Democratic Underground  

A Eulogy For Paul
October 29, 2002

In 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 lost cause?

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 for them.

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.

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