Senator Paul Wellstone - 1944-2002
The loss of Senator Paul Wellstone is devastating to the United States, but more so for us aging baby boomers who remember 1960s liberalism when it was still bright and fresh and idealistic. Paul Wellstone fought the good fight for civil rights, for peace, and for all those other progressive causes so denigrated by the "right" and compromised by what passes for the "left" in America today.
To American liberals in all fifty states, Paul Wellstone was Our Senator.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Wellstone grew up in Arlington, Virginia. In 1969, after earning a Ph.D. in political science, Wellstone joined the faculty of Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
According to the New York Times, Professor Wellstone was "a 'rock-the-boat professor' who taught the politics of protest -- a course called 'Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing.'" He was arrested while picketing a bank that had foreclosed on local farmers. In 1988, he co-chaired Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in Minnesota.
In 1990 he campaigned across the state of Minnesota in an old green bus and defeated the Republican incumbent to win a seat in the United States Senate.
As the Democratic Party moved to the right during the Clinton Administration, Wellstone remained an unreconstructed liberal. In 1997 he retraced the steps of a tour of the poorest places in the nation taken by Robert Kennedy in 1967. He was saddened by how little had changed, and by how much his party had abandoned the poorest of the poor.
"The Democratic Party has lost some of its soul," he said.
Wellstone faced one of his greatest tests recently as the Bush Administration pressured Congress to endorse its plans to invade Iraq. The media pundits were predicting that a vote against the resolution was political suicide, and Wellstone was running slightly behind his Republican challenger. (See the September 28 Mahablog.)
But when the time came, Wellstone stuck with his principles and voted no to the resolution, the only incumbent in a tight re-election fight to do so. After that vote, however, Wellstone began to pull ahead of his opponent and appeared to be winning the election. Last week a statewide poll of 1,000 likely voters gave Wellstone a slight lead, 47 percent to 41 percent, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 points.
Senator Wellstone was killed today when his twin-engine campaign aircraft crashed in icy weather. The Senator's wife, Sheila; one of the couple's three children, Marcia; members of the senator's staff; and the plane's two pilots also died.
Flags in Washington, D.C. were quickly lowered to half-mast. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said, " Paul Wellstone was the soul of the Senate. He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known. He was a gallant and passionate fighter, especially for the less fortunate."
Joe Conason wrote in Salon: "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.' File footage running on the networks today showed him being welcomed into the union halls of his state by big, burly men who knew that this liberal intellectual was their best friend." [Joe Conason, Salon, October 25, 2002]
What's Next For Minnesota (And The World)?
Minnesota state law allows the Democrats to replace Senator Wellstone on the ballot. The first name on everyone's lips was Walter Mondale. Fritz Mondale was a Senator for many years and Jimmy Carter's Vice President.
He is 74 years old, which makes him slightly younger than the other "new" Democratic candidate, 78-year-old Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Other possibilities include Alan Page, a former Minnesota Viking football player now serving on the Minnesota Supreme Court, and Hubert Humphrey III, the son of Lyndon Johnson's Vice President and a former state attorney general.
The midterm elections will determine which party will control Congress for the next two years. The pundits predict the Republicans will keep the House and the Democrats will keep the Senate, but possibly by only one vote. Wellstone's death make a Democrat majority less likely.