The Hope and Promise of Politics -
Remembering Senator Paul David Wellstone
“Politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives.” Paul David Wellstone
In just about one week’s time it will be thirteen years since we lost Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Senator Wellstone died tragically on October 25, 2002 in a plane crash that also killed his wife, his daughter, and three of his staff members.
I bring this up today not merely to remember a great man on the anniversary of his death (and he truly was a great man) but because I think that in this season of divisive politics it’s so important to be reminded of the loftier goals of politics — the type of leadership that elevates us and inspires us to be better and to do better.
Senator Wellstone was just fifty-eight years old when he died. His life, though far too short, was long in service and impact. He had served two terms in the US Senate and was just two weeks away from a likely win to a third term when his life was cut short.
Long before he entered the formal arena of politics Senator Wellstone was a hard-working community organizer, an activist for social justice and a tireless advocate for those without power. He was a progressive in the truest sense of the word. His battles were fought for the underdog, the vulnerable, the abused and the marginalized. He spent his entire life working in one capacity or another to better the lives of veterans, the homeless, victims of domestic violence, the poor among us, and hard working families.
Senator Wellstone was a rare man of courage and integrity. His strong and vocal opposition to Bush’s Iraq War drew such vicious attacks and vitriol that he received credible death threats. These threats troubled him deeply but they did not deter or silence him. He believed that war should never take the place of diplomacy and that unilateral action by the US was not merely wrong-headed and dangerous, but it could seriously diminish our credibility and standing on the world stage. Years later, in the aftermath of two Gulf Wars, we are arguably no safer, less popular in the world today, and very likely less secure.
I had the profound privilege of meeting Senator Wellstone shortly before he died. I traveled to DC seeking support for programs and funding on behalf of homeless families in Massachusetts — a cause about which not many politicians had much interest in learning at that time. I remember feeling very insignificant as we met in mammoth rooms with staffers of House and Senate members. These staff members listened politely and promised to pass our message along to their bosses as they excused themselves after a few minutes. Senator Wellstone was the refreshing exception. One of the few elected officials who agreed to meet with us himself, he welcomed our small contingent into his office and conversed with us for nearly an hour. Asking pointed questions and listening carefully to our answers, he was deeply engaged and sincerely interested in learning about what we were seeing in our communities, how we were responding to the homeless crisis in our State and what actions we believed would actually make a difference in the lives of those we sought to assist. Before our meeting ended that morning he had also promised to support our efforts, which in fact he did, in very tangible, public and measurable ways.
For a young idealist who believed that our government’s sole purpose was to serve and meet the needs of all its people, Senator Wellstone represented hope.
Today, as we plod through this current electoral season in all its ugliness and pettiness, I will honor the memory of one of the great ones. Here’s to you, Senator Paul David Wellstone — May we never forget your example or stop striving to meet the ideals for which you worked so diligently to preserve.