Thank You Paul Wellstone

By Tony Palmeri

October 27, 2002

Here's a summary of my feelings during the last few days: LaFollette's dead, and Bobby Kennedy's dead, and Humphrey's dead, and I don't feel too Wellstone myself.

That little Mark Twainism wouldn't have offended Paul Wellstone. Paul Wellstone was offended by what ought to offend every citizen in a democracy: poverty, injustice, disease, corruption, the corporate takeover of our vital institutions, the erosion of liberty in the name of fighting this or that enemy, apathy and cynicism as responses to our ills.

The Hubert Humphrey reference is an obvious one being that he, like Wellstone, was a Minnesota liberal known for speaking out on behalf of the less fortunate. The LaFollette and Kennedy allusions require some explanation.

Like Wisconsin's late great progressive leader "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, Paul "The Wrestler" Wellstone understood that it is the responsibility of elected officials not to be satisfied with the safe vote, but to satisfy the dictates of conscience. History remembers not the pragmatists who voted for World War I even knowing that the horrific battle had little to do with "making the world safe for Democracy." Rather, history remembers LaFollette revealing the motives of war profiteers and making an impassioned defense of free speech in wartime. History will remember not the pragmatists who in 1996 voted for welfare "reform" even knowing that the legislation was based on a beltway lobbyists' understanding of poverty. Rather, history will remember Paul Wellstone challenging the nation to stand up for children, challenging his colleagues to reject the stereotyping and misinformation about poor people in America, and daring the Democrats to counter the Republicans' embrace of the Reagan roots of the policy with a renewed commitment to the Roosevelt tradition.

In 1967 Bobby Kennedy dramatized the problem of poverty in America when he toured its poorest regions. Thirty years later, Senator Wellstone retraced the tour. Sadly, he found that even with the alleged economic boom times of the 1990s, poverty conditions in America's poorest regions had changed little in 30 years. And whereas the national media treated Kennedy's tour as newsworthy, in 1997 Wellstone had to fight for attention. Most Minnesotans and Americans in general are not even aware that Wellstone took the poverty tour, but I suspect as time goes on this will be one of his enduring legacies. Probably the greatest way to pay tribute to Wellstone would be to become as impassioned about the elimination of poverty as he so that when the next principled traveler takes the tour in 2027, he or she will find little misery to report on.

Not all liberals thought Wellstone was an effective advocate for his causes. Mother Jones writer Steven Perry in 2001 argued that Wellstone had undermined his own agenda by becoming too much a part of the Washington establishment. Maybe, maybe not. I know that I sometimes found myself wishing that Wellstone would do more to uphold his principles, but I always find myself wishing I would do more to uphold my own. To do so, I will need some of the same courage, humor, and love for people that Paul Wellstone brought to public life.

I'd like to close with a few words from Wellstone, words that I think crystallize everything I have been struggling to say about the spirit he carried and encouraged:

"There has to be some connection between the convictions we profess and the budgets we propose, and a willingness to fight for them. At some point, the chasm between our words and our actions simply becomes too wide. If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them."

Thank you Paul Wellstone for being a teacher who always knew the importance of learning. Thank you for the idealism and integrity you brought to public life. Thank you for refusing to sell-out your conscience even when it would have been easy to do so.

Tony Palmeri welcomes your feedback

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