Published on Monday, October 28, 2002 by CommonDreams.org
Replacing the Irreplaceable Paul Wellstone
by Harvey Wasserman
The memorial at Kent State University was the perfect place to walk and talk with Paul Wellstone. He was hurting from an old college wrestling injury, and perhaps, though we didn't know it then, from the onset of MS. So he could barely move around. But what walking he could do, he did with grace. An athlete in pain.
Paul was also, as always, sharp and committed. We were awaiting our turns to speak to an energetic band of young citizen activists, fresh out of college. They were bright, progressive environmentalists, full of vim and promise, a welcome island in the 1990s sea of Clintonian materialism.
As we circled the memorial we found ourselves close to tears. When this official butchery happened, we were both active in the movement against the war in Vietnam. The 1970 shooting, engineered by Richard Nixon and Ohio Gov. James A. Rhodes, sent a message: you could be killed.
We took it personally. The dead were our slightly younger compatriots. They were white, middle class innocents exercising their sacred American rights on the sanctuary of a college campus. The use of live ammunition by National Guardsmen not much older than the students they were killing was a horrifying breach of faith. The war had come home.
But in the mid 1990s, as we walked through the memorial and saw where the Guardsmen were when they fired, and where the students were when they fell, Paul and I had a different perspective. Now we felt it as parents, ingesting the heartsickness of what it must have meant to scrape together enough to send children to a state university only to see them gunned down with bullets paid for by our own tax dollars. An utterly terrifying hurt.
And now, soulsick again, we ask: how can we possibly replace Paul Wellstone?
Paul's speech at Kent was, as always, full of fire. The son of immigrant Jews, he was an unabashed prairie populist. He preached the old-time grass roots religion. His unswerving belief in democracy and the basic wisdom of average people was a faith he alone carried into the US Senate until he was joined by Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, who was inspired by Paul to run.
Indeed, the idea that such a man could be in the US Senate seems an inherent impossibility. Today it is a body almost totally defined by money and the hollow rhetoric it buys. By contrast, Paul was grounded in the best realities of the American democratic tradition. His primary commitment was to the basics of social justice and human rights.
Paul's election campaigns also illustrated a lesson the Democratic Party seems incapable of learning. In 1996, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, Wellstone voted against Bill Clinton's harsh, cynical welfare "reform" bill. Conventional wisdom said this would doom his re-election bid. But Paul's poll numbers immediately jumped, and he walked back into office.
This year, alone among Democrats in competitive races, Wellstone cast a principled vote against granting George Bush blanket war powers. Again, conventional wisdom said this would doom his campaign. Again his poll numbers leapt up, and his campaign took on the aspect of a winner.
The personal tragedy of Paul's fiery death, with his wife, his daughter, campaign aides and two pilots, is staggering. And so is the loss of Paul as a political player.
Aside from Feingold, whose style is far less emotional, Paul's commitments in the Senate were completely unique. He was willing to go to Colombia and shout against the injustice and brutality of the US "drug war" there. The issues of poverty, social injustice and racism stayed at the core of his being in a time when the smug essence of being a US Senator is about using the rhetoric of those issues as occasional window dressing. Paul genuinely believed in the need to save the environment, stop nuclear power and bring on an era of renewable energy, and he acted on those beliefs.
Wellstone's demise has further destabilized an already deeply troubled election. When Missouri's Mel Carnahan died in a plane crash in 2000, his name successfully remained on the ballot, and the Democratic governor filled the seat with Carnahan's wife, who is now fighting desperately to retain it.
In Minnesota, the governor is Jesse Ventura, and the situation is chaotic. The Democrats are hoping to replace Wellstone with the much more conservative Walter Mondale. Very importantly, Mondale might hold the seat, and thus help retain a Democratic edge in the Senate, preserving a crucial, tiny brake on the authoritarian power of the Bush regime.
But Walter Mondale is no Paul Wellstone. Someone tangible, on a day-to-day basis, has to pick up the physical work he did and do it just as well.
I know of one such instance. In 1995 the great George M. Barley died in a mysterious plane crash. George was a successful, much-loved businessman whose passion was to save the Florida Everglades. His ceaseless energy and effective brilliance seemed to make him the indispensable man in a brutal campaign against the entrenched power of Big Sugar. When he died, common wisdom said all that would end, and that the Everglades were hopelessly doomed.
But his wife Mary picked up the charge and has made George's legacy into a viable political reality. Helping to found a wide range of Save-the Everglades organizations, Mary led the campaign to win the nation's first "make the polluter pay" amendment to a state constitution. She was greatly responsible for federal legislation earmarking up to $8 billion to save the Everglades. She has become known far and wide as the essential guardian of that irreplaceable natural treasure.
Tragically, the wonderful Sheila Wellstone died with Paul, along with their daughter. His sons may yet have their day. But ultimately, Paul showed that with virtually no money, and a whole lot of spunk and commitment, individuals can change the world.
Paul chose to do that, against all odds, by somehow getting into the US Senate, and then keeping the faith once there. Paul inspired Russ Feingold to do much the same in winning a Senate seat in neighboring Wisconsin. Feingold then joined John McCain to win the first battle in the long war for election finance reform. Hopefully that, in turn, could jar the door for others like Paul who might keep their commitment to actually serve the people who elect them.
Paul Wellstone now stands as a role model for those wanting to reclaim a political system thoroughly corrupted and debased by big money.
No one can personally replace this dear brother. But we are obliged to try. The work he set out to do, the commitments he made, and the vacuum he left us to fill are as clear as the light in Paul's eyes when he shouted his passion to all who would listen.
Harvey Wasserman is author of THE LAST ENERGY WAR: THE BATTLE OVER UTILITY DEREGULATION (Seven Stories Press). E-mail: NonukesHW@aol.com