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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 64

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This is the grave of Paul Wellstone.

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Born in Washington, DC in 1944 and educated with a BA and PhD in political science at the University of North Carolina, Wellstone moved to Minnesota in 1969 when he became a professor at Carleton College. He instantly became involved in left-wing politics there, working in the anti-war and poverty movements. The FBI began a file on him in 1970 after he was arrested during an anti-war protest. He founded Organization for a Better Rice County, a welfare-rights organization that mobilized the poor for social and economic justice. The trustees of Carleton found all of this unseemly and attempted to deny Wellstone tenure. But a student protest movement forced them to cave and grant him tenure.

In 1982, Wellstone sought public office for the first time, winning the Democratic primary for state auditor. He lost in the general election to future govenror Arne Carlson. He remained active in state politics, co-chairing the state’s Dukakis campaign in 1988 after he had chaired Jesse Jackson’s run in the primary.

In 1990, Wellstone decided to run for Senate. This was a serious long-shot. He was a leftist professor with no money and no record of winning public office. He faced Rudy Boschwitz, a generally well-respected two term senator. But Wellstone ran a brilliant underdog campaign and Boschwitz made a number of stupid errors, including calling Wellstone “a bad Jew” for marrying a Christian, a move that did not work well in this Lutheran and Catholic-heavy state. Despite being massively outspent, Wellstone won the race, the only successful challenge of a sitting senator that year.

As senator, Wellstone made a name for himself as a leftist voice in an increasingly centrist and pro-business Democratic Party. He took a leadership position on issues such as opposing Clinton’s welfare reform, as well as on environmentalism, health care, labor, and domestic violence. In 1996, Boschwitz ran for his old seat but Wellstone defeated him again, a sign of the grassroots passion Wellstone inspired in many of his voters. He was not perfect, as he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which he later regretted. There was a grassroots effort to get Wellstone to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2000. But facing a lot of back pain due to his college wrestling days that was later diagnosed as multiple sclerosis, Wellstone decided against it.

In 2002, Wellstone faced another tough race. This race was made tougher because the Green Party, that paragon of political brilliance, decided to run a candidate in that race, even after in 2000 Green Party VP candidate Winona LaDuke had openly lauded Wellstone for standing up for their issues. He also faced a well-funded Norm Coleman on the Republican side. None of this stopped Wellstone from taking strong stances. He authored the Wellstone Amendment in the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill, creating hard money limits on outside campaign advertising from nonprofits that ranged from the NRA to the Sierra Club. The Supreme Court upheld this in 2003 but of course it was destroyed in Citizens United in 2010. Wellstone also voted against Congressional authorization for the Iraq War in October 2002, a vote he believed would lead to his defeat the next month.

On October 25, 2002, Wellstone, his wife, his daughter, and some campaign staffers were flying to a funeral in northern Minnesota, a steelworker whose father was in the Minnesota House. That night, he had to debate Norm Coleman in Duluth. Alas, the plane crashed, probably from the flight crew not maintaining a proper speed, although we will never know for sure. No one survived.

In the aftermath, Minnesota Democrats asked Walter Mondale to step into Wellstone’s place in the Senate race. His funeral, rightfully, was a partisan rallying cry for Democrats. This is certainly what he would have wanted. However, conservatives went crazy over this, with very principled people such as Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan leading the outcry. Unfortunately, Coleman won a narrow victory over Mondale in November.

The American left lost a great leader when Wellstone died. With the Iraq War about to begin and the horrors of the Bush administration just becoming clear, Wellstone would have provided critical leadership against him and probably a 2004 presidential run. We will never know if he would have won the nomination, but given the initial grassroots support of someone pretty lame like Howard Dean and the relatively indifferent choices Democrats had that year, there’s no question that Wellstone would have changed the dynamics of the race.

Were Paul Wellstone still alive today, he would still only be 72 years old. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney continue to live.

Paul Wellstone is buried in Lakewood Cemetery, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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  • wengler

    Another great moment of conservatism in calling out Wellstone’s son who had just lost his sister and both his parents.

  • Nobdy

    This is a good write-up of a great American, but I think it’s worth noting that the Democrats did win back Wellstone’s seat in 2009, in a hardfought battle, and it’s currently occupied by Al Franken, who was a friend and admirer of Wellstone’s and has been a pretty good senator.

    In these trying times it’s worth noting that even though Wellstone’s death was a significant setback, the seat wasn’t lost to Coleman forever, and that the current occupant consciously and intentionally carries forth Wellstone’s legacy.

    • JL

      Indeed, having still been in high school in 2002 and not really aware of Wellstone, I got some sense of who he was, beyond just being a Dem politicians, through one of Franken’s books.

    • Matt_L

      Al Franken is a good Senator, but he is no Paul Wellstone. He is a millionaire show business guy. Even though Wellstone was a PhD college professor, he was still way closer to the lived experiences and choices of ordinary people than either of the two millionaire who currently serve as senators from Minnesota.

      • EliHawk

        was still way closer to the lived experiences and choices of ordinary people

        Dick Nixon, the self-made son of a hardscrabble quaker family, and George Wallace, the son of Alabama Farmers, were probably closer to the lived experiences and choices of ordinary people than FDR, but the latter did a hell of a lot more for them than the former. Fetishizing that kind of authenticity is overrated.

        • Matt_L

          Well by that standard, both Donald Trump and Mitt Romney should be our fucking saviors.

          No, I did not say Wellstone was more authentic, I said that he worked for a living.

          I know that Franken worked in show business, and having worked in that industry I would say that is hard work. But Franken earned a huge salary. He made bank. He has multiple homes: one in Washington DC, one in NYC and Minnesota. We was a winner in an industry where many actors and actresses hold down multiple part time jobs hoping to “make it” like Franken and they never do, no matter how talented or hard working they are. I applaud his good fortune, and like I said, I think he is a good Senator.

          Frankly, I am sick of being ruled by Millionaires and Billionaires. Wellstone was not a Millionaire and did not use his position in politics to make himself one. That is refreshing and all too rare.

          • Cassiodorus

            I met Franken once in college. This would have been post-Air America/pre-Senate campaign. My friends and I were the last people in line at the book signing. He stood around for a good 15 minutes or so talking to us. By far the nicest public figure I’ve ever met. We were three kids, approximately 20, living in a state that was completely irrelevant to his political ambitions. And yet he took time out of his schedule to get to know us. He may be wealthy, but he’s certainly not out of touch.

  • Hercules Mulligan

    I opened this post on my phone, saw the first line, and my stomach just dropped.

    Good summary of an amazing man who was taken far too soon. It’s a small comfort, but it’s nice to know that Wellstone’s friends and allies continue to serve the state in Congress, particularly Al Franken, who stomped Norm Coleman like Paul would have wanted.

  • MAJeff

    Still have my Wellstone yard sign from that final campaign in my office. It was a miserable, miserable fall.

  • Todd

    “He remained active in state politics, co-chairing the state’s Dukakis campaign in 1988 after he had chaired Jesse Jackson’s run in the primary.”

    Wow. Almost like Wellstone came to the instantaneous conclusion that any Democrat was nearly infinitely better than virtually any Republican in the office of President. Wonder if that is a lesson that others could learn?

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      In fact, it’s a lesson most supporters of Bernie Sanders already know, as our voting for Clinton in November attests.

    • DrS

      Remember how there were democrats who would have backed Michael Bloomberg if Sanders had won the nomination?

      • Hercules Mulligan

        Gang, I personally agree (and Todd started it), but if any post deserves to be free of our usual brand of political infighting, it’d be nice for it to be this one.

  • Lasker

    Growing up in Minneapolis, the death of Paul Wellstone, the backlash to his funeral, and election of Norm Coleman was a formative political event for me, behind only the 2000 election, 9/11, and the long awful march to the war in Iraq in importance. Not to say I learned any particular lesson – but it contributed to the ongoing sense of helplessness, defeat, and doom that continued through Kerry’s loss in 2004 until Obama’s victory in 2008.

    • D.N. Nation

      Good God, the feigned tut-tutting wingnut outrage at every attempt by liberals to be liberals and promote liberalism during those years. Why do you want Saddam to gas the Kurds? F these people.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Wellstone coined the great phrase: “I’m from the Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party”. A marvelous fuck you to Joe Lieberdem and (can we say it out loud now?) Bill Clinton.

    • Excitable Boy

      It’s ironic how when he was alive so many were already willing to throw him under the bus as a sell-out.

      …personal beseechings of Hillary Clinton, who cannily targeted the outspoken single-payer advocate as a potential adversary in promoting her managed care scheme. Hillary spent a good deal of time soliciting Wellstone and bending his ear; when the senator finally confided to Casper that he was thinking of supporting the Clinton plan, it became clear that her time had been well spent.

      During his 1996 reelection campaign, I asked Wellstone why. He responded by describing the rigors of life in the Senate and concluding, “It’s taken a lot of time and energy to deal with that process, and I find it hard to do both. It’s very hard in terms of time.” In other words, his priorities had changed. It was not so much a disavowal of his political principles as a tactical decision about what it meant to be “senatorial.”

      If it’s painfully clear that Wellstone sold out his best impulses along the way, the matter of how and why still bears examination.

      The inevitable question is, what else could he have done? Simple: He could have done what he set out to do, which was to concentrate on mobilizing and building ties between left-liberal citizens and activists across the country.

      And, given the negative reaction back home to his early prominence in opposing the Gulf War, it might well have meant he’d serve only one term. But there’s every reason to think it would have been a more honorable and productive course than the one Wellstone chose. If he had kept to plan, he might have forged something lasting, a legacy he and others could have continued building when his Washington days were through.

      …And he’ll lose owing to the public perception that, contrary to his two-terms-and-out promise and all that it implied, he went to Washington and became just another career politician.

      http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2001/01/seduction-paul-wellstone

      Welstone himself stated the enormous difficulty in accomplishing what he had hoped to achieve originally, that was not good enough for JM writer Steve Perry. Things like limitations on time, energy, and resources are never permitted to intrude on the fantasy of just wishing harder. Perry would have preferred a moral pyrrhic victory. So many critics that have never run for elected office or done much of anything in the political sphere are so quick to excoriate others for not adhering to the “approved” plan for achieving the critic’s personal idea of moral justice. Any deviation in chastity must be rigorously vilified.

      Lastly, the fact that friend and ally Franken supported both Clinton’s never intrudes on this false narrative of certain purists.

  • Philip

    Rick Kahn’s speech at the memorial is really worth a listen.

  • jonp72

    The galling thing about the Greens in Minnesota in 2002 was that their candidate, Ed McGaa, was to the right of Wellstone on the Iraq War, but he was Native American so that’s supposed to make him more naturally progressive because reasons. That’s as dumb as the Washington elector who voted for Faith Spotted Eagle for prez but the Seattle-based left can’t get their shit together to pass a carbon tax.

  • Bruce Vail

    It’s a reminder that there was a minority of Democrats in Congress who voted against Bush’s Iraq War resolution back in 2002.

    Wellstone was one of them; Chuck Schumer was not

  • Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney continue to live.

    “He’s more machine now than man. Twisted and evil.”

    Obi-Wan Kenobi

  • egg

    Wellstone still holds the push up and pull up record at Capitol Police gym. 91 and 28 respectively in one minute. Oh, those old wrestlers.

    Though, I hear Paul Ryan. . . oh, never mind.

  • Excitable Boy

    Loomis, I like your focus on history and labor. It is a pleasure to read another’s perspective on past heroes and figures too many others give short shift or ignore completely.

    However, why must you write things like “someone pretty lame like Howard Dean” in so many of your posts? The RW is ready to smear us all over the internet and media. The circular firing squad of Clinton, Sanders, Dean, etc. suck doesn’t really help us IMO. In this instance, yes Dean left much to be desired as a Democratic candidate basically being a modern Rockefeller Republican. Except to diminish the importance of his standing up for the anti-war faction of the party and the country, in addition to his more important real time push back on the capture of Hussein making us safer rhetoric at the time, is a great disservice. It just leads to more apathy and is almost another another variant of both side do it. If we can’t acknowledge a good deed in living flawed Democrats what is the point? It leads to an unhealthy fetishizing about dead Democrats and leaders. If only MLK, FDR, Mother Jones, fill in the blank were alive, we wouldn’t be in this mess, which is a gross interpretation of American history and politics. It enables learned helplessness and facilitates victim hood, which I hope is not your intention.

    • I have no interest in serving as a cheerleader.

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Well, dangit. At least I kept the receipt for this pleated skirt I bought you.

  • Bitter Scribe

    What I remember most about the aftermath of Wellstone’s death was Norm Coleman announcing at a press conference that out of respect for the tragedy, he was suspending his campaign. And then announcing at one TV interview after another that out of respect for the tragedy, he was suspending his campaign. And then going to one radio station after another announcing that out of respect for the tragedy, he was suspending his campaign. And then sitting for print interviews announcing that out of respect etc.

    What a mealymouthed piece of shit.

    But remember, the Democrats were the bad guys for “politicizing” Wellstone’s funeral.

    • Matt_L

      Norm Coleman, a man who changes his party like he changes his haircut.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      I didn’t pay enough attention to it at the time, but tonight the light bulb flickers over my head: when Rush dies of a heart attack (two dead in Dominican Republic brothel!) do you think they’re not going to politicize that funeral?! What, are they just going to say, “Hey, he was just an entertainer, not a journalist?” Will they call him a drum major for assholery? A rodeo clown who waved both red handkerchiefs and red herrings at the American people? They’ll laud him as a true American patriot, beloved by several of his many ex-wives.

  • I was born and raised in MN and lived most of my life there (Winona, Rochester). My family has been active in the Democratic party (officially called the DFL — the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party) for generations.

    I knew Wellstone casually. One of the most remarkable things that I recall is how earnestly likable he was. He really listened when you spoke to him. And you listened back, because he was quite compelling. Believe it or not, he was like Hubert Humphrey in that respect. HHH was an old friend of our family and both he and Wellstone were amazingly decent people.

    I also knew several people who had been Wellstone’s students at Carleton in the 1990s. He made quite an impression on them, life-long I expect.

  • mch

    I remember him from Carleton when I was a student there (1968-72). We called him Paul. (I think most profs are called by their first names at Carleton now. Then it was Mr. or Mrs. or Miss.) He was an inspiration.

    • mch

      Let me add a memorial to his colleague, friend, and ally in political activism, with many independent achievements to call his own, physicist Barry “Mike” Casper, or as we called him fondly, “Red Mike.”

  • Matt_L

    Yeah, that was a rough fall. I had lived in Minneapolis on and off since 1998 and really got to like Wellstone. Some of my friends had taken classes with him at Carleton. He was not without his flaws, that first term was really rough because he ran up against “the norms” of the Senate and was not an effective legislator. He took a lot of heat from centrists for that. But he learned how the system worked and got better at finagling the angles he could find.

    The DFL is still missing Paul Wellstone. They are looking for new leaders and people on the left desperately want to vote for someone like him, but there is no replacement. I know a lot of people like MAJeff who still have their Wellstone signs in their offices, behind couches in living rooms, on the walls of their garages and basements.

    • dbk

      They are looking for new leaders and people on the left desperately want to vote for someone like him, but there is no replacement.

      Yes, this, although I have difficulty believing there is no replacement – after all, he would have been 70 now, and surely there are younger people who could be recruited. And not just in MN, either. This sort of new blood is the only genuine hope for the DP over the next few election cycles.

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