Wellstone remembered

By on November 7, 2002

How the irony of this game resonates now. We can’t help but feel somewhat foolish, as the life and death approach we take to election politics is mocked by the brutal reality of actual matters of life and death.
It was just two weeks ago that this page deemed Senator Paul Wellstone’s (D-Minn.) re-election bid crucial – an election instantly rendered meaningless by the tragic Oct. 25 plane crash that claimed the lives of Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, three of his senate staffers and two pilots.
Amidst all the disillusionment that routinely characterizes the modern political arena, Paul Wellstone’s life served as an example of democracy gone right. Wellstone’s humble beginnings fostered his concern for the disenfranchised, and motivated his undying fighting spirit.
Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Virginia in 1944, Wellstone scored less than 800 on the SAT, but thanks to a furious internal sense of pride and a tireless work ethic, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of North Carolina, where he was a champion wrestler. He went on to earn his doctorate, and was an associate professor of political science at Carleton College in Minnesota for 20 years.
Wellstone lived his life in constant pain after a back injury cut short his wrestling career while still in college. His physical troubles were compounded as he battled multiple sclerosis in recent years, but his debilitating ailments and noticeable trouble walking never once tempered his effort or slowed his frantic pace.
Universally lauded as a man of principle, the diminutive and previously unknown Wellstone burst onto the national scene in 1990, as he challenged Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz for one of Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seats.
Powered only by the strength of his ideals and an energetic volunteer base, Wellstone traveled the state in a now legendary psychedelic green van, and won enough support to oust Boschwitz and score one of the most shocking political upsets of the decade. He is thought to be the first “60’s radical” elected to the United States Senate.
Wellstone’s legislative career was one of mixed success, but his conviction never wavered. If the result of a senate vote was 99 to 1, one could bet that Paul Wellstone was the lone dissenter. His absolute refusal to sacrifice his beliefs for the sake of political expediency, even in the face of inevitable defeat, earned him the utmost respect from both sides of the aisle.
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said simply, “He was such a good man.”
Staunch conservative Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a man Wellstone once said he despised, also expressed sorrow. Said Helms, “Paul unfailingly and eloquently articulated his beliefs. We held contrasting views on politics and government, but I liked and respected him. He was my friend, and I was his.”
Wellstone, a traditional and pure liberal, fought passionately to enhance education funding, make health care more universally available and overhaul the welfare system, but he will be most remembered for his unassuming good nature. He treated people equally, no matter their position or influence.
I worked in the United States Senate for five months, and had the privilege of meeting and briefly interacting with Sen. Wellstone. Over a cup of juice at a pension bill mark-up meeting, he noticed me staring at him and asked me with genuine sincerity how I liked the Senate, and who I thought would win the NCAA basketball tournament.
The courtesy he showed me, a nameless, faceless college intern, was emblematic of the true spirit of humanity he spread to all those he came across. The Senate, and the entire realm of public service, has lost a great friend in Paul Wellstone. Let us only hope that his courage and strength of conviction can be examples for all those current and future leaders who rightly held him in such high esteem.


About Joe Reynolds