Two years ago today, one of my heroes died in a plane crash in Minnesota. Paul Wellstone was a few points ahead in his campaign for a third Senate term, crossing the state he'd served for 12 years in the final run-up to Election Day. His wife, daughter and three staff members were also killed in the crash.
Wellstone was probably the man I admired most in public life, with Georgia Representative John Lewis a fairly close second. Though his politics were a bit to the left of my own, particularly on questions of fiscal responsibility and to a somewhat lesser degree on the use of force, I deeply admired him as a man of outstanding principle and commitment to public service. Wellstone never forgot why he'd gone into politics after a long and successful career as an academic and community organizer, and he managed both to serve his constituents and faithfully uphold his principles while in the Senate. His autumn 2002 vote against giving George W. Bush authorization to use military force wasn't popular, and carried risks in an election year--but Wellstone managed to make the case to Minnesota voters that his vote was one of principle. Knowing what we know now, and keeping in mind that the Senator had supported the Afghanistan incursion, it seems clear that his decision was based not in reflexive pacifism but rather in a healthy, and fully merited, distrust of what was informing the push to war. After running even or slightly behind his opponent, the Democrat-turned-Republican and former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman for most of the year, Wellstone was pulling away at the time of his death.
The aftermath of his passing seemed to underscore the tragedy: not only did Coleman, whose transparent opportunism marked him as clearly as Wellstone's principles characterized the Senator, beat former vice-president Walter Mondale, who was foolishly drafted to fill in for Wellstone--the distraught sons of the late Senator had some input into the decision--but the Democrats arguably lost control of the Senate with the vote. (I believe that the renegade Republican Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island might well have switched parties or gone independent as Jim Jeffords did, had control of the chamber been in the balance. Zell Miller of Georgia might have crossed in the other direction, but he was much less alienated from the Democratic Party at that time than he later became.) The turning point might have been Wellstone's memorial service, which Republican operatives successfully painted as a hateful call to political jihad rather than what it was, an anguished remembrance of a man who touched the hearts and stirred the ideals of millions.
I found out about Wellstone's death at a truck stop in upstate New York, while Annie and I were on our way to a weekend vacation in the Finger Lakes region. The story was running on the TV over the counter, and my loud gasp got a lot of stares. I'd met the Senator, very briefly, a few months before at a conference of workforce development advocates and researchers in DC. He spoke very softly and walked slowly, a reminder of the back pain that supposedly kept him out of the 2000 presidential race, but had an undeniably magnetic presence.
Even many of those who disagreed most strongly with Wellstone's politics felt great affection for the man. Jesse Helms, of all people, grieved at his passing. And Senator Sam Brownback, a very conservative Kansas Republican, stated on the first anniversary of Wellstone's death that he still prays for his friend and former colleague.
Here is another reminiscence about Wellstone, and a link to the foundation established to carry on his work.
Rest in peace, Senator. You remain an inspiration for many of us.