Remembering Paul Wellstone

Five years ago today, at 10:22 in the morning, a Beechcraft King Air 100 plane crashed into the forest about two miles from Eveleth airport, where it was supposed to land. The pilots, trying to navigate through freezing rain and snow, had let the craft's speed slow, its engine calm. The drop in velocity sent the plane into a fatal plummet, taking the lives of all those on board, including one of our greatest political leaders.

But that great man was, first and foremost, an organizer, a believer in the power of ordinary individuals. He would be appalled to see his name listed before those of the others who died on that plane. So it won't be. On that day, Sheila Wellstone died, as did Marcia, one of the Wellstones' three children. Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy perished, all of them working for Wellstone's reelection campaign. The two pilots, Michael Guess and Richard Conry, were killed. As was Paul Wellstone.

To say that Wellstone cared about the "little guy" may seem like sentimentalism, a cliché, even a hokey affectation for the purpose of this remembrance. It is not. Before I was ever into politics, before I ever had a blog, or a writing fellowship, I was just another pimply teenager, awkward and insecure and chunky and tentative. My older brother lived in Los Angeles, practicing environmental law and living a life that represented, to me, the pinnacle of commitment to social justice. Every weekend was a farmworker's march or an interfaith dialogue or a community benefit. It was this involvement, I assume, that led him to dive into Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign ("Keep studying," Bradley wrote when my brother asked him to autograph a note for me), where he served as Bradley's driver in Los Angeles. Which, one weekend, had him driving around Paul Wellstone.

I had no idea who Wellstone was. For that matter, I have no idea why Gideon wasn't more embarrassed of his dorky sibling, why he asked me along for a day with a senator. But he did. We drove all day, through LA traffic, to senior citizen centers and various speeches. Wellstone and his wife gulped down foil-wrapped burritos in the middle of it. And inching through the Southern California haze, we talked.

Wellstone had been a champion wrestler in Minnesota. I was a mediocre wrestler at University High School, in Irvine, California. And that's what he wanted to hear about. Not poll numbers or politics, presidents or power. Wrestling. His interest was humbling, and somehow, ennobling. In retrospect, it was, in no small part his kindness, evident generosity of spirit, and commitment to public life, that made me start thinking differently about politics. My protective teenage cynicism was no match for his effortless conviction. He robbed me of my excuse for apathy.

Wellstone's populism was not an affectation, or a political posture. It was laced into the fabric of his personality. It's what made him different than other politicians. His measuring stick was not the poll numbers, not the editorial pages, not the political prognosticators, not the Sunday shows -- it was the farmers, the students, the seniors, the people. His fealty to them explains his frequent lonesomeness in the Senate. When the people are your judges, you can stand against the Iraq War in an election year, you can lose votes 99-1. You can fail to pass legislation, because you know the compromise would fail your constituents. "Politics is not about power," he would say. "Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people's lives. It's about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country and the world. Politics is about doing well for the people."

Because of this, Wellstone had an immunity to the political trends that few politicians exhibit. When liberal was an epithet, Paul Wellstone wrote a book called The Conscience of a Liberal. When unions were in deep decline, Wellstone stood with them, and now the AFL-CIO now gives an annual award in his honor. After the Clinton health plan was crushed and Democrats retreated from health reform, Wellstone pushed for single-payer. While Clinton was chasing dollars to outspend and overwhelm Bob Dole, Wellstone was calling for full public financing. When progressives were marginalized and cowed by the right's cynical use of 9/11, Wellstone stood on the floor of the Senate, deep within the chambers of power, at the epicenter of cowardice and "responsible" hawkery, and roared on behalf of our ideals. That they were politically inconvenient never deterred him. "If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for," he said, "at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them."

The fight is not so lonely anymore. Democrats control both houses of Congress. The country now sees George W. Bush much as Wellstone described him. New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman just wrote a book called Conscience of a Liberal, as clear a signal as any of the word's restoration. Economic inequality, wage stagnation, and the health care crisis dominate the Democrats' domestic agenda, just as Wellstone always said they should. It's easier to be a liberal today, to be a progressive, to be proud. But there was a time when it wasn't. When liberalism in defense of peace was mocked, and moderation in service of imperialism was praised. In those days, it was hard to be a liberal. It must have been hard to be Paul Wellstone. He never showed it, though. He liked to quote Marcia Timmel. "I'm so small and the darkness is so great," she said. "We must light a candle," Wellstone would reply. He was ours. Would that he was here to enjoy the dawn.