It was Michael Moore who recently observed that he thought when it came to politics the American public was genuinely more liberal than conservative in its thinking, but are reluctant to vote that way because so often they see so many self-labeled liberal politicians as being "wishy washy" when it comes to taking a stand based on a conscientious set of principles.
Paul Wellstone stood for what he believed. He left no doubt in the minds of people, both by his demeanor and his votes in the US Senate, where he stood on the pressing issues of the day.
Losing a friend and person you have long admired is always a soul-wrenching experience, but for those of us who had the experience of being among Paul Wellstone's friends and admirers, the grief over his tragic death is compounded by not only realizing the inestimable loss that the people of this country and the world have suffered, but the fact that the Senate of these United States has lost its conscience.
Paul Wellstone was a progressive populist in every sense of the word in disdaining politics-as-usual's incrementalism and compromise, but instead fighting for systematic change. In a legislative body where he was surrounded constantly by so many hollow men and women, both in his own party and the opposition, he was, in the Washington Post's David Broder's words, the "unusual combination of ideological consistency and personal warmth."
Nowhere did Paul Wellstone show that integrity more than in his championing the cause of people he described who "now find themselves in brutal economic circumstances." And not in recent years has family farm agriculture had a more outspoken advocate in the Congress for, as the testimonials from farm groups since Oct. 25 clearly show, his death is clearly a monumental loss for family farmers and rural America.
It was Paul Wellstone who joined with family farmers in Minnesota and throughout the nation's heartland throughout the 1980s to fight the Farm Credit System, major insurance companies and the banks that were threatening to foreclose on their farms
He marched with the members of the local P-9 chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the infamous Austin, Minn., strike against the large meatpacker Hormel
It was Paul Wellstone who stood with black farmers on the steps of the US Capitol in 1992 to demand that Congress support minority farmers in their effort to hold on to their land and receive equity in services from the USDA.
In 1997 he focused national attention on the plight of the poor when he made a trip to the poorest parts of the nation, many of them rural, in a tour reminiscent of the one Robert F. Kennedy, one of his political idols, took in 1967. "The Democratic Party has lost some of its soul," he lamented at the time.
In the 1996 and 2002 farm bills, it was Paul Wellstone who was an active supporter of the demands and needs expressed by family farmers for fair prices and a moratorium on corporate agribusiness acquisitions until the consequences of their "urge to merge" could be weighed and examined.
In that most recent farm bill fight he introduced and/or supported every pro-competition bill introduced in the Senate, including the packer cattle ownership ban. He stood firm for the environment as well. As champion of the Conservation Security Program in the 2002 bill he worked to stop huge subsidies for factory farms.
Wellstone believed he could be both passionate and effective. "It is not one or the other," he said. "The goal is to do well for people. You do it two ways. You push the envelope and I do. And then you also try and get everything you can get done based upon the political boundaries you have."
He also took a strong position on the nation's efforts to combat illegal drug use, especially against the package of military assistance to Colombia that Congress approved in 2000. He warned against sending weapons and advisers to a country with a poor record on human rights. He said the heavy aid to the military came at the expense of subsidies to coca farmers who might grow other crops. The likely result, he said, was that ruined farmers would join guerrilla or paramilitary groups.
"He was a man of principle and conviction, in a world that has too little of either," Wellstone's campaign manager, Jeff Blodgett, said before scores of weeping supporters who had gathered as the news of his death spread. "He was dedicated to helping the little guy, in a business dominated by the big guys."
"Bobby Kennedy did not know Paul Wellstone," Iowa Sen. Tom Harkins lamented, "but he spoke of him in Cape Town, South Africa, when he said, 'Each time a person stands up for an idea, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope'."
Ralph Nader also stressed that the loss of Wellstone, his wife Sheila, and the Wellstone's 33-year old daughter, Marcia, campaign staff members Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy, who all died (along with the plane's two pilots) in the Northern Minnesota crash, "deprives our country of courageous and steadfast fighters for a more just society and a peaceful world."
In 1991, shortly after he began serving his first term in the Senate Wellstone grilled President George Bush about the unfolding Persian Gulf war at a reception for new members of Congress. Bush turned to aides and asked: "Who is this (expletive)?"
In the ensuing years both the Bushes and Bill Clinton and Wellstone's colleagues in the Senate learned all too well who he was.
In his 2001 book, The Conscience of a Liberal [Random House], Wellstone wrote, "I feel as if 80% of my work as a senator has been playing defense, cutting the extremist enthusiasms of the conservative agenda (much of which originates in the House) rather than moving forward on a progressive agenda."
In one of Wellstone's campaign ads which the senator helped to write, he stressed that he didn't represent oil companies, drug companies, or "the Enrons of the world." "But you know what?" he said, "They already have great representation in Washington. It's the rest of the people that need it."
Living in an age when almost every politician likes to portray themselves as a populist; the more slavishly they support the interests of the corporate state and its managers the folksier they like to be. Paul Wellstone, truly a profile in courage and a testimonial to all that is good in the human spirit, voted his convictions, supported what he thought was right, not what he thought would help him get re-elected.
Most people loved him for that.
Indeed in our age of one-political party government where political power is determined and measured by dollars and cents, where "the gamblers in the necessities of life" are constantly seeking to covertly make over democracy into a plutocracy, Paul Wellstone was the living antithesis to such politics.
Principles, to Paul Wellstone, one-time college professor, life-long political activist and organizer, and two-term US senator, were quite simply a way of life.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, PO Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/