The man from Minnesota Newswatch ...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 21, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- On the morning after the first bombs and missiles fell on Baghdad, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, who days before had made an impassioned anti-war plea in his maiden speech in the Senate, sat pensively in his Capitol Hill office.

Gone was the fire of that speech, one of the first in the emotional but well-reasoned debate on the resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.

Instead, the freshman senator ruminated aloud about what his posture ought to be now that the war was under way -- a war that he warned in that speech was about to be launched prematurely, rather than giving economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein enough time to work.

"I'm an emotive politician and there's a lot inside of me," he began. "It's a sad day when you go to war."

He said he had had "a sense of foreboding" ever since Bush changed the Persian Gulf mission from a defensive to an offensive one in November, but that now "it is very, very important to support the military there, and to support personnel and families here."

Accordingly, Wellstone said, he intends to devote much of his time in the days ahead to the concerns of both.

"In my own mind," he went on, "I've decided that right now, at this moment, what is proper and personally important to me is to focus my attention on families here and support for the military men and women in the Persian Gulf."

Wellstone says he plans to work closely with home-front groups on such issues as military dependent support, temporary relief from home mortgage payments, health and child care and unwarranted split families, such as both parents of small children being obliged to serve in the gulf at the same time.

As for the policy, he said, "there will be a time, regardless of the outcome, but not now" to raise questions about it "if it becomes a protracted war." And when that time comes, he said, it will be important not to "make the mistake of attacking the soldiers that are there" and to "stay away from the politics of hatred. The opposition has to be with dignity and non-violence. It can't be burning flags" and other such acts, he said.

Within that self-imposed limitation, however, Wellstone made clear he has not changed his mind about Bush's decision to go to war now rather than give economic sanctions more time.

"I never was persuaded," he said, "by the argument that the vote pTC for the authorization to go to war was really not to go to war but to give President Bush the leverage he needed that would really make Saddam Hussein negotiate. . . .

"I kept saying 'I want to be wrong, I hope I'm wrong.' Now what I would say is that it sounds like this first mission has been extremely successful, at least from what we're hearing, and that is all to the good.

"But I've always been really been worried about the ground-war part . . . that it will lead to massive loss of life, and what kind of forces will be unleashed throughout the Middle East."

In deciding to make one of the first speeches in the war-authorization debate a week after he was sworn in, Wellstone said, he never gave a thought that it was his maiden speech and that Senate tradition holds that freshmen should be seen and not heard.

"I had a sense of where we were going," he said, "and I felt I needed to be a voice."

The unusual attention he has drawn as a result of being the only Democrat to upset a Republican Senate incumbent -- Rudy Boschwitz -- in November has surprised him, he said, and only increases his sense that he was elected to try to make a difference.

"I can't serve an apprenticeship," he said. "There's a fire burning inside of me. They talk about fire in the belly in politics. I really have that. I think a lot of changes have to take place, and I think I can be a part of that and that's got to be my approach, so I can't wait around."

In a much-publicized television commercial in his campaign, Wellstone was pictured as a whirling dervish who, the narrator promised, would not slow down when he got to the Senate. So far, it has been truth in advertising, even though Bush taking the country into war can be said to be Paul Wellstone's first defeat.

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