Bad News

Paul Wellstone leaves the bus
Terry Gydesen

I was out of the office when the story broke, packing for a weekend visit to my parents' home in Iowa. The cell phone in my pocket rang, and without any preface Beth Hawkins blurted the news in a voice so strained I didn't recognize it at first: "Wellstone's plane crashed." I didn't understand a word she said, so she repeated it.

Jesus. What? She had gotten the word from her husband, who works at one of the local TV stations. No news regarding survivors, she said, but CNN's picking up the story--turn on the TV. I did. The stolid folk at CNN were playing it careful, as always, but when I flipped to Fox and MSNBC seconds later, breaking news banners on both networks were already announcing that Wellstone had died in the crash. And a few seconds later the newsreaders said that his wife and daughter and five other people were dead too.

After that I muted the sound and stood in my kitchen watching file footage of Wellstone--moving in typically animated style across the Senate floor, shaking hands at public meet-and-greets, rallying volunteers in his campaign office. Meantime my mind raced off on the sorts of obscure tangents that shock always provokes. I flashed back to a day in the fall of 1990 when I was accompanying Wellstone on the campaign trail for a cover story in City Pages. We had spent the previous day traversing the countryside south of the Twin Cities, and on this particular morning Wellstone was due in Duluth by mid-morning for a series of rallies and meetings.

The five of us--Wellstone and his wife Sheila, his driver, CP photographer Kara LaLomia, and me--drove in the predawn light from Northfield to Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, arriving around 7 a.m. It was a stormy, abysmal day, and I was mightily relieved when the pilot allowed as how he would rather not take off in those conditions. That was plenty good enough for me and Kara and Sheila Wellstone. Only Paul balked at first. He didn't want to lose time, or to disappoint the supporters who had gone to the trouble of arranging an ambitious itinerary. (And yes, he really did think in those terms.) But finally he yielded to the rest of us and we hauled ass up I-35 instead, arriving just minutes before his first scheduled appearance.

So it was news to me to read in Saturday's Star Tribune that Wellstone was afraid of small planes. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised: You can say what you want of Paul Wellstone, but he was never a man to put his own personal comfort first.

I was thrilled when he beat Rudy Boschwitz a few weeks later, and again two months after that when he arrived in Washington and began agitating vigorously against the coming Gulf War. But the media storm engendered by Wellstone's brash entrance seemed to have an enormous impact on him; never again during his 12 years in the Senate did he raise his head so high or make himself such a public lightning rod. I thought that was a shame and a missed opportunity. Wellstone, after all, was one of the most gifted organizers in American grassroots politics, and he had gone to Washington pledging to use his office as a clearinghouse to organize various kinds of public pressure against the D.C. establishment. It never happened. When I asked him why once, he essentially said that he had misjudged the situation at first--as it turned out, there were too many things to learn about working in Washington, too many other battles to fight.

Which begged the question of why he gave those other battles precedence. Ultimately Paul was a man who needed to see the best in the people around him and to elicit the same respect from them in return. It was more a matter of temperament than of political calculation--he was just wired that way. He didn't like artifice or connivance, and more to the point he didn't really understand them at a visceral level. Needless to say, this put him at a disadvantage in the U.S. Senate. On top of that I always suspected that Sheila Wellstone felt compelled by her own protectiveness to work at muting the brash, openly combative side that always got her husband in trouble. Problem was, those were the very qualities that made him so consequential in the first place.

So far as his time in the Senate was concerned I was no Wellstone worshiper. But I am absolutely stunned at how much I miss him tonight. After his reelection in 1996 I wrote a series of increasingly critical, sometimes downright nasty essays about his timorous conduct as a supposed left-liberal leader. I gather that he hated them (he told Strib columnist Doug Grow a piece I'd written in Mother Jones was "silly"), but I never talked to him about any of it, never talked to him at all after 1997 or so. I wish now that I had. I feel sure that, angry as he was, he would have been happy to argue with me. Part of his great personal charm was that he never relented from the belief that if he could only talk to you, he could find a common ground and win you over.

Mostly I regret that I didn't take advantage of the chance to spend more time with him in any capacity. I cringe at saying so, because chumminess between journalists and the people they cover is probably the cardinal sin of modern news. But the fact remains that one of the many great things about a job like ours is the chance, occasionally, to encounter truly exceptional people. (It is surpassingly rare to find them in positions of power, but that's another matter.) And however often I disagreed with the way he was doing his job, there was never any question that Paul Wellstone was one of those people you quickly realize you are better for knowing.

One of the worst parts of losing someone prominent you happen to care about is enduring all the cloying tributes that follow. You get used to discounting most of it. But in preparing this issue I was continually surprised and moved to learn how much Paul Wellstone meant to people all over Minnesota and the country. They talked about him not only with affection and gratitude, but with the sort of awe that even the most promiscuous public mourner cannot really fake. Everyone is entitled to their own version of Paul Wellstone's legacy; mine is pretty basic. He reached out to people and he cared what happened to them. And by that simple act, by reminding us that those sorts of connections were still possible and it was the job of politics to make them manifest, he posed an alternative to the malignant, insular mess our public life has become.

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