October 29, 2002
the Bible, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah perished for lack
of ten righteous men.
Those who recorded the Biblical stories examined the struggle
for a people to define themselves in relation to their Divine
Power, their world, and their fellow-people. The story of
the cities destroyed because they couldn't muster even a tiny
contingent of righteous citizenry reflects an essential wisdom
about what is needed to form a resilient community; a truth
that has not changed in the more than four thousand years
of recorded history.
With the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, my friend and my
role model, America's sum total of righteousness is diminished.
Our inventory of integrity is that much depleted. The reservoir
of our compassion and our passion for justice recedes by a
small but potentially crucial amount.
Nearly thirteen years ago, I stood with friends in an old
school building, converted to a community center for a gritty,
working-class Minneapolis neighborhood. I was there to hear
a complete outsider, a total long shot, a potential laughingstock,
declare his candidacy for the U.S. Senate. To imagine that
a college professor whose credentials included no elected
office, no influential Democratic Party connections, no high-profile
media presence, could challenge the powerhouses of the Minnesota
DFL for such a major candidacy was absurd. I came with a slightly
ghoulish feeling of watching a Forlorn Hope, and stayed to
shriek myself hoarse with delight and enthusiasm.
But all the inspiring words and wonderful positions and passionate
speeches in the world could never pull off the miracle Paul
contemplated. Without big money, without powerful interests,
without an inside track with the powerbrokers, how could he
possibly become one of that tiny, vastly influential club
of millionaires and movers and shakers? I worried. Truly a
Then I started to notice something: Wherever Paul went -
to every tiny little whistle-stop café and truck stop, every
school auditorium, every church basement, every kitchen kaffeeklatsch
- people came. Lots of people. Farmers who had stood next
to Paul ten years previously when he had turned out to add
his voice and his hands to save family farms during Minnesota's
dreadful farm crisis. Workers who had stood next to him on
cold windy picket lines when he had come to add his voice
and his hands to their efforts to achieve economic justice
and security for their families. Students who had attended
his college classes and been inspired by his vision for a
just and compassionate society. They came in dozens at first,
and then in hundreds, and in thousands.
And they brought their friends. And they picked up armloads
of flyers and took them away to give to neighbors. And they
volunteered their cars to bring more people to hear Paul speak.
And I noticed something else: Paul was a riveting speaker,
an inspired and inspiring orator. But wherever he went, he
did more than speak, he listened. He always
made time to listen. Listening, he told me, was the most important
part of the campaign.
Paul Wellstone took seriously the office he was campaigning
for, and his promise to be the voice of those who are normally
voiceless in Washington. He listened - to inner-city parents
struggling to keep their families together in the decaying
urban neighborhoods, to proud men who'd worked every day of
their adult life until suddenly the only employer in town
closed down and left for Mexico, to elderly Minnesotans facing
increasingly ugly choices between paying their heating bills
or buying their medicines. It was our agenda he promised to
take to Washington. And his profound integrity convinced enough
of us to get him through the grueling nomination process and
become the DFL candidate.
And the green bus continued its tour of Minnesota's highways
and back roads and strip mall parking lots, and he kept listening.
His energy, his passion, and his humor won Minnesotans over.
Dismissed by the political establishment, he waded into the
apparently unequal fight with all the jaunty confidence of
a shepherd boy facing the champion of the Philistines. He
never shook a hand without stopping to exchange a few words
with its owner. He was the despair of his campaign managers,
who learned the hard way that Paul considered nothing more
important than establishing a real and personal connection
with the Minnesotans he wanted to represent. Appointments
to record radio spots? Scheduled "photo ops?" They
could wait. Paul needed to listen to these people,
here and now.
He needed to talk with this little girl, who wasn't
old enough to vote yet by a long shot, about having a learning
disability, because he knew what it was like. And she made
her parents take her to every Wellstone speech or event they
could get to, and made sure to say hi to Paul, and he remembered
her, every time.
And so Minnesotans woke up one November morning in 1990 to
find themselves with a new Senator, a man with no big-money
backing, a man who'd taken on a well-entrenched incumbent,
and trumped every political ace with the trust of the people.
During the next twelve years Paul proved it wasn't a fluke.
He brought the people's agenda into the Millionaires' Club.
It would have been easy for him to be marginalized, with his
outrageous left-wing views and his incendiary ideas, but that
didn't happen. As Paul found his way in the halls of the influential,
he kept listening. He listened to his new colleagues,
even when he didn't agree with them. He accorded them the
respect their office and their responsibilities and their
humanity merited, even when they voted against him. He opposed
them, with passion and often with a sly humor that disarmed
them even as it skewered the pretensions and hypocrisies and
arrogance of power.
I never heard him say a mean thing to anyone. I never heard
him say a mean thing about anyone. In the cesspool
of Washington, a man without a mean bone in his body must
have something extraordinary to survive.
Paul had that extraordinary thing, and his colleagues recognized
it, and respected it. He was a righteous man. A man of integrity
and conviction. A man of conscience and compassion. Senators
from "the other side of the aisle" inveighed against his views,
and then laughed with him over a bowl of bean soup. They called
him friend, even as they worked to defeat his dangerous ideas.
They came to trust his honesty and his passion just as the
people of Minnesota did. He began to build coalitions, to
accomplish things. Small but important things. Veteran's benefits.
The Senator who was the lone vote against the Gulf War in
1991 yet respected and honored those who risked and fought
for their country, and worked to show America's appreciation
He mitigated a little of the most egregious legislative horrors,
slipped in a little protection for public lands here, a little
help for family farmers there. His staff were tireless reflections
of his commitment to his constituents. He fought on, in the
face of increasingly painful back problems and the onset of
MS, to gain full parity of insurance coverage for the mentally
ill. He had opponents, plenty of them, but not enemies, and
I lost count of the number of times he turned today's opponent
into tomorrow's co-sponsor and ally.
Sheila Wellstone was the love of his life and the lodestar
of his spirit. She was his co-worker, colleague and friend,
as well as lover and companion and partner. Her tireless campaign
against domestic violence wasn't high-profile media posturing
but in-the-shelters, in-the-courthouses activism. Their love
was magic to watch, a subtle but joyous chemistry that visibly
nourished them. Their family was in and of and with them in
everything they did. They did not preach family values, they
simply lived them. The loss of such a family is an irreparable
hole in the fabric of the universe.
Three of Paul's staff died with him. Some of them were personal
friends, too. Warm and wonderful and conscientious people.
The kind of people Paul naturally attracted. They, too, leave
an aching void. Too much goodness, too much caring, too much
energy and enthusiasm and love of life to lose all at once
on a bitter day in the north woods of Minnesota.
I've lived through many changes in the politics of America
and Minnesota. I have seen and heard some of the great men
and women of our time in political leadership. I was inspired
by Adlai Stevenson and Robert Kennedy, charmed by JFK, proud
of Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. I respected Sargent
Shriver and Barbara Jordan and Tip O'Neill. I loved Jimmy
Carter and Ann Richards. They are all greats in the pantheon
of American politics. But to only one man can I pay this tribute:
I absolutely trusted Paul Wellstone.
Trust. In an interview just last week, Paul told the interviewer
that the trust of the people was the most important thing
to him. He said (I'm paraphrasing here,) "Even people who
disagreed with me (in the vote on Iraq) did so with respect.
And that means more to me than anything."
I trusted Paul. I knew that he could be pragmatic and negotiate
and give and take, could use timing and parliamentary tools
and quids-pro-quo with the best of them. But only when he
thought the result was worth it. Only when it advanced the
people's agenda in some important direction. I didn't always
agree with Paul, but when he held an opinion different from
mine he held it for the right reason.
I never saw him compromise a principle. I never saw him make
a trade or cut a dicker for something trivial. Like money.
Or power. Or media exposure. Or personal aggrandizement.
I trusted Paul. Millions of Minnesotans trusted Paul, even
while they disagreed with him. Millions of Americans have
benefited from that trust.
I hope the Lord doesn't take a census of the righteous in
Washington any time soon.