On Native Ground
CAN ANYONE REPLACE PAUL WELLSTONE?
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone had more guts and integrity than almost any other member of Congress. He was not ashamed to be a liberal and a Democrat and stayed true to the progressive cause when other Democrats rushed to the middle of the road.
That's why it hurts so much to be writing about him in the past tense. At a time when we could use few thousand more people like Wellstone in Congress, in the judiciary and in statehouses from sea to shining sea, we instead lost one of the few true honest, decent and sincere men in Washington.
President Bush, the man whose White House brain trust has devoted considerable energy and money in making sure Wellstone lost his reelection campaign, looked genuinely shaken over Wellstone's death. Maybe he was thinking about what a total schmuck he was compared to Wellstone. But we know better.
Investigative journalist and columnist Wayne Madsen told this story on the CounterPunch Website (counterpunch.com) about how the Bush crew really felt about Paul Wellstone.
Wellstone was at a 1991 White House reception for newly-elected Members of Congress. When Wellstone went through the receiving line to meet President George Herbert Walker Bush, Wellstone used the occasion to urge him to spend more time on issues such as education and health care and cautioned him against going to war with Iraq.
"After Wellstone violated Bush 41's sanctimonious White House protocol," wrote Madsen, "Bush was overheard saying, 'Who is this chickensh-t?'"
Wellstone was at the top of White House political czar Karl Rove's hit list. The Republican Party made it their top priority to defeat him in this election. They poured more money and resources into Republican challenger Norm Coleman's campaign than any other race in the country.
The irony is that it wasn't working. When he died, Wellstone had taken a slight lead in the polls over Coleman. The lead came from a move that most Democrats considered political suicide in a tight race - voting against President Bush's resolution to attack Iraq.
In an ABC News interview on the day before his death, Wellstone talked about that vote and how he "agonized" over whether it was the right thing to do.
"I spent a lot of time calling people around the country and listening," he said. "But as far as politically, really, to me, I thought, I felt my best judgment, my honest best judgment was not to support this open-ended resolution. And, I did say to Sheila, my wife, and I called my kids, and I did say that I thought it could be the end of the race. But now I don't feel that way at all... . I don't know if I can ever remember a time in 12 years where people have been so respectful. Even people who haven't agreed. They just come up and they say, 'you know, we have no doubt that you really rendered your best judgment and that's the way you did this ... and even if we don't agree, we respect you. That has been the nicest feeling in the world."
In the end, Wellstone said, it was not a vote that was for or against President Bush. It was about something deeper. "Did you make the right judgment, that you thought was best for our families, for our sons and daughters who could be in harm's way, for what might happen in the world? That's what people want to know."
That's what Wellstone's politics were about - making the right calls on behalf of people who didn't have lobbyists, political action committees and gobs of money to make themselves heard. Unfortunately, there are too few like him in today's Democratic Party.
Wellstone - a college professor and political activist before he got into politics - was the only Senator who voted against President Clinton's welfare reform bill. He actively opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement and every other piece of legislation that gave more power to corporations. He was a strong advocate for civil rights, for raising the minimum wage, for affordable health care, for protecting the environment and for campaign finance reform.
Health care reform was the issue he talked most about when I met Wellstone in New Hampshire during the 2000 presidential campaign. I was editing a mid-sized newspaper when he made a stop at to talk up the candidate he was backing, Bill Bradley. Five-foot-five and still possessing the wiry body of the college wrestler he once was, Wellstone was plain-spoken and completely without ego.
Wellstone supported a single-payer health care program - similar to the Canadian system - when other Democrats went into hiding on health care reform. He was not afraid of the pharmaceutical industry, the HMO lobby and all the rest of the special interests that have blocked any attempt at health care reform.
After talking with him for about an hour, I came away even more convinced that Bill Bradley should be campaigning for him, and not the other way around. I told him that I was disappointed that he decided against running for president. Wellstone laughed and said that he thought he was better off staying in the Senate. He was also concerned about his health; at the time, his back was hurting from an old wrestling injury. Not long afterward, he announced that he had multiple sclerosis.
Wellstone was a man who was not for sale. This was a man who actually cared about the welfare of the average person and maintained the political activism and ideals of the 1960s into a new century. And that's why the Republicans hated him so much and made it their top priority to defeat him.
It was no surprise that the Republicans and their media lap dogs were screaming their heads off after the memorial service for Wellstone. More than 20,000 people showed up and twice that many were outside; an impressive turnout for what ultimately was a celebration of Wellstone's progressive ideals and activism. The service was a loud repudiation of the conservatives' attempt to hijack America, and the GOP hated every minute of it.
Wellstone is gone, but he won't be forgotten - especially if his example inspires other good and decent people to get involved in politics. We can only hope that happens. Given the tepid centrist course of the current Democratic leadership in Congress, there are few that are willing to assume Wellstone's mantle as the standard bearer for liberalism.
That, perhaps, is the saddest thing that has come out of the death of Paul Wellstone - the realization that he may have been the last honest liberal in Congress and that no one yet has stepped up to continue his fight for a better America.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).