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Paul Wellstone was a true mensch and Christ-like soul


The tiny city lots in my urban Minneapolis neighborhood boast the bright colors of autumn leaves and a preponderance of political lawn signs. The scene sobered Oct. 25. Now there’s a sprinkling of green and white Wellstone signs newly draped with black fabric or bedecked with small bouquets of marigolds or other hearty fall flowers, votive candles and photos of the late senator with the small frame and enormous passion for justice.

We were shocked to hear the news of the plane crash that killed Wellstone; and in a most cruel twist of fate, his wife, Sheila, his soul mate and partner in the good fight; and their daughter, a 33-year-old Spanish teacher, wife and mother who had taken a leave of absence to campaign for her dad. The plane crash also killed five others, three Wellstone aides and two pilots, whose families and colleagues mourn them deeply.

Paul Wellstone’s untimely death leaves a hole in the hearts of Minnesotans, of the nation’s progressives -- and in the heart of our nation’s representative government. Many of my friends felt that he was our “sure thing”-- the candidate we gladly voted for, as opposed to the lesser of two evils, or the slightly better of two indistinguishable suits.

Wellstone stood up to a hawkish administration. He championed the concerns of minimum wage earners, immigrants, people with mental illness and chemical dependency, women and children suffering from domestic abuse. His plainspoken but never facile populism countered the smooth talk of career politicians, corporate lobbyists and other moneyed power players in Washington.

Wellstone’s colleague and friend, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, noted in his address at Wellstone’s memorial service that although Wellstone had a bad back that bothered him on the tiring campaign trail, he had a spine of steel. He was an inverse Superman for truth, justice and the American Way, progressive-style, who raised up the underdog. It is worth noting that after Wellstone’s vote to oppose President Bush’s position on invading Iraq -- some would call that a risky vote in a tight reelection bid -- Wellstone’s standing in the polls rose.

Wellstone is remembered for his passion and compassion, his characteristic joy in fighting the good fight, and humility marked by his ability to laugh at himself. A now famous story he told often with much mirth was this: After Wellstone’s first impassioned (and slightly long-winded) speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Ernest Hollings approached him and said, “Young man, you remind me of Hubert Humphrey.” Wellstone swelled with pride at the comparison to the other “happy warrior” from Minnesota. Then Hollings continued: “You talk too much.”

Back in 1991, my husband, Ben, was a middle school teacher who helped chaperone the annual sixth-grade trip to Washington, where he was delighted to meet the freshman senator. The famously rumpled former college professor stood only 5 feet, 5 inches, a head shorter than my husband. Both men smile at me from a snapshot taken on that trip, which now sits framed in our kitchen. Ben tells of greeting the senator with the group of students. Wellstone, in typical enthusiastic and down to earth fashion was chatting up the kids. “I’m wearing a new tie,” he confided to the group of 12-year-olds. “Do you like it?” One student from the elite private school, whose classmates included a great-niece of the first President Bush, replied, “It still has the price tag on it,” causing Ben and the senator a hearty laugh.

Sen. Wellstone was deemed “the soul of the Senate” by Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and the “mirror in which we [his fellow senators] saw ourselves” by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He’s been called “the last of the ’60s liberals” and a true mensch, a Yiddish compliment meaning a person having admirable characteristics, such as great concern for others. Even those who disagreed with him politically held him in great esteem for his principled, consistent message -- and they liked him as a person.

To these epitaphs I add one more: Christ-like. Yes, Wellstone was Jewish, the son of Russian immigrants, and he lived the values of the Christian gospel better than just about anyone I can think of. He was a man of action who was never too busy to listen to someone’s story. He sought to empower the marginalized and the powerless. He would go back into the kitchen of a restaurant to talk to the dishwashers and prep cooks not only to say hello and thank them, but to encourage them to stand up for their rights, to demand fair treatment as employees. He would stop at a drop-in center and spend time visiting with the homeless and low-income folks there, not just pose for photos. He who had never been in the armed forces, fought hard for health care and benefits for veterans -- earning the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ endorsement for his campaign.

The Sunday after the crash, I was amazed that the scripture readings so fittingly turned the Mass into a requiem: Matthew’s gospel distills the commandments down to two: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. Wellstone did that. The Exodus reading specifies we must care for the widow, the orphan, the poor -- as if our own lives are depending on it. Wellstone embodied that principle. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians reminds us: “Our preaching of the gospel was not a mere matter of words. It was done in the power of the Holy Spirit, and with complete conviction.” Wellstone to a T.

Rest in peace, Paul Wellstone. It’s our turn to carry on, to try to model ourselves after your joyful fighting spirit. You will be our light for a long time to come.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at krisberggren@msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002