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The Genuine Article 

Paul Wellstone, 1944–2002

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

“OF MY THREE CAMPAIGNS, THIS ONE has generated the most emotion, the most volunteers,” Paul Wellstone told me on an unseasonably cool and beautiful afternoon in late August as his legendary green campaign bus bounced along down some Minnesota byway. “My supporters think there’s just so much at stake, so much to lose.”

His supporters cheered at almost every turn in the road. Everybody in Minnesota knew Wellstone; everybody knew his bus, and as they saw it coming they would honk and wave or, if dedicated Wellstone haters, honk and give the finger. Although, as Wellstone would marvel later that day, he no longer seemed to inspire the intense dislike you’d expect a figure who took so many unpopular stances to generate. After debating his Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, at a game fair (for hunters and their dogs), where at least a third of the booths had guns for sale, he came away pleased and surprised: “I would have expected more hostility,” he told me. “It wasn’t there.”

But then, Wellstone had a genius for passionate advocacy without becoming a polarizing figure. His passion itself — a passion so unmediated that he characteristically ended his speeches jumping and shouting — was disarming; so was his love of face-to-face, one-on-one politics. When Wellstone was in the room, it wasn’t just that no hand went unshook; it was that no story was unheard, no serious argument unvoiced.

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For Wellstone, a campaign stop invariably had the aspect of a reunion, for no public figure I’ve ever seen had bonded to so many constituents. Many he knew long before they were constituents, from his years teaching politics (that is, organizing) at Carleton College, from his years walking the line for striking workers and dispossessed farmers. At each stop I accompanied him to during my time in Minnesota, he was meeting people and calling out across the room to Sheila, his wife, “Look who’s here!” At the same time, Sheila, who seemed every bit the people-pol that Paul was, was meeting old acquaintances and shouting to her husband to come meet someone else.

And the people certainly came out to meet him. He was the pol who didn’t cut corners, who voted against welfare reform a few months before he was up for re-election in 1996, who voted against authorizing a preventive war in Iraq a few weeks before he was up for re-election this year (the only Democrat with a close race in either house to vote against the president). He was the pol so appalled at the standards of the age that he voted against even the most watered-down version of the latest laissez-faire panacea or display of social cruelty. He didn’t vote as consultants would have him vote; he didn’t look as consultants would have him look (he was capable of looking scruffy in a new suit); he didn’t speak, not with all that jumping and shouting, as consultants would have him speak. Not that he disdained consultants; but his consultants understood that what you sold when selling Wellstone was his unconsultability: his conscience, his authenticity, his humanity. For those who couldn’t see it when he was alive, his death has made one thing clear: Wellstone was one of the most — and one of the few — beloved figures in American public life.

On the last day I covered Wellstone on the campaign trail, I caught up with him for a fund-raiser he’d sandwiched in between a Native American tribal council at the far northern end of the state and a private meeting of members of the Twin Cities’ Indian and Pakistani communities. The fund-raiser, drawing chiefly from the Twin Cities’ gay and lesbian communities, was hardly the typical closed-door event that candidates prefer when money is raised. It actually took place in a downtown Minneapolis park, where hundreds of Minnesotans of all known sexual persuasions had gathered to help a candidate who’d helped them when no other national political figure yet had the gumption to, who’d joined them on the National Mall in 1993 to call for domestic-partner legislation and gay adoption rights. “It’s an honor to be part of so many struggles,” the organizer-turned-senator told them.

Was there another American politician of comparable stature who’d say that? Who’d think that?

So they flocked to him — gays, lesbians, union members, hardscrabble farmers, environmentalists, peace activists, Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Scandinavians, Lutherans, seniors, students, students and students . . . The volunteers swamped this campaign from the start. On an August weekday morning, Wellstone’s state headquarters in St. Paul had more people bustling purposefully around than you’d find in any other Senate candidate’s headquarters on an October weekend. By early October, the campaign had a coordinator on every dorm floor at the University of Minnesota and the state’s next two largest college campuses. Campaign organizers were confidently predicting well over 10,000 volunteers getting out the vote on Election Day, not counting the thousands of union activists turning out union members in their own parallel get-out-the-vote campaign. Unions and environmental groups were sending operatives to the swing states all around the country, of course, but more were going into Minnesota than anywhere else, for the simple reason that, qualitatively, one Wellstone was worth several of his Democratic colleagues. Students were pouring over the border from Wisconsin. A number of my own acquaintances were flying in on their own dimes to help out in the closing weeks; on the Friday Wellstone was killed, I lunched with a friend whose wife was to go up there the following day.

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