Paul's passion

October 30, 2002|By Jules Witcover

ELK RIVER, Minn. -- The last time I saw Sen. Paul Wellstone was the afternoon before his death, in Daddy-O's CafM-i in this small town about 30 miles north of Minneapolis where he had brought his campaign for a third term.

As usual, he was in high dudgeon about everything from the threatened war in Iraq to unmet social and economic needs at home. Only 30 or so Minnesotans were on hand, but he gave them the full Wellstone treatment, pounding his fist in the air as he spoke.

"Part of the definition of our national security is to be strong," he said. "Therefore, we need to be wise as to when we use military force and when we don't. It's the last option, never the first option. And part of the definition ... has to be the security of our local communities like Elk River."

Men and women in work clothes came up, exchanging handshakes and hugs. Several said, simply: "Thank you, Paul, for your vote." They didn't elaborate and didn't have to. They referred to his opposition to congressional approval for President Bush to start a pre-emptive war against Iraq.

Afterward, he came over and joked about the first time we had met, a dozen years earlier, in a similar eatery in a similar small Minnesota town. Before rushing on to another commitment, he assured me we would talk in the next day or two.

The next day, shortly after I had left the Wellstone campaign headquarters in St. Paul, the shocking news came. His small plane had crashed.

Returning to the headquarters, which only an hour earlier had been a bustling reflection of his own energy and exuberance, I found aides struck speechless and teary-eyed but composed. An old friend of the senator's, Mel Duncan, stood in the center of the main room and called on the stunned campaign workers to comfort each other and carry on the unfinished work of keeping their leader's seat in Democratic hands.

All the assembled knew the political importance to their cause of doing so. A victory on Nov. 5 against Republican nominee Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul, might keep the Senate in Democratic hands; a loss might turn it over to the Republicans, who need only a single seat to take over.

But it was clear that this consideration was not what would motivate the Wellstone workers. It was the unusually close tie between them and Paul, as even the youngest among them called the bouncy little man who liked to say that while the Republicans represented "the Rockefellers, I represent the little fellers."

In a time when many look upon New Deal liberalism as quaintly idealistic or even naive, Paul Wellstone remained a true believer. He had an intensity of conviction that almost put even his fellow Minnesotan, the late Hubert Humphrey, to shame.

When Mr. Wellstone cast his vote against Mr. Bush's war resolution, some assumed it would be the undoing of his re-election bid. Instead, afterward he held his lead in the polls. Many Minnesotans repeated that they often disagreed with his positions but admired him for sticking to his convictions.

Mabel Schultz, a housewife interviewed at Daddy-O's shortly after Mr. Wellstone had left the cafM-i, said: "I thanked him for his vote today. I think he is willing to stand up and vote and really give it some thought. I admire that a great deal."

Many said it was courageous for Mr. Wellstone to vote against the Bush resolution. But it wasn't courage that persuaded him; to have voted against his conviction is what would have been politically damaging.

The Coleman campaign had hoped to capitalize on one Wellstone inconsistency -- his decision to seek a third term after having said upon his election in 1990 that he would settle for two terms. But it didn't bother Ms. Schultz.

"Sometimes as parents we have plans to do things but our children call us for help," she said. "We change our plans in order to help our children. Paul is helping Minnesotans. ... We need him in Washington, so we want to send him back."

Now that's not going to happen. And not only Minnesota, but also the country, is the loser, for having this voice of conviction silenced by untimely death.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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