But Not Forgotten

Terry Gydesen

Love Is the Law

Sitting in front of the television in the middle of a weekday, listening to the somber, droning details of disaster, I knew the numbness all too well. It could have been the Challenger rocket exploding in mid-air, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, the World Trade Center going down. My mind chewed furiously at the news while the rest of me felt guilty for feeling nothing at all.

And then Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy came on, reminiscing about a particularly contentious congressional debate that had dragged on into the early morning hours; how when it was over, and Paul Wellstone emerged from the chambers, his wife Sheila was waiting for him, and the two walked down the long hallway toward the exit, hand in hand. It was then I started to cry.

We become more decent human beings the day we discover a permanent lover. Paul and Sheila met at the age of 16. They built a relationship, a day and a decade at a time, that contained more depth and decency than any love song or schmaltzy melodrama could give us reason to hope. The indomitable energy and compassion for which the Wellstones will forever be known would not have been possible without that love. The lives of literally hundreds of thousands of people are a little better because of it.

Paul Wellstone's most trusted political adviser put him through grad school and stayed at home to raise their three children. When Paul went to Washington, Sheila had her own desk outside his Senate office. Before long, staffers referred to them interchangeably as Paul-and-Sheila. As Sheila's work on social justice issues made her a leader in her own right, Paul's joy would ratchet up another notch when he brought her to the stage: "Sheila Wellstone! Sheila Wellstone! Sheila Wellstone!"

We saw them walk down the hallways, him loping, her leaning. We saw the quick caresses and easy eye contact as they passed each other out on the campaign trail. We can imagine how, toward the end, she would knead his aching back and increasingly sclerotic muscles at the end of another long day. But we can't fathom what it must have been like to fight the good fight, side by side, for 42 years, ceaselessly, neither one willing to diminish the ideal they saw in each other's eyes.

Love each other. That was Paul Wellstone's uncomplicated message. Go hand in hand and help each other. It was a blessing--his and ours--that he was able to practice what he preached.


Paint It Black

I don't want to eulogize Wellstone and I don't want to read eulogies. My thoughts are black, overpowered by how unprepared I am for how awful everything is, and how much worse it is now that Wellstone is dead. Even if Wellstone were to have lost the election next week, which now it looks like he wouldn't have, he would still be alive, able to speak out about what has been happening in the United States since Bush was appointed president. There are very few people talking about that, and there are even fewer who are in a position to do something significant about it. Wellstone was, and so it was urgent--more than ever--that he remain in office. I voted over a week ago, absentee from Argentina, where I have been living for more than a year. And now my vote could go, in effect, to Norm Coleman.

I want someone to explain, Paul Krugman-like, what the loss of Wellstone means for Minnesota, for Democrats, for the country, and for the whole world. I need someone honest to lay out what is wrong with Bush's trillion-dollar tax cuts that favor only the very rich; how the administration's response to 9/11 has turned out to be ultimately unserious; why the U.S. economy is collapsing and how it can be repaired; how the Republicans' hollow promise to squelch corporate malfeasance with strict legislation is merely designed to make us forget that a Republican-controlled Congress derailed Clinton's attempts to protect against those very crimes; how school vouchers deprive public schools of money they need; how women's health, and how a woman's right to have an abortion, is being compromised all over the world; why the United States should support Israel; and why we don't have to go to war with Iraq. There is more. I want to hear someone talking about all of it, saying what he or she believes to be true and important. Right now, the person I want most to hear is Wellstone.


You Learn as You Go

Having spent a weekend with a microcassette player collecting memories of Paul Wellstone that are so full of decency and generosity and humanity as to make mere hagiography look like a hatchet job, I've come to see that the indolent, selfish, insular way I've been leading my life is a waste and that I need to change it.  


A Night Full of Rain

On Friday night, as I made my way over to the prayer vigil at the state capitol, notebook and tape recorder in tow, I found myself taking a detour through the U of M campus. There, on the corner of University Avenue and Harvard Street, I saw a student standing alone in the drizzle, holding a Wellstone campaign sign.

When I approached, he handed me a green and white campaign sticker, then told me I should make sure to say a prayer for Paul and his family. I told him I was from City Pages, that I was looking for personal reactions. It didn't seem to register. He just nodded, shook off the cold, and kept handing out stickers. Eventually he told me his name was Phillipe. He was 23 years old and he had spent the last few months campaigning for Wellstone in the Fifth Congressional District.

Did you ever meet the Senator? I asked. "I shook his hand once, I guess," he shrugged. I tried a few follow-up questions: What was it about the Senator that inspired you? Where were you when you heard about his death? How did it make you feel? He looked at me like I was an alien. I decided to cut my losses and get back on the job. Before I hopped back into my truck, though, I had to know why he was standing there. "I didn't know what else to do," he answered softly. Then he turned to wave his sign at the passing traffic.

I remembered the first time I saw Wellstone, just a few blocks from where Phillipe was standing. It was a brilliant October day in 1990 and hundreds of students and faculty were gathered in front of the Coffman Student Union, where Wellstone stood on a makeshift podium in wrinkled shirt sleeves and spoke passionately about the need for fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to military madness. I was covering the rally for a story in the Minnesota Daily, and vividly remember the Carleton professor talking about how students were having to sell plasma to buy books. He was coiled up, jabbing the air with his index fingers, screaming mad. "It's outrageous," he spat. "Outrageous!"

A month later, on election night, I watched as scores of jubilant Democrats waved Wellstone signs over their heads at a victory party in downtown Minneapolis. It was such an upset, such a rush. Grizzled beat reporters were giggling. Longtime lefties, so used to losing they wouldn't really believe they'd won until morning, were weeping. Wellstone promised to never practice politics as usual. He promised to always fight for the dispossessed. He promised to never, ever sell out. I put my notebook in my back pocket, turned off my tape recorder, and began to cheer.

I never forgot that night, and I never let Wellstone live it down. No matter how tirelessly he worked, no matter how liberal his voting record, it was not quite enough. He set the bar heroically high, leaving little room for human error. When he crossed the aisle to make compromises, I complained about his heart. When he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act or failed to stand up against the Patriot Act, I questioned his soul. Just a month ago, I wondered out loud why I should vote for a guy who wasn't sure whether Bush should be empowered to attack Iraq. Not long after, of course, he stood alone against the administration on the eve of a too-tight-to-call election. But I never patted him on the back for that move. After all, he was only doing what was right.

When I arrived at the state capitol Friday night, I watched strangers embrace and my own hard-boiled colleagues cry without shame. Saturday morning I tuned into Minnesota Public Radio, where callers from every political persuasion praised Wellstone's unflagging integrity, his genuine passion for the lost cause. That same evening, I watched Sen. Tom Harkin break down on national television. I saw footage of peace marchers choking the streets of St. Paul toting green and white signs and chanting Wellstone's name. On Sunday morning I read story after laudatory story in the Star Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and New York Times--pieces that made it clear a loved man was missed, a fighter had fallen prematurely.  

It all made me crazy. How was it, I couldn't help wondering as I sat in front of my keyboard on Sunday evening, that this year's Senate race between Wellstone and Norm Coleman was ever even remotely close? Why would anyone dare waste a breath criticizing Wellstone when the alternative was so utterly absurd, so wholly uninspiring, so goddamn scary?

Then I flashed to that sunny October day on campus, and that heady night in 1990. I remembered how it changed me. I saw how nothing Wellstone did could measure up to those memories. I had my answer. I knew it all along. And it made me wonder what would become of that kid on the corner.


Get on the Bus

The first time I met Paul Wellstone it was one of those unbelievably frigid Minnesota mornings that only seem to happen during the holidays. If elected, Wellstone had promised to ride the school bus he'd used on the campaign trail to Washington for his inauguration. And my father and stepmother had conned me into getting up before dawn to attend the pancake breakfast celebrating the senator-elect's send-off.

We had all flown home for Christmas. My folks, Jim Hawkins and Ellie Adams, had followed the stories about the professor with the beat-up green bus on National Public Radio while living aboard their sailboat back east. But I had heard nothing about Wellstone. At the time I was living in southern Arizona, a libertarian stronghold where a beloved politician is one who paves your roads, stands up for your right to conceal your handguns, and then gets the hell out of your face. It was not the kind of place where voting your conscience was ever an issue. And so as we drove through the dark past the stockyards on the fringes of the city to the South St. Paul Croatian Hall, I was finding the whole thing a little hokey, to say the least.

The hall was so crowded I immediately began to sweat in my borrowed parka. (A Star Tribune report of the event estimated the turnout at 500.) There were no pancakes, just an aluminum percolator that had long since run dry. While we waited, the sun rose outside. Wellstone made the rounds, and it seemed like he shook the hand of every single person in the room. Many people hugged him; a few were crying. When he got to us, he thanked me for my vote. I didn't bother to set him straight.

People pushed out the door behind Wellstone to hear him speak one more time from the platform on the back of the bus. I don't remember what he said, but I do remember that my father described this last weekend as a wave of idealism that buoyed the entire group. "He was so energetic, he was just kind of bouncing," Dad recalled. "And I saw him even then as the last of the real liberals who represented my views of the world. It didn't feel like it mattered that I hadn't been part of the campaign."

The bus had a hard time starting that frigid morning. It finally emitted a giant belch of blue diesel smoke and turned over, but the retinue got lost trying to get out of South St. Paul. I saw Wellstone from time to time the following summer, when I was an intern in the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau. I covered the Senate now and then, and struggled to pick up on the complex folkways that governed the institution. The headlines that topped my stories referred to the points of contention at issue at various hearings, but the most constant lessons I had to learn concerned power: who gets to ride in the front car of the little trams that run underground from one Capitol building to another; who rides in which elevator car; and most chilling, how keeping the right things off the record and not asking impertinent questions gets you invited back to the right parties.

By the end of the summer I had seen enough to forswear joining the Washington press corps. It seemed that there were real limits to what a person could accomplish in D.C. without spending years learning the ropes. And I had become jaded enough to believe that, on some level, mastering those ropes had to mean buying into them. Frankly it didn't occur to me until I moved back to the Twin Cities years later that Wellstone might have had a similar experience.

The last time I saw him was a few weeks ago at the State Fair. He was standing at the receiving end of a long line of voters, none of them cheering the way people had at the pancake breakfast. He seemed smaller, and very tired. I thought for a second of stopping and telling him that I wished he made fewer compromises. Of course, I assumed we'd get to keep playing our respective roles: me the relentless critic, him the insider who needed periodic reminding of the idealism that was once strong enough to draw people out of their warm beds to watch him climb into an old green bus.  


Off the Couch and Into the World

If there's one hard lesson I learned over the last half of Paul Wellstone's tenure in Washington--and I learned it, really, on Friday when I heard the news of Wellstone's death--it's that politics really makes for a terrible and helpless spectator sport. As I made the rounds that afternoon, from the Wellstone headquarters in St. Paul to the stirring impromptu memorial service at the state capitol, I had the somewhat disheartening realization that there have been exactly two major news stories during my adult life that I have not watched unfold from my couch. One of them was Wellstone's first Senate campaign in 1990, during which I was one of thousands of young and appallingly idealistic grassroots volunteers who covered the state imploring voters on the dark-horse candidate's behalf. Friday's grim headlines likewise stirred me from my couch, and I spent the day trolling the various sad and spontaneous vigils around town, looking for familiar faces and listening for voices that might articulate the utter sense of devastation I was feeling.

I mean, don't you ever get tired of living in a political world? I do. I did. I have to admit that I kind of let Paul Wellstone go there for a number of years. It wasn't really anything he did or didn't do, at least so far as I was concerned. It pains me to admit that I really wasn't paying attention. Everything comes back around, though, just like everyone says it does, and as I approached old-farthood I found myself feeling almost as bored and disaffected as the young man I had been when I gave myself so enthusiastically to Wellstone's 1990 campaign. That summer and fall I busted my ass, doing whatever was asked of me. You want a truly bruising and humiliating experience? Imagine trying to distribute Paul Wellstone literature outside a Minnesota Vikings game in 1990. Imagine the serial abuse heaped on Wellstone's young telephone canvassers in those frantic months leading up to the election.

In no time at all what we call the real world again turned very ugly indeed, at least from where I was sitting. If politics in fact had any kind of a positive effect on that world, I was having a harder and harder time seeing it, and I was increasingly driven back to the consoling arms of music and literature--the same diversions that had occupied me before that first dangerous flirtation with politics came along and didn't quite change my life.

Or did it? The truth is complicated, of course. Paul Wellstone wore me out, and he also disappointed me by refusing to be my own personal senatorial gobot, by failing to carry out to the letter my vision for a better America. Often enough during the years of our estrangement I also realized that I missed him, and found myself longing with some bitterness for those heady days in 1990 when, I felt certain, both of us--all of us, actually--had somehow been better people.

Mostly, though, I have to admit that I spent most of Wellstone's second term being lazy and misdirected. I decided at some point that it was probably for the best if I left my house as infrequently as possible. The world outside my door was too frightening and unpredictable. People I would never so much as lay eyes on could steal my money or shoot me or blow me to kingdom come, and the people in Washington, Paul Wellstone included, were worrying about things like making sure gay couples couldn't marry.

Eventually, though, I sensed that the corny old notion (Wellstone's cardinal notion) that politics could truly make a difference in people's lives was being rekindled in me. I watched as my father learned that lesson in his own life, and became a late Wellstone convert. I guess that's something you learn when your back is up against the wall, when you realize that without a sense of participation in public life you're just a guy on his couch watching someone else's version of history unfold.

It's too early, of course, to say what I lost or what I gained when Paul Wellstone's plane went down in that Eveleth swamp, but I do think I know this much: The gut reaction you had when you heard the news on Friday afternoon--that was Paul Wellstone's legacy.  


Next Time

I was in the desert when I heard the news, on a fall excursion with three Minnesotans and four Californians. We turned on the TV and hungrily flipped our way through the news channels, hooting as pundits expounded on the senator's tough race against "the mayor of Minneapolis," hissing when Connie Chung switched to a story about kiddie karaoke. We scanned the crawl headlines tucked under the sniper updates and read the pertinent bits aloud-- "Eight Killed in Minnesota Crash." "Liberal Icon Dies."

Slowly, as this went on, the Californians grew concerned. They had nodded, made the right kinds of noises when the shock first hit. But they had not been prepared for the kind of emotion that gripped the visitors now. This was grief raw and personal, and angry, the kind that comes from not recognizing a world in which someone important is suddenly missing.

The Minnesotans--quiet folks from West St. Paul, two in their 70s and one in her 40s--tried to explain. About the way this particular politician, despite everything, had been different. How he had been a sweet man, and an honest man. How you always felt that he wasn't quite taking it all seriously, even after the beard and the pinstripes; how it seemed as if he might, in the middle of an interview or a speech, chuckle and say, "But you know what really matters?" How you felt that you could trust him, because he trusted you; because he took you seriously. How the "passion" that the national commentators kept talking about wasn't passion for a goal, or a cause, really, but more of an insistence, a refusal to understand how it could be that people would not get their fair share.

The Californians hadn't known any of this, and they couldn't believe it. Was there a book out about Wellstone? Did he have a group they could donate to? They wanted to know what he had been for and against, and they promised to take up his causes. He had been a senator from another state, one of them said; now he would be a hero. And we needed heroes.

I wasn't one of the Californians or the Minnesotans; I'm not even an American. (I hold a green card, and before that I had a series of visas, one of which Wellstone wrote a form letter to support. He was Jewish, I'm German; there was more than a bit of irony in his helping to save me from deportation.) So I can't pretend to know exactly what kinds of heroes America needs, and whether Wellstone would make a good one. What I do hope is that the next time someone like him appears on the national stage--and someone will--it doesn't take a plane crash for people to start paying attention.

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