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Where Have You Gone, Paul Wellstone?

Do you remember the name Paul Wellstone? He was the United States Senator from Minnesota who five years ago this month was killed along with his wife Sheila, and daughter Marcia. They died in the crash of a small airplane while campaigning for Paul’s re-election.

Paul and Sheila were friends of my wife Carol and I during the years I represented Montana in the U.S. Congress.

I still remember many of the eulogies, condolences, and media statements that were made about Paul following his tragic death. Although well-meaning, of course, many of those who commented about Paul frankly had him wrong. Too many described the late Senator as “Senator Softy,” and “an innocent.” The implications inherent in such remembrances of Paul were that he was an unproductive legislator, a likable dreamer”a sort of loveable mascot for the other senators. They attempted to portray him as a friendly but ineffective legislator. Wrong!

Paul was elected to the U.S. Senate eleven years after Montanans had elected me to the U.S. House. He and I found occasions to work together on trade bills, education, public lands issues”including wilderness”and we worked together, no, fought shoulder-to-shoulder on the critical matter of health care for middle income people.

I came to know Wellstone really well and trust this”he was no softyhe was tough. Perhaps it was from his days as a champion high school wrestler that Paul learned how to operate in close, using his leverage, and if needed, his elbows.

Wellstone’s policy determinations and political skills had been forged during the turbulence of the 1960s”a decade as maligned as was Wellstone.

Those of us who came of age during those times were horrified but tempered and hardened by the assassinations of first President Jack Kennedy, then Martin Luther King and yet again with the killing of Bobby Kennedy. The lies of Nixon taught millions of us, including Wellstone, to develop tough questioning doubts about words sent down from on high by our elected leaders”a lesson we need in these times of presidential excess. The unnecessary tragedy of Vietnam turned millions of Americans, including Wellstone, firmly against empowering any president ever again with the authority to make undeclared war. You know, Wellstone was the only senator up for re-election to vote “no” on the Bush proposal to vest the power of war with himself alone. That vote took guts. And now five years later we understand that Paul Wellstone was right and those senators who went along to get along were wrong”tragically, expensively wrong.

Wellstone brought with him to the Senate the organizing political skills he learned in those 1960s. That was a time when the tools of campaigning were developed by the civil rights and cotton field organizers in the south and, up our way by the union organizers from the shop floors, the classrooms, and mine tunnels.

We remember how the 1960s seemed filled with scenes of young people going door-to-door for their cause or candidates, traveling the byways in their crowded buses. They, too, were belittled. Wellstone used those same techniques to win election and re-election. He even had an old beat up green bus in which he and his wife and kids traveled across Minnesota. He understood how to connect with common people”in their homes, in the farm fields, and union halls.

Nope, Paul Wellstone was not a naïve ideologue out there on the fringe who, like most of our candidates, depend upon the paid mercenaries to do their campaigning for them; rather Paul did it the difficult, old-fashioned way”he earned the votes one at a time door-to-door; looking people in the eye and sometimes telling them what they might not have wanted to hearbut needed to know.

During those days five years ago immediately following the deaths of Paul, his wife and daughter, it was interesting and predictable to listen to how carefully some of Wellstone’s arch conservative fellow politicians chose their words, each strategically distancing themselves from his policy preferences by beginning their statements of condolences with words of separation: Utah’s Senator Orin Hatch””Paul and I seldom saw eye-to-eye;” and Senator Jesse Helms””Despite the marked contrast between Paul’s and my view” Yes, they may have been well-meaning, but nonetheless they and others of Paul’s conservative colleagues carefully chose words of purposeful separation from this senator, who through the years they had methodically painted as a “fringe soft liberal.” And one can’t help but notice that during these past five years, the country seems to have forgotten about Paul. And trust this”that memory lapse is just fine with those who voted wrong on the war, wrong on health care, wrong on the environment, and wrong on the catastrophe that is global warming.

This strategy of forgetfulness is purposeful, count on it. It is part and parcel of the efforts to denigrate policy progressives as weak and ineffective. Such consistent but intentional tactics are a relatively recent phenomenon. After all, can anyone recall a claim that Jack Kennedy was weak, or that Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman were ineffective, or that Teddy Roosevelt was a softy? Each of them was the progressive, the liberal in their time.

Paul Wellstone, like the 1960s that forged him, believed the rights of people were higher than the rights of corporations. One has to be darn tough to hold that view! He understood that wholesale deregulation of the private sector would result, as it has, in the excessiveness of the drug companies, Enron and, closer to home, the old Montana Power Company. You know, it’s easier not to do battle with those boys!

Those who marginalized Paul Wellstone in death as they did in life and now five years later dismiss him, have confused their own conceit with strength and Wellstone’s productive determination with weakness.

Be sure of this: there are a lot of Paul Wellstone’s out there–tough, progressive, independent thinkers, risk-takers, tired of the elite rich interests stacking the deck and lining their own pockets. And there are millions more just like them waiting, just waiting for a candidate, like Paul Wellstone, someone who is actually worth voting for.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

 

 

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Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.

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