Paul Wellstone, RIP

Posted: Oct 28, 2002 12:00 AM
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Last Wednesday morning as Sen. Paul Wellstone walked into a news conference room in the State Office Building, he spotted me seated in the rear. "Oh, no," Wellstone said in mock dismay. "Call off the press conference. Novak's here." We had that kind of relationship: disagreeing about everything but good-naturedly with a sense of fun. He was the happy warrior of 21st-century politics. Arguably the U.S. senator farthest to the left, he was a throwback to a different time. That posture was not always a political asset. Wellstone was fighting for his political life against former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, in what private polls of both parties showed to be a tossup. This was the country's purist Senate race, and one that could determine which party will control the chamber. Wellstone, a champion of the poor and an advocate of big government, was running against a pro-life, pro-tax cut Republican, and they were virtually even with each other. When pollster John Zogby surveyed key Senate races several weeks ago, he found that Wellstone had higher negatives than any incumbent senator with the exception of New Hampshire's Republican Sen. Bob Smith (who lost in a September primary). That was partly because Wellstone had broken his promise to serve only two Senate terms, but also because his ideology was on the left fringe. The decision by many endangered Democratic candidates this year to fudge on issues and even use the image of George W. Bush in their commercials was not for Wellstone. He was the only vulnerable Democratic senator to vote against President Bush's Iraq resolution, and he did not agonize about it. In my many television interviews and occasional private conversations with Wellstone, he never hid his concern with the pragmatic leadership of the Democratic Party. He often stated that the party was losing its soul under Bill Clinton. When I told him he was my ideal Democratic candidate, Wellstone shot back that I was looking for a loser. Kidding aside, he was sincere about a presidential bid in 2000 and would have tried had he been able to finance it. Laid-back Bill Bradley was not exactly the passionate Wellstone's kind of Democrat, but he was better than Al Gore in Wellstone's eyes. He could not tolerate the strategizing and hedging of the Gore candidacy. When I chided Wellstone for breaking his two-term pledge, he told me he felt he was needed not only to counter Bush conservatism but also to avert the Democratic drift. Last year, he spoke out against his party's moderation in these words: "I think Democrats are without a politics if they're not bold and honest for the things they think are right." Nevertheless, Wellstone had changed during his nearly dozen years as a senator. The fighting left-wing professor from Carleton College had not altered his views but did soften his style. Moreover, he came to love the political game and mastered its tricks -- as he showed in the last hours of his life. Coleman had correctly pointed out that Wellstone sometimes found himself on the short side of 97 to 3 and 95 to 5 votes, particularly when it came to national defense issues. "I'm running against a guy who's been fighting everybody for years," Coleman told audiences. Wellstone was concerned about being labeled an ineffectual outsider, and tried to do something about it at the Wednesday morning press conference where I encountered him. He brought in eight executives from Minnesota's booming medical device industry to praise him for passage Oct. 17 of a bill to speed government approval of new products. In fact, he was at best a secondary figure in backing the bill, was not a sponsor and was not even on the Senate floor when the bill passed. The businessmen looked uncomfortable. Wellstone came over to me before the press conference began. "This is counterintuitive," he told me, his eyes twinkling. Paul Wellstone was exaggerating his role, but he was delighted by his command performance for CEOs who had made maximum contributions to his Republican opponent. Paul Wellstone was enjoying the great game, with two more days to live.