As I approach the second Oct. 25 since the Wellstone tragedy, I strive to look beyond the sense of loss or grief, which can still be felt with surprising strength, to the senator's significance for Minnesota.
I realized this year, thanks in part to a cynical professor at my graduate school, how much Paul Wellstone was not just a wonderful politician to have in the Senate, but how truly he was an expression of the character of my beloved state.
My professor had been talking about how politicians don't challenge popular presidents because it hurts their reelection chances. "Look at Paul Wellstone," he said. "He voted against war in Iraq and he was going to lose that election."
Not a fan of historical revisionism, I pointed out that the polls taken after Paul stood up against the tide of war showed him winning the horse race by 4 to 8 points. I did this not as a matter of partisan pride, but because I felt this teacher was impugning the Minnesota voter!
I come from, and hope to return to, a state with a strong tradition of valuing equal rights for all and respecting an individual's character and honesty more than her or his political party. We proudly elect those whom we feel represent not the policy stances closest to our own, but the personal integrity toward which we all strive. So it was with Wellstone, who had after 12 years of holding office become quite accustomed to hearing supporters say, "I don't always agree with you, but I always know where you stand."
That phrase alone speaks to who we are. We aren't looking for candidates who represent the best interests of our demographic. I vote the out-of-state grad student platform about as often as I vote for the Swedish special interest. Our state, unique in the nation, looks for men and women whom it can trust to try to do the right thing above all else. Paul Wellstone was the very embodiment of that quest.
I do not mean to say that Wellstone was infallible. He admitted in his own book that a vote for the Defense of Marriage Act was a politically motivated decision, and he broke his pledge to only serve two terms when he decided to seek a third term in 2002. But by and large, in his sponsorship of legislation defending those without a voice -- from victims of domestic violence to the mentally ill to children living in poverty -- he proved to be a champion, a man of courage and conviction fighting for the downtrodden.
It was in the vote on Iraq where Wellstone's courage and conviction were brightly on display, voting against a popular war and a popular president while fighting a neck-and-neck campaign to stay in office. Dan Balz of the Washington Post commented on PBS' "Newshour" two years ago this month that Wellstone had decided, even if it meant political suicide, to vote against the war "because it's true to who I have been."
"And in a state like Minnesota, I think there was some reward for that," Balz said.
We are not a state of contrarians, but it is in our Minnesotan character to respect authenticity and conviction in our leaders on those rare occasions when it is actually displayed. Minnesota voters weren't going to reward this short, bald, passionate man for voting the way we wanted, but for being a man of uncommon integrity, for being authentic and true to himself, for being made of the stuff of champions! We were going to reward him for reacting to a difficult situation in the same way that most of us, in our heart of hearts, can only hope we would imitate.
In Paul Wellstone we saw an idealized version of ourselves, a true person of principle, and we knew this vision to be more important than party membership or partisan disagreements. It was, and will remain, difficult to comprehend and deal with the tragic airplane crash that killed him, Sheila Wellstone, Marsha Wellstone, Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin. The tears still will sometimes catch us by surprise as we realize new aspects of this loss.
Over and above the grief, though, we need to be proud that we are the people who would three times have elected a man like Paul Wellstone. Only a state with the character of Minnesota could have supported for 18 years such an authentic person in U.S. politics. For this we have a right to smile through the tears, pat each other on the back and continue living with the courage, conviction and authenticity that characterize us as Minnesotans.
Jerad Morey, Richfield, is a graduate student at Wesley Theological Seminary and American University in Washington, D.C.
© 2004 Star Tribune