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October 29, 2007

Five Years Later, Minnesota and America Still Miss Paul Wellstone


It’s hard to believe, but Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the most important American politicians of the past quarter-century, has been gone for five years. Minnesota’s senior senator perished in a plane crash on October 25, 2002, leaving a void in politics that, sadly, remains unfilled.


He was the most unlikely politician – the Jewish son of Ukrainian immigrants, a professor at Carleton College who was much shorter in experience, funding and height to Rudy Boschwitz, the Republican incumbent he sought to challenge in 1990.


Using guile, the sheer force of will, some incredibly clever TV commercials and a big green bus, Wellstone upset Boschwitz and went to Washington, serving two distinguished terms as a man who never abandoned his populist, little-guy ideals.


In the political culture of the Clinton era, in which loathing of liberals – especially fiery, unapologetic ones – was often palpable from the right, Wellstone, a man much more liberal than Clinton, was unique in that even his political opponents respected him, always praising his honesty and commitment to his constituents. He fought for what he believed in, and was committed to ideology, sure – but Paul Wellstone’s politics were never about demonizing the other side.


Wellstone beat Boschwitz again in 1996, and after flirting with, but ultimately abandoning a presidential campaign in 2000, he returned to the trail in 2002. He was in the midst of his second re-election campaign, against Norm Coleman in 2002, when Wellstone, his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, aides Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy, and pilots Richard Conry and Michael Guess perished in a small plane crash in Northern Minnesota on the way to the funeral of the father of a state legislator.


It’s unfortunate that two of the things most associated with Wellstone’s passing have been the unfortunate memorial service that local Democrats put together – subsequently cravenly exploited by GOP opponents – and the cockamamie scheme by one Duluth professor to show that the senator was murdered.


The memorial service held for Wellstone at the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena got out of hand, sure. The senator’s former aide, Rick Kahn, called for the Democrats to win the election for Wellstone, and others started chants of “We will win.” Was it inappropriate? Yes. But these people were grieving. Just as I feel politicians should be given a pass for comments made in the days after September 11 or any future terrorist attack, they should also get some leeway while still recovering from the death of a close friend who they very much admired.


But that behavior was small potatoes compared to the theory, championed by University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Jim Fetzer and others, that Wellstone was in fact assassinated by the Bush Administration. To believe so requires ignoring all available physical evidence, believing that the current administration is competent enough to be capable of executing an assassination and covering it up and that it executed one and only one assassination of a political opponent.


Wellstone’s crash was clearly an accident – a conclusion reached by all relevant bodies that have investigated.


I met Paul Wellstone on three occasions that I remember – when he spoke at my synagogue shortly after his election to the Senate, when he spoke at my high school later in his first term, and at the Minnesota State Capitol in the late 1990s, when I was doing a winter break internship for a state legislator. He was friendly and considerate every time, always sure to say the name of the person he was talking to, for emphasis.


During that last instance, I said “Hi” to Wellstone as he walked by me, and he replied “Hi, Steve!” I was shocked that he had remembered the name of a random teenager from years earlier, until I realized that I was wearing a jacket that had my name on the breast pocket. But regardless, I consider myself lucky, in my early years of following politics, to be represented by and to meet Paul Wellstone. Five years after his way-too-soon passing, Minnesota – and America – still misses him.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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