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.  

          Whatever it says about negative ads, however, it's clear that this campaign is also a referendum on the viability of a left-populist politics at the national level. Of course we already know the answer to that, don't we? Left-populist politics is not viable. The people have drifted irrevocably to the right and politicians have no choice but to abide by their ever more meanspirited wishes; the script is so much a part of our media and our politics that it hardly needs explaining anymore. It is the overriding fact of contemporary American democracy.

          Or the big lie. It's incontestably true that the public, through repeated inoculation, has learned to respond unfavorably to the word "liberal" and a number of other words associated with it. It is also true, again by virtue of a long bipartisan propaganda offensive, that most people have little faith in government to do anything competently. But what all this proves about underlying values is not so clear. There are polls proving that 65 percent of Americans want welfare ended, come what may. There are polls proving that 80 percent of Americans believe the government has a responsibility for helping to alleviate poverty. There are polls proving that people want "less government." There are polls proving that the most avid proponents of less government are the least popular politicians in the country at present. A formidable number of polls, in fact, show a high degree of social liberalism when the right questions are asked, and when the sample is not tilted toward the self-fulfilling prophecy of "the likely voter."

          Be that as it may, the immediate practical question does involve the people who can be lured to the ballot box over the short haul. And if a Paul Wellstone can be elected, it means that a good deal of what we know about the mood of the country and the viability of left politics is wrong. Ah, but this is Minnesota, comes the chorus, and Minnesota is in a class by itself. What a silly idea. Its rich and often radical heritage notwithstanding, present-day Minnesota is actually a pretty conservative place. Three of its last four U.S. senators have been Republicans; its governor is Republican; its Democratic party is conservative to moderate in leaning. There are still vestiges of social liberalism in evidence, it's true, but they are mostly of a very Scandinavian variety, predicated on the enlightened sharing of resources among a remarkably homogeneous mass of white middle-class people. As the state has attracted more poor people and more people of color, its political response has predictably tended toward exclusionism and reaction. So it won't do to say that Minnesota is exceptional.

          It would be closer to the truth to say that Wellstone is exceptional. If the polls hold and he wins, it will go some distance toward proving that one need not always tack hard to the right in order to survive in national politics, and likewise, that one can get somewhere by recasting the language of liberalism rather than simply running from it. This is not exactly revolutionary stuff, but it does put the lie to one of the most basic maxims of contemporary electoral politics by pointing up that what all too often passes as "realism" is really moral cowardice and fealty to the money interests that make political careers run smoothly--or not.

          Wellstone has certainly made accommodations during his six years in office, most of which are well known: his votes for the Defense of Marriage Act and the Clinton crime bills, his effective abstention from the Boundary Waters dispute. But his most striking adaptation to Washington culture involves his public profile. In that fall of 1990, after he was elected, Wellstone was a vocal presence. He publicly scorned Jesse Helms for race-baiting, and went around the state holding town meetings to drum up opposition to the coming war; as he told me in the first days of his term, "For what I'm trying to accomplish, I wouldn't be successful if I tried to play by the rules of the game. I'm not that comfortable or connected with some of the lobbyists--with the money.

          "And when you're up against that, you've got to figure out a way to combat it. One of the major ways, if you look at the politics of the '30s and the '60s--it's been a politics that was external to Congress that's put the pressure on. So I always need to have an eye out for how to use this position in the Senate to work with people on the outside, and bring more people and pressure to bear. Other people are very well-suited to being consummate inside players, and should be. I think there's a place for that. But it's not my place." To be fair, Wellstone also emphasized the importance of learning to navigate on the inside. But where the dialectic of insider and outsider roles was concerned, Wellstone in the early days saw himself emphasizing the latter. He meant to be a lightning rod for helping marshall public pressure on Congress.  

          He arrived in Washington in 1991 on the eve of the Gulf War and quickly made a name for himself by denouncing the Bush administration's rush to arms. In his first speech on the Senate floor, Wellstone noted the words of a constituent who asked whether any U.S. senators had children in the gulf war military force, and said, "I do not believe the administration has made the case to go to war. And if I apply this standard to my children, then I have to apply this standard to everyone's children. I have to apply this standard to all God's children." His was perhaps the loudest voice in opposition to the war in the entire Congress.

          He held a press conference in front of the Vietnam War Memorial to call for a slowing of war preparations in favor of letting sanctions against Iraq take their course. For this he was criticized by some veterans' groups, a rebuke that took him aback. He apologized--inappropriately, perhaps; the memorial is, after all, the country's most potent symbol of the costs of needless wars, whether veterans like to think of it that way or not. Without recanting his opposition to the war, he began emphasizing that he supported the U.S. troops. By March of that year, shortly after the rout of Iraqi forces was concluded, a Star Tribune poll showed 35 percent of Minnesotans approving of his performance, compared to 51 percent disapproval.

          The Gulf War episode seemed to have a greater impact on Wellstone than anything else in his first term. To date he has never again taken such a prominent role in any public battle. Hence he has not been much of a lightning rod. "I see Wellstone around. I live a couple of blocks from his place in St. Paul," writer Roger Swardson told me the other day. "And boy, has he gotten to the point where he scats when he sees me coming. I said, 'What the hell are you doing out there? You're against domestic violence? Well, who's for it? You could have been a national leader on health care reform.' I mean, the guy deserves to be reelected, but he could have done so much more."

          The obvious rejoinder is that Wellstone would have faced off against the insurance companies and HMOs at the cost of his job, which may or may not be true. But if he had helped build the foundation for a citizens' coalition in favor of genuinely universal health care in the process, it would have been worth it to a great many people. In any case, that was not the path Wellstone chose to walk. His demeanor and his rhetoric have grown markedly quieter over the course of his term. His speech is more carefully modulated in tone and volume alike, and he chooses his words with a much more self-conscious concern for how they might be made to look in the paper, or in Republican ads. When I asked him about his agenda for a second term (see accompanying interview), he stressed attack-proof categories such as domestic violence, community policing, and deficit reduction.

          Early on, in the face of declining poll numbers and merciless criticism by a press that had been charmed by him but never wanted to take him seriously, Wellstone ducked down and set himself to learning the folkways and parliamentary strategems of the Senate. And if this sounds like a matter of self-preservation, and thus a little craven, it was perhaps not so simple. During a series of interviews in early 1992 that ended up going unpublished--my fault, not his--Wellstone talked about the frustrations of his first year in the Senate. Chief among them, he said, was the struggle "to connect what we do there to people's lives. Every week I go back to Washington with pictures of people and conversations in my mind, and I try to make the connections. But I don't control the agenda. Trying to get more in control of that agenda, to be as efficient as I can in every way, that's the biggest pressure I feel." Or, to paraphrase what he told me last week, it's easy to get bogged down in legislative details when failing to do so can mean that a lot of your constituents go without heat through a Minnesota winter.  

          One thing Wellstone has never lost is a visceral sense for bread-and-butter economic issues befitting his working class roots. He was the only senator standing for reelection who dared vote against welfare abolition; he has consistently worked at ensuring more equal access to education and health care. Maybe Wellstone could have pushed the envelope more, particularly if he had not run up against such a popular little war in his first months, but on the whole he was faithful to the promises of his 1990 campaign: What we saw was what we got. In a second term that he has pledged to be his last, without the pressure of another race to consider, Wellstone might indeed become a more public and more galvanizing presence in the Senate.

          "The Senate changes you, no matter who you are," said one Wellstone campaign insider recently. "I think it's made Paul shrewder than he was before. In a way he went in expecting to be the last man standing in a lot of fights. And you get marginalized if you're always doing that. It's just inevitable. What he's learned from '93 onward is that he can form alliances with people he never thought he could. It's made him a more effective legislator. Essentially it took him three years to learn to work the levers. And now he's very good at what he does. In a second term I think you'd see him step out and be a little bolder in some areas. I think he'll make people very proud." CP

          CITY PAGES: There's a lot that's been very predictable about this campaign, particularly in terms of the Republican ads. Has the campaign managed to hold any surprises for you?

          WELLSTONE: Yeah, I mean--I knew some time ago that it would be a lot of attacks and a very
difficult race. And then when I heard that [Republican attack ad guru Arthur] Finkelstein had been hired, I quickly got to know his modus operandi. In that sense it was all kind of predictable. What surprised me about all this was that I didn't realize how big an issue soft money of the sort used to finance these ads would become. It's become the reform issue. And I don't know how to deal with it, except to say no more money--only x amount of dollars can be spent in a given state, period.

          The people part, on the other hand, has been very gratifying. I think we will win this race. We have to work hard, but I think it's gonna be a really solid and important win. And if that happens, I think that the Minnesota race is gonna get written about all over again nationally. There's already been a piece in the Post and a piece in the Times. And I think the reason for that has less to do with me than with the fact that people in Minnesota just decided about three and a half weeks ago that this was--they just rejected the negative ads. They said, we have some sort of standard, and you just went over the top. That's a big story for the country.

          CP: These ads presume a great deal of stupidity on the part of the electorate. They are clearly crafted for an audience that the people devising the ads deem to be awfully dim.

          WELLSTONE: Yeah. I think that's right. [Syndicated columnist] Jules Witcover came out--he's still here, and I don't know what he'll write, but he was saying that he thought Minnesota's been a little ahead of the curve, and this may prove to be a very, very significant instance of people saying, look, we have some intelligence. Stop messing around with us.

          CP: I wanted to ask you about the president. Your own organization notwithstanding, the general disinterest in a Clinton/Dole race is something that stands to hurt you on election day, isn't it? It seems to me a bigger threat than the RNSC ads.

          WELLSTONE: I think that it's a fair enough question, but I guess I think in Minnesota--you know, Steve, the people you see in our office and a lot of the grassroots organizers have a great deal of energy, but it's also a question of Democrats. I think Democrats are not dispirited. I think they're very optimistic and I think they're going to turn out. In the Senate race, all these attacks are just galvanizing our supporters. They've stirred up a lot of people, and not the ones they were meant to stir up.  

          CP: Is this your last campaign? Are you still committed to a two-term limit?

          WELLSTONE: Yeah, this is my last campaign.

          CP: I'm curious--given the anti-career politician ethos of the past few campaign cycles, why haven't you made more of that?

          WELLSTONE: I don't know. It's a good question. This campaign has been very much--there's a certain core idea I've harbored about how we could do well, and I've stuck with it. You go by instinct, and it just doesn't seem to me that I need to emphasize it. It doesn't quite fit in with everything else I've been saying. Making this my last campaign is something I'm doing for personal reasons. It's not philosophical. It's a labor of love and I believe in it; I think a lot of good things can happen if I get the opportunity to serve this next term. But it's also 90 hours a week. It's never been less, for me at least, and there are loved ones to think of.

          CP: You mentioned this race versus the one in 1990. I wanted to talk about ads briefly. The Republicans tried to create a flap over your bringing on Mandy Grunwald, a move that I understood in light of all the attack ads you were being called upon to answer quickly. But there's been a notable absence of the kind of persona ads you used to define your campaign in '90. Why have you shied from them?

          WELLSTONE: Because my own idea, going way back into June, was that it was my name. And when it's done in your name, you're accountable for all of it. I made a decision that I knew what these folks were gonna try to do, I knew there would be all these herky-jerky caricatures--little legs, big stomach, the whole bit, right?--and I felt that I had been in the Senate for six years and there were issues I wanted to talk about with people in Minnesota, there was a record I was proud of. And I wanted the campaign to be more serious. And it has been.

          What hasn't been written about is the fact that I have deliberately made an argument in the ads each week. And in most of them, I've been doing the talking. They're not flashy, but you want to know something? In contrast to their stuff, people know that we're talking about education as it connects to their families, we're talking about the environment, we're talking about domestic violence, I talked about taxes. It connects with people. And I thought that's exactly what I should do.

          CP: Why do you think you've been Republican target number one this time? It seems to me that you're a discomfiting presence in a symbolic as well as a practical sense--because if the values you represent have popular currency, if one can get elected talking about those things and voting the way you do, it shatters a very popular illusion in Washington.

          WELLSTONE: I think you're right. That's part of it. The other thing that's very different from last time--I've always believed that education is something that's always happening, K through 85, and I've learned a lot. I'm really good at this work now. I know the Senate rules, I know my leverage. And boy, I'll tell you, especially in the 104th Congress with their whole agenda at hand, you can pick out five senators who've really made it tough on them, really stood up and battled it out with them. And I've been one of them. I'm a discomfiting presence to some of those folks, no question about it.

          I think [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott is coming out next week [to campaign for Boschwitz], which is fine. I was thinking to myself about an encounter I had with him. I think Anne Montgomery is the last judge we got through, and it happened right before August recess. I had been fighting for her and felt like I had a commitment, and then they tried to stop her. I went up to Lott and said, look, you're the majority leader and this is a matter of your word. Now you folks are going back on it. She richly deserves this, and we have a vacancy on the court we need to fill. I'll just tell you that as soon as we're done with the bill we're working on, the Senate's coming to a halt. Nothing's gonna happen. Not tomorrow, not the next day. People want to go home on recess, we're gonna stay. And he looked at me and said, I believe you. It took about half a day, but the matter was brought to the floor and Anne was confirmed.  

          And then we had the deal on this drug Lodine, which you might have read about. It was the sort of thing you learn only from experience. Here they're cutting Head Start and child nutrition and what-not, and then they put into conference committee a provision for one pharmaceutical company in Pennsylvania to get a patent extension for about five years on a drug that mainly old people take for arthritis. Which increases the cost to the elderly by a few hundred million nationwide, because people can't go to the generic. I just caught 'em red-handed, and they had to knock it out. I embarrassed them. And I'm good at that. And some of these folks would like me out. So it's a bit of an honor. It's been a long year and a half, but it's an honor in one way.

          CP: There have been people--on occasion I've been one of them--who have expressed disappointment that you haven't been a more vocal presence off the Senate floor on some issues, a kind of lightning rod for marshalling public sentiment and public pressure vis à vis the whole Congress. At some point you seemed to make a tactical decision that you would work mostly on the inside and concentrate your efforts on learning the ropes there.

          WELLSTONE: That's a very fair issue. And you know, I don't have a very profound answer to it, except to say that I remember talking to Ralph Nader. And he said, you know, I love [retired Ohio Democratic Senator] Howard Metzenbaum's work, but he wasn't able to do much on the outside, and you need to be able to do that. And I said, we'll do it both ways. I think I should do more. You know the main reason I haven't, in my mind? It's the 90-hour week I was talking about. I just find it hard to figure out how to do it timewise.

          I don't want to sound weak or whiny, but I find that in order to be a presence there and to be able to fight for people--say there's no energy assistance money, and people could go cold in Minnesota. It's amazing to have to fight so hard to keep a program going that isn't nearly as good as it should be. But that's been the nature of a lot of the fights that have taken up my energy. It's all concrete, and it is important. It's taken a lot of time and energy to deal with that process, and so far as being able to do as much on the outside as I'd like is concerned, it's true--I find it hard to do both. Maybe I'll find more ways next term. But it's very hard in terms of time.

          CP: Let me ask you a two-part question about the most memorable moments of your term in a couple of respects. First, legislatively, and second, off the floor.

          WELLSTONE: I think on the floor, passing the gift ban was one. People were so angry, Democrats and Republicans alike. That was a real important reform victory. I think the amendment to restore funding for education, with a special emphasis on Title I programs to help kids with reading and math, was a big victory for education in Minnesota. People were really worried. We were gonna lose about $13 million. I think saving the energy assistance program was another. We knew the winter was going to be very brutal, and I'd already met people who were using their stoves to heat their homes or apartments. And probably the one with [New Mexico Republican Senator Pete] Domenici on mental health. There were others, but those things come to mind now.

          As far as special moments off the floor, I think of the award from the Vietnam Vets of America. Last year they chose me as Legislator of the Year. I think that was the most--I've never been more moved by an award. Since then, just in the past year--last week it was the Disabled American Veterans, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The Military Order of the Purple Heart. The atomic veterans. The work with the veterans community has been very important and very moving to me. But that award from the Vietnam Vets... I just wept.

          A lot of it is just personal. Just people you meet. On the veterans part, Tim Gilmore was dying of cancer from exposure to Agent Orange. And it was just awful, because the one thing he was so focused on at the end was that if he didn't get any compensation before he passed away, his family wouldn't get anything. And we were able to get that for him. Lisa, his wife, has become very close with Sheila and me. She's at every single gathering we do. Tim has passed away. But being able to help him and his family.  

          There was a Vietnam vet I met the other day who drove 70 miles to a gathering. I won't use his name because I don't know if he wants me to. But he told me we had helped him get some compensation for treatment of his service-connected illness, and he said it was the first time since Vietnam that he felt like he was home. You don't forget something like that.

          CP: Can you give me a quick overview of your agenda for a second term?

          WELLSTONE: Well, you know--education and children is my passion. A lot of continuing work about how to reduce violence in communities. Domestic violence with Sheila, a lot of work with law enforcement about community-policing programs. Health care, which covers any number of different things--including the veterans; that's the biggest issue with veterans' groups. And reform. Geez, if there was a way we could change this horrible system for financing campaigns. Then maybe I'd add one other thing. I'd like to continue with the deficit reduction and push it hard. I just think there's a lot of other areas that don't get touched. Especially with a lot of the loopholes and deductions and the environmentally wasteful subsidies. I'd like to do a lot more in that area. But with a standard of fairness.

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