Labor of Love

Up where we belong: Paul and Sheila Wellstone
Terry Gydesen

Most of us can probably remember exactly where we were when we heard of Paul Wellstone's death. But I'm sure a bunch of us can also remember where we were the first time we ever heard of him, period. I recall it clearly. I grew up in Ohio (the child of Cleveland Republicans) and so I wasn't in Minnesota in the '70s, when 25-year-old Paul Wellstone caused a stir as a campus radical, organizing farmers in Rice County and taking on big energy in the era's divisive power line controversy. Not there in the '80s when he famously stumped for the nuclear freeze during a race for state auditor, stood in league with Hormel strikers, and served as state chair of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign.

The first spark on my radar came in the winter of 1991, when I swooned for a guy who swooned for Wellstone. When I think back, I'm sure no small part of why I reversed my post-college East Coast push and moved to Minnesota was that crush's impassioned tone when he talked about "this little guy, this unknown, this Carleton professor outta nowhere," this dervish who had sent Boschwitz packing. He had this bus I just had to see. These ads. Wellstone sounded like righteous promise personified--and Minnesota like an idealist hive. Maybe it's just how I needed to see it, but when I got here, that's what I found.

In the years I lived in St. Paul and Minneapolis, from 1993 to 2000, the people I met while working wildly diverse jobs shared an assumption that they could make a difference: the former trucker-turned-newspaperman at the Minnesota Spokesman and Recorder; the flamboyant sweet potato pie-baking diva running the Urban Leagues STRIDE program; the muckraking music fans at City Pages; the traditionalists and avant-gardists of the 65-plus theater companies I covered while filling in as theater critic; the sardonic populists at the Minnesota State Senate Public Information office; the progressive leadership consultants trying to speak reason to power; and, of course, that attractive volunteer whose late-summer front-yard event allowed this paltry donor the chance to sheepishly shake the hand of 1996's incumbent senator in the midst of what he claimed would be his last campaign.

The time between those first effervescent pomo TV ads and the tragic deaths of Paul and Sheila Wellstone in the forest of Eveleth is the story of the '90s--of hope that fragmented into the desperation that has colored the new millennium. The documentary Wellstone!, which compiles lots of essential Wellstone footage and presents the narrative of his and Sheila's life's work with respectful evenhandedness, hints at that larger story. It's the arc of a decade when so many forces combined in a concerted effort to make even the agile, self-aware progressivism of Wellstone a thing of the past.

My personal experience hearing the news of Wellstone's death was a double whammy of disillusionment. I had just started a low-level job at the Village Voice, imagining it would be, even in this beleaguered climate, a bastion of what was left of the Left. When I heard the plane had gone down, I inquired as to whether there might be an announcement--a meeting, maybe, to arrange, at least, for obituary space. But the editor-in-chief was less than fazed. The cricketlike cubicle keypads hummed on as my suggested story on the death of progressivism was trumped by its actual deadness. At least on that day. (Two weeks later, a sympathetic news editor agreed to contact a Minnesota writer, and David Brauer filed a respectable postmortem.) For me, the episode belatedly bookended the '90s.

But Wellstone! isn't about the lost promise of a heady decade. In fact, there's a sense that its scope has been kept small on purpose. Talking heads are almost all Wellstone intimates and colleagues; comments are mostly limited to fond reflection, recounting of biographical events, warm and mildly critical insights into Wellstone's character. No marquee political or labor historians surface to place his rise in the larger tradition of American rabble-rousers, no semioticians talk about those Bill Hillsman ads smashing through the fourth wall or mine the appeal of Jewish humor in a whitebread state. Statistics on the rightward shift in Minnesota grassroots politics--the exploding exurbs and office parks, the double-SUV garages and big-box beachheads--only loom in the background. The film was made with a view toward its use in community and labor organizing; epilogue footage of Wellstone Camp seminar participants practicing new public speaking skills provides a moving grace note. But this is no Michael Moore joint.

Indeed, Wellstonian candor is in evidence more often on the topic of his flaws. We learn he was a high-maintenance husband, a belligerent car passenger, and a distracted scholar (former student and campaign manager Jeff Blodgett jokes that he supposedly graded on ideology)--and that originally he didn't even want to come to Minnesota, though he obviously grew to love it. As anyone who followed City Pages' coverage of Wellstone's career knows, he drew lots of criticism from lefties who felt he should be doing more, and the film acknowledges the slow Senate start, the steep learning curve on procedure, the impatience, and the ultimate concessions to the middle that extended as far as his voting for the Defense of Marriage Act.

In some ways, it seems that filmmakers Laurie Stern, Lu Lippold, and Dan Luke are being very careful in the aftermath of the infamous Wellstone memorial service--at which aide Rick Kahn called upon Republicans to support Wellstone replacement Mondale in the upcoming election--to ensure that the film can only be seen as a balanced tribute, that it would never be open to criticism by the right as a crass attempt at politicking. It's an understandable impulse. The memorial service itself, an astonishing tribute to the man's personal power, is handled gingerly here. There's no point in ignoring the fact that Kahn's call to "win the election for Paul Wellstone" threw off the thunderous mix of goodwill and outrage that just seconds earlier had seemed galvanized enough to raise the senator from his grave through sheer force of grief. In the film, Al Franken acknowledges the grave mistake of the moment, and allows Kahn the dignity of shock, saying, "He lost his best friend."

Ultimately, Wellstone! is a labor of love that often takes love as its subject. Paul and Sheila's love for each other becomes a metaphor for an idea of politics that remains, at its root, a mechanism for helping people. And in that respect it succeeds resoundingly. It includes only tastefully brief snippets of Republican maneuvering: Norm Coleman's campaign getting ritzy as the oil money pours in, Bush intoning, "Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists" in Coleman's support. There's the merest glimpse of John Kerry, listening intently to Sheila's pleas for more action on domestic violence. But the release of the film at this time functions as both a tribute on the second anniversary of the death of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter, and everyone on the plane, and as a reminder to devotees still fighting the good fight that, in the words of Rick Kahn (the ones he should have limited himself to), "We need to stand up."

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