Like so many others I am in a state of shock over the sudden and tragic death of Paul Wellstone. I can scarcely believe I’ve just written those words. For every Democrat — probably as much for those who didn’t share his politics as for those who did — Wellstone was a special treasure: a sort of genuinely progressive, utterly engaged and sincere politician who somehow captured what was essential in the aspirations of his party, even if he supported policies that others didn’t. (“I’m from the Democratic party-wing of the Democratic party,” he got fond of saying in the late 1990s …) One thinks of his vote against welfare reform in 1996, on the eve of his first run for re-election. Whatever you think of the merits of that vote — and history has been kinder to the supporters of the bill than the opponents, on balance — no other Senate Democrat who was up for re-election that year had the nerve to make the vote that he did — though many of them thought the way that he did. He did something very similar this year on Iraq. And in recent days it seemed conviction was making for good politics. I can’t say I knew Wellstone in any serious way. But I did have a number of conversations with him over the last few years — particularly a couple in New Hampshire in early 2000 when he was stumping for Bill Bradley and then later at the Convention. Perhaps the most honest thing I can tell you, while my eyes are still teary over this, is the simplest: I really liked him. It’s the most wooden of cliches to say in death that so-and-so was real, genuine, not scripted, just an all around great guy. But the over-use of such plaudits as filler can’t bar the invocation of them when they were this true. Most successful pols are steely operators. Not a few act serious, without at all being serious, but are rather jokes and whores. Or if they’re first-rate men or women they’ve long since gotten gated-off behind walls of flacks, caution and self-protection. Paul Wellstone just wasn’t like that. From my admittedly limited experience with him, the image he projected of a down-to-earth, more-like-what-you’d-expect-from-a-driven-political-activist-than-a-United-States-Senator was entirely accurate. I remember getting hit up by him and members of his staff — I think it was in early 2001 — to give more attention to the truly egregious and low-incoming-screwing bankruptcy bill then moving through the Senate. He was more or less single-handedly holding the bill up and getting grief from other supposedly liberal stalwarts in the Senate for doing so. When I was more clearly ensconced in the environs of professional liberalism — when I was the Washington Editor of the American Prospect — I often chafed at what I perceived to be the ineffectual Ivory-Towerish purism of so much of late 20th century elite liberalism, the mix of muscle and cliche masquerading as energy and fun. And I feel that no less today. I’ve seen my share of the fundraisers with their endless harvesting of checks from the fancy-hatted, the useless and the corrupt. But, you know, you do what it takes to accomplish things you believe are right. For a dozen years Paul Wellstone managed to show that these trade-offs did not necessarily have to be made. At least not for him. He was irreplaceable.
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