Wellstone’s Legacy: A Life of Principle

When the haze of sentimentality dissipates, and the people who always mocked or ignored Paul Wellstone have finished covering him with condescension, a truer picture of this great man will emerge. For the moment, Wellstone’s real friends and allies must share him in death with his enemies, because that is an obligation of the national ritual through which we express and transcend our grief about this terrible event.

It is inevitable, in this circumstance, that the late Senator’s longtime adversaries will misuse memories of him to advance partisan ends-to diminish other Democrats, to tarnish other liberals, to reiterate the conventional idiocies he rejected, and ultimately to frustrate the purposes to which he devoted his life. That doesn’t mean such people don’t remember him fondly, sincerely mourn him and feel sorrow for his surviving family. It only means that when conservatives eulogize Wellstone as “that rare honest liberal” or “one of those few liberals who really liked people,” they speak not to praise his ideals, but to bury them.

Someday, however, a biographer who understands what Wellstone’s life meant will set down his story. He rose to prominence from very ordinary beginnings-a short guy, an indifferent student with poor test scores and a learning disability, a suburban son of Jewish immigrants whose problems in school led him into petty delinquency for a while. He first escaped mediocrity by the grace of that most American form of social and academic advancement, the athletic scholarship.

Years passed before Wellstone committed fully to his calling, which wasn’t teaching political science, although that’s what he did for the first two decades of his career. He was a community organizer with tremendous rhetorical talents-and, as he eventually discovered, he was a politician, with the peculiar gift for charming and, more importantly, remembering each voter. It’s a skill that wins elections nobody thinks can be won.

He was also a natural Democrat, as much at ease in a union hall or a restaurant kitchen as on the Senate floor. Though that quality was not necessarily a function of his populist views, it certainly complemented his politics. Other political figures exude that common touch, whether real or counterfeit, and then betray the waitresses and the busboys by voting against the minimum wage. With Wellstone, there was neither doubt nor contradiction.

So there he was, the real thing-a man of the people, with an earnest desire to improve their lives and an unusual capacity to communicate. Of course, he became a member of the Democratic National Committee-if not a party hack, then certainly a party functionary, albeit of a particularly rambunctious stripe. As a Carleton College professor, Wellstone had spent most of his time involved in a variety of left-wing and community-organizing efforts, like many other New Left veterans. Few of those worthy endeavors achieved their objectives. Out of frustration or ambition or both, Wellstone then set himself the task of organizing within his adopted state’s dominant political institution.

At the time, in the early 1980’s, the populist heritage of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party had been relegated to another era. The party’s most celebrated figure was still Hubert Horatio Humphrey, an object of scorn among the New Left for his abject collaboration in the Vietnam War. The party that would soon nominate for President another Minnesotan named Walter Mondale seemed unlikely to welcome Wellstone’s energy and style, let alone his radical perspective. Yet he gathered enough support to win himself a seat on the D.N.C. and to make a rather quixotic run for state auditor.

However serious his differences with the party’s more centrist leadership, in Minnesota and nationally, Wellstone never hesitated to call himself a Democrat. He liked to say that he belonged to “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” When others of his generation veered off into third parties or dropped out of electoral politics altogether, he consistently understood that real politics-and real power-were located in the struggle between the major parties.

He could not be deflected from that insight, even when the state party establishment tried to kick him off the D.N.C. in 1988. Two years later, that perseverance was rewarded with the Senate nomination and a very unlikely victory against a Republican incumbent.

Much has been made of the fact that as a Senator, he often found himself at the short end of a 99-1 roll call. He took pride in that principled obstinacy. But whenever he talked about his own record, Wellstone put equal emphasis on the work he accomplished with more conventional Democrats and with Republicans as well. Greens and other leftish poseurs often denounced his pragmatism, as if the aim of a liberal in Congress should be to annoy colleagues and achieve nothing.

Wellstone could speak as the conscience of his party because he had earned the right to demand a hearing. What he had earned-and what he taught by example-was the difference between dreams and illusions.

Wellstone’s Legacy: A Life of Principle