Read Stephen's bio and previous columns
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
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
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
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.
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
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
North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.
Click here to talk to our writers and
editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.
To e-mail feedback
about this column,
click here. If you enjoy this writer's
work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry
This is Column #
Request permission to publish here.