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Minnesotan 'a Voice for the Voiceless' Liberal Senator Never Dropped '60s Idealism

Oct 26, 2002
Scott Shepard
Cox Washington Bureau
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Paul Wellstone was a passionate liberal who dared to vote against the administration's Iraq war resolution despite his tight race for election to a third term in the U.S. Senate.

Wellstone earned two degrees during the 1960s in the Southern liberal hotbed of Chapel Hill, N.C. Then, he took a teaching job in Minnesota, a state with a long streak of liberal, progressive and maverick politicians.

The son of Russian immigrants had grown up in Arlington, Va., outside Washington. When he returned to the nation's capital in 1990 after winning an upset election over an incumbent Republican senator, left-leaning Mother Jones magazine called Wellstone ''the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate.''

After the death of Wellstone, 58, in a plane crash Friday, tributes poured in from individuals and organizations ranging from Americans for Democratic Action, Georgia Congressman John Lewis and radio host Garrison Keillor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush and Newt Gingrich.

Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who sat next to Wellstone in the Senate, said: "I can't believe it. I am devastated by the news of my seatmate, my colleague."

Cleland, former President Jimmy Carter and Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor called for a moment of silence for Wellstone at the beginning of a two-hour reception in Plains for Cleland's re-election campaign.

"We were friends; we were compadres," Cleland said. "He was a fighter for people who had no voice. . . . He was like a little bantam rooster. He fought hard and he was a voice for the voiceless."

On Monday, the Senate, in recess for the Nov. 5 elections, will convene to pass a resolution honoring Wellstone. The late senator's desk will be draped in black.

"It's so tragic. It's so sad," said Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement. "It's a tremendous loss to the Senate, to the Congress, for the people of Minnesota and for the country, really. He was a man of great principle.

"He was one of the most liberal members in the Congress," Lewis said. "I had a sense of kinship and spirit with him. [H]e always stood up for the little people. He would take on his own party and his own president, on welfare reform and other issues."

Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) said: "Paul Wellstone was a very principled person who brought enormous, heartfelt passion to everything he did in the Senate. I had so much respect and affection for this fellow senator and fellow college professor."

In Texas, Bush called Wellstone ''a man of deep convictions'' and said, ''He was a plainspoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country.''

Before running for office, Wellstone was a professor and community organizer who fused the two passions in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield called ''Social Movements and Grass-roots Organizing.''

"How you want to call that plane back and bring it up out of the clouds," said Keillor, known for his public-radio show based in Minnesota. "Paul was the real thing everywhere he went. He was smart and full of beans, he loved talk and he was always the Carleton College prof, probing and pushing the question, laying out the principles."

In running for the Senate in 1990, he toured the state in a rickety green bus and then shocked the political establishment by unseating GOP incumbent Rudy Boschwitz. An effective 'outsider'

Wellstone came to the Senate saying he despised North Carolina's Jesse Helms, an arch-conservative. A dozen years later, they were working together on human rights issues, and Wellstone paid a warm tribute on the Senate floor to his old nemesis, who retires this year.

''The goal is to be an outsider effective on the inside,'' he said in a recent interview. ''Rock the boat, for sure, but don't get it to the point where people hate your guts so every time your name is next to an amendment, they're looking for a way to vote no.''

Wellstone also was known for his sense of humor. When he made a brief and futile run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1998, he confided that he really didn't think he had a chance to win. He whispered: ''I'm short, I'm Jewish and I'm a liberal.''

The senator had pledged to stay for no more than two terms, but last year he announced he would be running again. A former champion 126-pound wrestler at UNC, he said in February that he had been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis but that it would not stop his campaign, even though he walked with a pronounced limp.

''For me, no stress would be stress,'' Wellstone said at the time. ''The stress of this campaign is what I want to do, to be perfectly honest. And the stress of being a senator is what I want to do.''

"The world has lost a passionate fighter," Americans for Democratic Action said in a statement. "Sen. Paul Wellstone was the liberal leader of the Senate and a champion for those who could least defend themselves."

In his 2001 book, ''The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda,'' Wellstone wrote that he spent 80 percent of his time playing defense, against what he viewed as harmful Republican legislation.

The commander-in-chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Ray Sisk, said: "He was tenacious in his efforts to assure passage of legislation that would provide for those veterans suffering from radiation exposure, Gulf War illness and those in need of VA health care."

Newt Gingrich, former Republican speaker, said: ''Whether you agreed with Paul Wellstone or disagreed with him, he was an idealist and believed in the power of ideas. . . . He transcended politics and inspired others to share his passion for the democratic process and encouraged them to get involved and make a difference. He was a great teacher."

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5.

Wellstone was the ''soul of the Senate," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. "He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known.'' Compassion for the poor

In 1997, Wellstone embarked on a ''children's tour'' to focus attention on the need for social programs for the poor. He started in Mississippi, retracing a visit Robert F. Kennedy made to the poverty-stricken region in 1967, went through Appalachia and on to Chicago.

Wellstone said he wanted ''to observe the face of American poverty --- not from behind a Senate desk, but in the streets, the villages and neighborhoods of those in distress.''

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Wellstone a champion of peace. ''He was a profoundly decent man, a man of principle, a man of conscience,'' Annan said.

Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) said Wellstone won the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike. ''Some have called him sort of like a '60s liberal," Fitzgerald said. "I think, in Paul, the flame of idealism and liberalism never died.''

Wellstone's office is adorned with photos and posters of Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

He also kept bound issues of editorials that his father, Leon Wellstone, wrote for the old Boston Transcript. His father quit that job when the paper took an isolationist stand as Hitler came to power in the 1930s. The paper died in 1941.

Both of Wellstone's parents died of Parkinson's disease. In a dedication to his 2001 book, Wellstone wrote, ''I know you know --- your son is a U.S. senator. Don't worry --- I'm a liberal!''

--- Staff writers Melanie Eversley and Jim Tharpe and news services contributed to this article.
© Copyright 2002 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution