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Can I get a witness? 

Paul Wellstone embodied the stubborn idealist in all of us

The first time I saw Paul Wellstone, he was standing in the aisle of the Carleton College chapel, his muscular arms accentuating the high-decibel points of a tirade directed at a conservative speaker standing five feet above him behind the battlements of a lectern.

Back then, he was professor Wellstone, and I was a freshman. His green bus ride to the Senate was just a year away. It was a rare mild day in Northfield, Minn., and Wellstone wore a short-sleeved knit shirt that bulged and stretched to accommodate the former wrestling champ's sculpted abdomen. Short, compact, angry and lethal, he was a living allegory of the little man's power.

When he finished yelling, Wellstone turned his back on the speaker and stomped out of the chapel. I remember wondering at the time, "Why didn't he stay to let him respond?"

What did he imagine he had accomplished with his rage?

It was a fair question to ask of Wellstone, best known on campus for his popular class, "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing," which was all about transforming high ideals into effective real-world change. He was that rarest kind of idealist, passionately dedicated to finding practical means of achieving uncompromised principles. The practicality is rare in a professor, the uncompromised principles unheard of in a politician.

A year later, upsetting the predictions of pundits and pollsters, Wellstone unseated incumbent Rudy Boschwitz and became Minnesota's junior senator. Not long after his election, I met Sen. Wellstone at a picnic on the Mayo Clinic lawn. He wore a suit this time and had acquired a certain graciousness that had been notably absent that day in the chapel. He walked among us, talking pleasantly, listening politely.

But Wellstone had not been tamed. His behavior on the Senate floor remained that of the podium-pounding activist who didn't give a damn what his opponents had to say in their own defense. During an era when the Democratic Party was rushing toward the center, Wellstone was an unrepentant liberal, a loud-mouthed champion of farmers and laborers, of single moms on welfare and the embattled environment.

In Minnesota, we wondered what good he was doing. Wellstone was widely admired for his convictions, even among conservatives. But what could he accomplish if he alienated the other 99 senators and refused to make some expedient deals?

Wellstone's voting record is a litany of quixotic stands. In 1991, he cast one of only two votes against the Senate's overwhelming approval of the Gulf War. He voted against confirmation of Clarence Thomas, against the ratification of NAFTA, against the 1996 Welfare and Medicaid "Reform" Act, against confirmation of John Ashcroft, against George W. Bush's mammoth tax cut, and, just a few weeks ago, against giving Bush a loaded gun and a blank hall pass to Iraq.

From the standpoint of constructive grassroots change, Wellstone's time in the Senate might seem a spectacular failure. Having won the kind of power that would send most hungry activists into spontaneous orgasm, he was unable to shift the outcome in a disheartening abundance of important votes. He roared, huffed and raged. But while many senators publicly applauded him as their conscience, at roll call most politely ignored the angry angel on their shoulder.

I first heard of Wellstone's death from my wife, also a Carleton graduate. I was sitting at a coffee shop working on a story when she called me on my cell phone. Wellstone's airplane had crashed in rural Minnesota. Everyone was dead: Wellstone, wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three staffers and the two pilots. After my wife delivered the news, she said, "He was one of the good ones."


We shared a long silence over the phone.

Wellstone didn't transform the world, though he sure as hell tried. His highest ideals remain unrealized. His finest intentions were frustrated to his final day. But Wellstone was a loud and lonely voice bearing witness to our nation's sins and squandered opportunities. He was the one who would say, no matter the political cost, "This is wrong, and I won't go along with it." He was our "West Wing" fantasy: We knew that Washington wasn't really run by brilliant, passionate, noble men like him, but oh how we wished that it was.

It's raining hard as I write this. That's not a device; it's just the plain truth. There's lightning in the gray sky. It's raining hard, and Paul Wellstone is dead. I can't bring him back. I don't have the skills or strength to take his place, and I don't know anyone else who does. But I will bear witness:

A professor, a senator and a good man, he fought for what was right -- and often he failed. He spoke for what was right, and many of us heard him. We were reminded of the compromises we'd made along the way and long ago forgotten, of how we'd stopped trying, stopped caring, stopped shouting and stomping when monsters were among us. He showed us through his defiant example how cynical we'd become, and he inspired us to fight hopeless battles once again, if only to bear witness to a more virtuous way.

He's gone now, but there are thousands upon thousands of us who will never forget him.

Can I get a witness?

Freelance writer Thomas Bell covers dance and opera for Creative Loafing.

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