Published on Saturday, October 26, 2002 by the United Press International
Wellstone - Man of the People
by Jillian Jonas
NEW YORK -- The death of liberal Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife, daughter and others, brings with it a myriad of emotions for those of us who are left of center. Above and beyond the incredibly sad tragedy for the Wellstone family, and for the people of Minnesota for whom he served since 1990, comes with it the terrible sadness of the death of hope, of enormous potential and of a promise unfulfilled.
By almost universal accounts, Wellstone was a highly regarded and respected public servant, deeply committed to reshaping the mission of government to help people, particularly those who are disenfranchised and poor. He is quoted as having said, "I still believe government can be used as a force for good in peoples lives," music to the ears of those of us who have remained unabashed liberals in the face of demonization and ridicule over the last decade, in particular.
Throughout all the post-mortem coverage I could stand to watch, two specific words were continually repeated to describe the man: principled and decent. Those aren't words you hear very often to characterize a politician these days -- even from his ideological opponents in the Senate -- and for good reason. He was also said to have possessed a great sense of humor, which ultimately allowed him the ability to work with senators on both sides of the aisle.
Over and over again, Wellstone found himself alone, speaking out over countless injustices, unfairness, and for what he thought to be right, to the amazement and reassurance of those of us with a progressive bent. He could be counted on to take the unpopular view, and to speak up for the underdog. In eulogizing Wellstone Friday, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, "He stood his ground, he gave hope to others." It could be argued that Wellstone served as the conscience of the Senate.
To his enormous courage and credit, Wellstone voted against the use of force in Iraq, while facing a tough political battle for re-election this year. He also voted against the war in 1991, and against President Clinton's disastrous and mean-spirited welfare reform. He was identified with good progressive causes like health care reform, an affordable prescription drug plan for seniors, and labor issues, and was vociferous against the Bush tax cut for the rich. As one of the Senate's only Jewish members, he approached the struggle in the Middle East with balance, integrity and humanity for both sides, while also supporting the International Criminal Court.
Furthermore, Wellstone's background as an actual man of the people -- a former college professor and grassroots political activist -- will be sorely missed in the face of the lawyers and millionaires who effectively own the exclusive club known as the U.S. Senate.
But for all that Wellstone represented, over the ensuing years, there was a sense for some on the left that Wellstone never fully delivered. Upon his initial election, The Nation described Wellstone as the "Senator from the Left," and Mother Jones magazine held him up as "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate." Yet last year, Mother Jones in an article entitled "The Seduction of Paul Wellstone," essentially accused Wellstone of selling out, of being co-opted by the very process he promised to shake-up. For others, the mere fact that he chose to run for a third term after promising in both 1990 and 1996 not to, was evidence enough.
For me personally, the realities of politics and of the importance of retaining the Senate underscores not a power grab but in actuality, Wellstone's deep commitment to the issues which separate Republicans from Democrats, including the composition of the Supreme Court.
All and all, while there is no such thing as perfection in an elected official, Wellstone was as close as you could get. He was among the last of a dying breed of intellectuals, who said what he believed, and bothered to understand what it was he was fighting on behalf of. When the ideological right revealed its true agenda as not anti-communism but the permanent destruction of liberalism itself, Paul Wellstone was one of the few who by his record, stood his ground unyieldingly, and scared the hell out of them.
And we cheered him on along the way. His loss is enormous.
Jillian Jonas is a freelance writer and unapologetic liberal who lives in New York
© 2002 News World Communications, Inc