Paul Wellstone: We would all do better if we could all treat one another better


Fifteen years ago, while sitting in a meeting with Saint Paul Mayor Randy Kelly my beeper went off.

It was about 11:00 a.m. on October 25, 2002.

It was Norm Coleman.

I excused myself from the meeting, picked up the lobby phone outside of Mayor Kelly’s Office and called Norm.

He answered.

“Paul’s dead.”  was the first thing out of his mouth.

The first thing out of my mouth was, “Paul, who?”

Before I even finished the question it immediately dawned on me that I knew the answer:  Paul Wellstone.

Norm quickly shared with me that he had received a call from someone in the news media that Wellstone’s plane had gone down and that it was clear there would be no survivors.

In the blink of an eye a United States Senator, his wife and daughter and five others perished that day at 10:22 a.m.

Like many Minnesotans I had the distinct honor and pleasure to know Paul Wellstone.

He was a human dynamo.

Whether it was protesting power lines going through the fields of farmers, standing up for the poor and oppressed or being the voice and conscious of the United States Senate, Paul Wellstone made a difference in the time he had on this planet.

I would be untruthful if I told you Paul and I were close.  Or, that I supported him politically throughout his career.

We weren’t close.  We were friendly.  We knew one another.  We worked with one another from time to time.  On many issues our political perspectives aligned, and we worked with many others to promote those initiatives.

In 2002 when Norm Coleman and Paul Wellstone were running against one another for the United States Senate it was clear this would be a close, contested and bitter race.

It was.

All the way to the fateful day that Paul’s plane went down a short distance from the airport.

That evening, had he survived, Paul and Norm were to debate.

In fact, Norm, like Paul, was making his way towards that debate.

Norm’s call that morning call was just one element of one of the most startling, remarkable, humbling, sad and controversial chapters in political history in the United States.

Someday I will share more about that day and the aftermath leading up to the actual election that ultimately pit Norm against Vice President Walter Mondale.

For now, however, I want to share just how much Paul’s loss to the United States is felt today.

Paul Wellstone was an ideological liberal.  Not a progressive.  Not a Humphrey DFLer, or a Mondale Democrat.

He was a liberal.  It flowed through his veins until it reached his heart and finally came forth from his words assembled by a mind that was sharp, quick and expansive.

He was fierce.  Long before Barack Obama spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” there was Paul Wellstone being urgent.

He was “now” back “then” when America was capable of finding ways for people of vastly different political beliefs to work together.

You might be a hard-right Republican but that didn’t mean Paul Wellstone couldn’t get you to find a way to reach common ground.

And, if you couldn’t, Paul didn’t walk away bitter or angry or accusatory, he simply walked away committed to seeing if there wasn’t still a way to work together – if not on that issue perhaps on another issue in the future.

Paul Wellstone didn’t demean his political opponents.  He didn’t belittle them with caustic words or personal attacks.

He wasn’t timid.  He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind.  Nor was he afraid to call people out if he believed they were not acting in good faith.

Paul didn’t start out his political career that way.  As a young man Paul was bombastic, hard edged and demanding.

Like many of us, as he got older he mellowed somewhat.  Not in his beliefs.  Or his passion.

But in his approach.

Paul could still give a stemwinder and pound on that podium and raise the roof like nobody’s business.

Yet, he did it with a sparkle in his eye and love in his heart.

There are other Paul Wellstone’s in the world.  Those who are liberal and those who are conservative.

Sadly, they are, more and more, being shouted down by those who find angry and vicious rhetoric to be more likely to get them to be seen in viral videos on the internet or the cable news channels.

I am not naïve.  I get it and I get how the world works today.

I don’t have to like it.  Nor do I have to embrace it.

Today, I intend to reflect on this sad day and think about all the good that Paul Wellstone did during his all-too-brief time on Earth.

I especially intend to reflect on one of those comments he often made that I still believe we should aspire to in this country:

“We all do better when we all do better.”

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