Paul Wellstone: An Appreciation

Liberals don’t appreciate conservatives enough. Conservatives don’t appreciate liberals enough either. Here’s an appreciation of Paul Wellstone, who died a few hours ago in the middle of a great battle in the heart of the great democracy.

I met him only once, in Washington, in 1996. I wish I’d taken notes and could refer to them now. We met in the halls of the Senate, introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and what I remember is Wellstone was funny and modest and shy, and I thought: Good guy. It was an instinctive response, an instinctive read, and I trusted it.

A few minutes ago on CNN, Candy Crowley, a reporter one of whose gifts is an obvious sense of humanity toward those she covers, said that Wellstone was “a pure liberal”—meaning he wasn’t kidding; his liberalism wasn’t a jacket he put on in the morning to fool the rubes and powers—he meant it. He seemed to be a politician who was not a cynic, who was not poll driven, who was not in it just for the enjoyments of power. He operated from belief. And as beliefs do, his sometimes cost him. It’s possible, perhaps likely, that his belief that an American invasion of Iraq was wrong was costing him in Minnesota, his state, which he was furiously stumping, hop-scotching over the snow banks in a chartered plane, in an effort to hold on to his Senate seat.

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It’s good to have men and women of belief in Congress. It’s tragic to lose one. It’s amazing to live in a time when these Allen Drury-type “Advise and Consent” plot twists yank the drama of the coming election off its predictable tracks. And it seems to me more and more in our country that we’re getting these dramatic and unpredictable and novelistic plot changes, whatever that means and for whatever it’s worth.

But here’s what I really want to say. Democracy requires warriors. It requires leaders. It requires people who will go out there and fight for their vision of a better country in a better world. It requires men and women who will go into politics, and who will, in going into politics, in a way lose their lives. Or lose the relaxed enjoyment of daily life.

Politicians live lives of constant movement and effort, lives in which days are broken up into pieces that don’t always cohere—up at 5, first breakfast at 6:30, run all day, on the plane, on the bus, into the van, to the fund-raiser, to the speech, to the dinner for the union supporter, to the late-night meeting with reporters; and don’t forget to sound confident, to have the facts, to seem engaged. The exhaustion of constant extroverting; the fatigue of the modern politician. The only good reason to live like that is the desire to pull forward and push into being your vision of How Things Ought to Be. Those who do it for other reasons—well, as George Orwell said, they wind up with the faces they deserve.

It takes commitment and hunger to live a political life. But when the person living it brings other qualities—a sincerity, a seriousness of purpose, a respect for the meaning of things—and when it is accompanied by a personal style of natural modesty twinned with political confidence, well, it’s a moving thing to see. It’s inspiring. It reminds you that there are good people in politics. And modern democracies need all the reminders they can get.

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When conservatives disagree with liberals, and they’re certain the liberal they’re disagreeing with is merely cynical, merely playing the numbers, merely playing politics, it’s a souring experience. When liberals disagree with conservatives and they’re sure the conservative they’re disagreeing with is motivated by meanness or malice, it’s an embittering experience. But when you disagree with someone on politics and you know the person you’re disagreeing with isn’t cynical or mean but well meaning and ardent and serious—well, that isn’t souring or embittering. That’s democracy, the best of democracy, what democracy ought to be about.

Paul Wellstone was a good guy. His friend Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, spoke at some length this afternoon about his “caring and belief.” When tough old Pat Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, spoke of Wellstone this afternoon on CNN, he began to weep. And when Pete Domenici, tough old Republican of New Mexico, followed Mr. Leahy on CNN, he too began to weep, and had to beg off the interview.

Senators ain’t sissies. They can be one cold crew. But Wellstone touched them in a way that was special, and that I think had something to do with democracy, and those who grace it.

It’s sad to lose a good man. Good for America for raising him; good for Minnesota for raising him to the Senate; good for Wellstone for being motivated by belief and the desire to make our country better.