans fondly remembering Wellstone. Death brings out our mortality as humans, and few embodied the compassion of the human spirit like the senator.
With that in mind, it appears that Minnesota Democrats are lining up former Vice President Walter Mondale to ride the wave of support for old-fashioned Minnesotan liberalism. Wellstone had just started pulling away in the polls, and Democrats can only hope that absence makes the votes grow fonder. When John F. Kennedy ’40 was shot in 1963, his public approval ratings skyrocketed from the nadir of his presidency. In an eerily similar chain of events, Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash within days of Missouri’s 2001 senatorial election, and his wife was able to seize the reins and defeat John Ashcroft. Perhaps history will again repeat itself.