Is He Nuts?

Turncoat. Chickenshit. Radical. Minnesota's senior senator has been called a lot of things. But president?

Of Ventura, Lucas says: "I think your governor-elect sends a message to the political class in this country. The bottom line is, here's a guy who connects with voters."

 

 

"This is no stump speech. I'm just saying this the way it comes into my head." Wellstone is warming up in front of an early-morning crowd in Des Moines--three dozen people at the most, mostly local labor activists who've assembled in one of the cookie-cutter conference rooms at the Embassy Suites Hotel. Forget the podium. Wellstone is working into his signature sway pattern without obstacles, left hand planted in his pants pocket, right index finger jabbing the air as he careens into a diatribe against consolidation in the pork industry.

"I might just as well run like Teddy Roosevelt, and talk about trust-busting!" He's rocking on his heels, and it seems for a moment as if his index finger could propel him into orbit. "I want to galvanize people...I think if we're going to start a prairie fire, we can do it here!" The crowd applauds.

By midday, Wellstone's entourage is decamped two hours to the east at the spartan Sheraton Four Point Hotel in Cedar Rapids. Wellstone and treasurer Rick Kahn are off on a trip to the gym to satisfy Wellstone's daily exercise routine, leaving Lucas to recline in the lobby and reflect on the campaign-in-progress. He's not sure if the "anti-establishment" whoop his candidate keeps offering up is quite the right cry to be letting fly out there.

"Part of what we're doing right now is working out the language we're going to use," says Lucas; for his part, he might prefer something along the lines of "running against the status quo." He hastens to add that "I support him obviously 100 percent. I just don't think that I'd say 'anti-establishment.' But this is semantics, and we'll work it out."

Later that day Wellstone again doesn't mince words at United Auto Workers Local 1024. The hall is filled with gray hair and union windbreakers. A table holds baskets of candy corn, crackers, cheese, chips, and popcorn. In the kitchenette area, two men stand guard over the tap lines of Miller Genuine Draft and Miller Lite, and two boxes of wine. The speaker introducing Wellstone in front of a faded American flag exhorts attendees "who care and are sober enough" to pick up some of his literature from the back table.

Wellstone launches into a table-pounding speech about winning the race through "sweat equity," a working stiff's metaphor. "I'm going to fight for family farmers, I'm going to fight for working people, I'm going to take on the corporate money!" he shouts. As he shakes his fist, it's impossible to imagine Gore delivering the same line.

The evening ends in Iowa City, at a student-heavy gathering on the University of Iowa campus. "Are you tough enough to do it?" asks a man from the crowd. The ex-wrestler, college professor, senior senator doesn't blink. He just says, "Yeah."

 

 

When Wellstone limped his battered green campaign bus into Washington after the 1990 election, he was an instant outcast. For reasons that eluded most Beltway insiders, a bunch of nuts out on the prairie had elected this slightly disheveled, five-five firebrand in place of a respected incumbent (no other sitting senator lost his job that year). Within days of his arrival, the new senator managed to commit several blunders in protocol and judgment, including an anti-Operation Desert Storm press conference at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When he regaled George Bush with his views on the war at a White House reception, the president was heard to mumble, "Who is this chickenshit?"

Wellstone buckled down, studied up on Senate protocol, hired Washington insiders. He became a kind of First Call for Help for grassroots groups seeking a legislative sponsor, and traveled around the country to support like-minded politicians such as Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. He championed campaign finance reform and renewable energy, resisted cuts to education spending and social programs, railed against corporate bosses and union-busters. And, over and over, he hammered universal health care--a topic to which he'd been introduced in high school, when his family struggled to pay the bills for his brother's treatment for mental illness.

Yet on this defining issue, success eluded him as either his colleagues or the president turned against sweeping reform. Wellstone was limited to tinkering at the edges; his successes included a bill requiring that health insurance companies cover mental illness the same way they cover physical ailments. "A lot of the work I do is small victories," he concedes. "Important, but small victories."

In 1996 Wellstone beat the odds again, becoming the only Senate Democrat up for re-election to have voted against the Clinton-approved welfare reform package. The day before the president's second inaugural, it was Wellstone, not Clinton, who graced the cover of the Washington Post magazine in an affectionate piece penned by columnist and Brookings Institution fellow E.J. Dionne Jr., the author of They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era. "Wellstone's re-election violated every conventional presumption about the country's direction in 1996," he wrote.

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