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Remembering a man of conviction


In the many times I interviewed or listened to Sen. Paul Wellstone, a question always hovered in the back of my mind: Would I like him as much personally if his political views were the opposite of mine, and not so similarly liberal? What if he were as far to the right on the issues as he was far to the left?

My answer was always yes. His personal warmth, his lack of guile or pompousness, the engaging wit and the delight he took in exploring new ideas: These were human, not political, virtues. Anyone possessing them would be likeable. Whether he was a two-term senator from Minnesota, a college political science professor, or a husband and father devoted to his family, Paul Wellstone taught one rarely learned lesson: So what if you don’t see eye to eye with someone, you can always talk heart to heart.

An example of that philosophy was on display in his close friendship with Sen. Jesse Helms. “He represents everything to me that is ugly and wrong and awful about politics,” Wellstone said of the North Carolina archconservative. But that blast came during Wellstone’s first days in Washington, before he learned that fire-eating was not necessary for fervor. Once he came to know Helms as a person, not as a political foe, a human bonding took shape.

Wellstone had an immense appetite for people. I saw it up close on a 1991 plane trip to Minneapolis, an early evening flight on Northwest Airlines on which I had a back row aisle seat. Up front in the first row of coach was Wellstone. When the plane leveled off at cruising altitude, he sprang from his seat and began introducing himself, row by row, to everyone on the plane. A few grouches waved him off, and he aggravated the peanut-dispensing flight attendants who wanted the aisles cleared, but to everyone else he gave total attention. He was a gifted listener, as anyone would have to be to work an entire plane with 200 people on board.

Sheila Wellstone, his wife, had an independent life of her own. I learned later that she and Paul had one of the happiest and most compatible marriages in Washington. He was the child of Jewish immigrants; she the daughter of a family with roots in the Kentucky coal mining area. Both grew up knowing the high cost and high risk of making it.

As a Democrat, Wellstone was in the resolutely liberal wing of the party that nourished great people of conscience. When despairing of politics -- or worse, giving in to the temptation of believing the lie that liberalism is dying or dead -- think of all the men and women of the left who have brought honor to national politics. Most have stood alone on issues that mattered.

Think of Paul Wellstone as among the most humane of them, with both a dogged voting record that sided with the poor and the kicked around, and with personal gifts for inspiring others to give full effort.

I remember leaving the plane that night in Minneapolis, after having 15 minutes of Paul Wellstone to myself, thinking I must become a better person.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace. His recent book is I’d Rather Teach Peace.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002