Paul Wellstone: After six months, down but not out

On Politics Today

June 25, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- WHEN LIBERAL college professor Paul Wellstone was in the process of upsetting Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in Minnesota last fall, he told voters repeatedly that if elected he would say and work for what he believed, and let the chips fall where they might.

To punctuate his intention to say his piece, get things done and go back home, Wellstone said after the election that he would seek re-election only once. Twelve years should be long enough, he said, for him to try to accomplish his goals.

Not quite six months after Wellstone took his seat in the Senate, however, there appears to be a substantial question whether the voters of Minnesota will want to give him even that second six years when he comes up for re-election in 1996. He has had a rocky half year, but one that, considering his style and steadfastness of conviction, was not the least bit unpredictable. Many individuals elected to Congress are soon criticized back home for changing when they get to the hallowed halls. Wellstone's problem is that he has been all too true to his word.

Unlike most freshmen senators who are seen but not heard on the Senate floor, Wellstone made his maiden speech in his first days there -- an impassioned plea to President Bush to let sanctions against Iraq rather than force try to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. When the president decided otherwise, Wellstone became one of the few senatorial voices to be heard on national television deploring the decision, and continuing to raise questions about the administration's Middle East policy as the Persian Gulf war rocked to its speedy and successful end.

Not only that, but this diminutive 46-year-old upstart had the temerity to buttonhole Bush at a reception and question him directly about his policy and in a receiving line to hand Vice President Dan Quayle a tape of a Minnesota meeting of war critics.

To top matters off, he went to the Vietnam War Memorial here and on its fringes conducted an impromptu exchange on the war with reporters, outraging many veterans.

Shortly afterward, a poll in the St. Paul Pioneer Press produced a favorable rating of only 41 percent, one point less than that for Republican Sen. David Durenberger, only recently chastised for ethical improprieties. Of that opening burst of activity, Wellstone says now, he regrets only his mistake of seeming to use the Vietnam Memorial as a backdrop for repeating his views on the use of force in the gulf.

Since then, however, Wellstone has pressed on, focusing on other issues more of his choosing such as campaign reform and health care and, he says, the criticism back home has started to let up. Part of the reason may be that the aftermath of the gulf war was one of mixed success. Another part, he suggests, may be that as he has moved on to other issues, "what was once the question (his position on the war) is still a question but it becomes much less the question."

After first being seen as "a fallen star" back home, he says, his frequent trips to Minnesota more recently have been marked by farmers telling him that he's "back on track" and others who say they don't agree with him but admire his "guts for saying what you believe in."

"In Minnesota there's been a reaction to the reaction," Wellstone says, a feeling that the criticism has "gone too far. . . I think people said, 'I'm going to stand up for someone who's saying what he believes in. . . He's doing what he said he would do.'"

Inside the Senate as well, Wellstone says, time is working in his favor. He quotes his Democratic colleague, Sen. Wendell Ford of Kentucky, saying that "you used to be a show horse but now you're a work horse." He adds: "Do people think that I rock the boat, push hard, fight hard, am a liberal senator? Yes, sir." But that doesn't mean he doesn't have good personal relationships with his fellow senators, he says.

Steve Thomma, Washington correspondent for the St. Paul newspapers, says he senses that criticism of Wellstone back home "has bottomed out" as his activities have received less press attention in the state, but he obviously is not out of the woods. Five years until he must run again, however, is a long way off, and meanwhile Paul Wellstone is giving the voters, for better or worse, what he promised them.

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