Paul Wellstone: a wrestler in Washington

          It is Paul Wellstone's peculiar gift to cause people to underestimate him over and over again. And why not? He is short; he is awkward-looking, sometimes giving the impression of a man about to lurch out of his own skin; he is legendarily prone to impassioned outbursts that suggest an absence of political calculation. In demeanor and physical presence, he practically begs to be thought of as harmless--as someone who, especially in the cool medium of Washington dealmaking, will melt down of his own accord if given enough time.

          "Is this guy a flaky radical who will be an outcast in Washington and an embarrassment to Minnesota? Or is he a fresh, passionate leader who can revive Minnesota's liberal tradition there?" asked the St. Paul Pioneer Press in its January 2, 1991, edition. Lest one harbored any doubts about the correct answer, the piece went on, "Even some supporters fear that Wellstone's liberal opinions, strong emotions, and confrontational tactics will make it tough for him to accomplish anything in the Senate. His impatience with decorum and his inexperience as an elected official may make it difficult for him to fit into what has been called the world's most exclusive club."

          This impression persisted throughout his first term, though anyone who was really watching might have known better from the outset. No one gave enough credit to the political feat Wellstone had engineered in becoming the only candidate to unseat a U.S. Senate incumbent in 1990; hardly anyone seemed to see the sophistication in his use of political symbols, like the old green school bus in which he had campaigned. The media collaborated with Wellstone in making his rise a kind of political Horatio Alger fable--because it was good copy and because it helped to keep Wellstone's success, a phenomenon they could not explain by the lights of prevailing conventional wisdom, at bay. Upon his election, as press clips from the time make clear in retrospect, this amiable freak of politics was to go off to Washington and be domesticated or--more likely--cast aside.

          Thus it was with an air of lingering surprise that the Star Tribune just last week announced that Wellstone had become a "player" in the Senate. But the only real question from the beginning was what kind of player he would be, and how it would play back home. Those who wish to understand what kind of political animal Paul Wellstone is could do worse than to ponder his days as a wrestler. His storied impatience, for instance, is more than impatience; it is the canny, relentless opportunism of the wrestler and the instinctual politician.

          Consider the tale of his final match as a collegiate wrestler. Wellstone, then about 20 and in his second year at the University of North Carolina, was undefeated for the year. He knew he was not going on to the NCAA tournament, owing mainly to the fact that he was married, expecting a child soon, and financially strapped. Had he gone, he would have been seeded among the top four in the country in his weight class.

          In the final match of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, Wellstone was playing for pride and posterity. He was playing hurt as well, with pulled muscles in his back and a pinched nerve in his neck; for that reason he could not go after his opponent as aggressively as he otherwise would. It came down to the last 20 seconds with Wellstone trailing by a point. His opponent's coach paced the sidelines, shouting out the remaining time. It might have intimidated Wellstone, but instead, he turned it to his advantage. Counting down to the closing seconds, he attacked his opponent one last time with a quick maneuver known as the fireman's carry and managed a takedown for the win with less than five ticks left on the clock. In the heat of the match, Wellstone weighed the circumstances and the limits of his position, bided his time waiting for an opening, and took his best shot. Which, contrary to his public image, is what he does in politics as well.

          While I was riding the Wellstone campaign bus a little over a week ago, I heard a New York Times reporter inform a Boston Globe reporter that the import of the Minnesota Senate race, along with a handful of others, was as a referendum on the tactics of Arthur Finkelstein, the right-wing attack ad guru who has masterminded the Republican National Senatorial Committee's assault on Wellstone. Finkelstein epitomizes a style of campaigning defined by the negative TV spot. Nasty commercials have been around for a very long time, but Finkelstein's approach is a large-scale, thoroughly rationalized and market-tested version of the tactic. One of the most striking successes for this style of campaigning was in Minnesota in 1994, when a team of Washington pros used a month's worth of relentless smears against Ann Wynia to bring a charmless, one-note right-wing candidate, Rod Grams, from behind and sweep him into the Senate. Beyond playing to undecideds, part of the endgame is to create disgust and drive down voter turnout on the whole. Since this generally benefits Republicans, it is more often a Republican gambit. Not always, though; former Democratic polltaker Pat Caddell once described to Christopher Hitchens how he'd won a race for California Senator Alan Cranston by precisely those means.

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