Remembering Paul Wellstone


Paul recognized that no politics can serve the needs of justice without great hope. And as a leader, he recognized that we needed strategies for hope; coupled with a vision that extends to the far neighbor as well as the near, and that recognizes much of our work will be realized only in the fullness of time, and perhaps by others.

Five years after the tragic deaths of Senator Paul Wellstone and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter and staff members, we offer this eulogy, delivered November 13, 2002 in Washington, DC, by Senator Wellstone’s Chief of Staff, Colin McGinnis.

I was a student of Paul’s at Carleton, and served on his staff from the beginning, as a policy person and for the last six years as his Chief of Staff.

In the twenty years I knew Paul, he was to me, as to so many, a teacher, friend, mentor, and confidante; to those who worked with him, he was not only a wonderful boss but a colleague, coach, and fellow plotter. He was a lionhearted leader. And so was Sheila. She shared Paul’s passions – for politics and people. Most of all she had a passion for Paul–as he did for her.

Paul would have been pleased by his admiring national front-page press of the last few weeks. He would have been especially delighted by the New York Time’s exaggeration of his height by a full inch. He’s been hailed in scores of articles and tributes across the country, for his fierce commitment to social and economic justice; for his warmth and decency, for his love of those he represented, and for his effective legislating on their behalf. But he need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life.

He really was valiant…earnest…passionate…kind…decent…thoughtful. And he had an intellectual honesty honed by his years as a teacher and scholar. He often said that among the most important lessons he had learned as a Senator was there were many who didn’t see the world as he did, and that that made his job more interesting, the spice in the stew.

Paul took seriously the central admonition of his religious tradition, to do the deeds of justice and kindness. He did this in a relentless way that was hard to keep up with. I know, because for years I had the unenviable task of trying to keep up, and helping others on staff do the same. He worked with his whole heart, mind and strength, and called out of those around him the same commitment. Even so, he was honest enough to recognize that his work and organizing had, at periods in his life, consumed him, at some cost to his family, and so gave his staff the space to avoid making that same mistake in our lives.

Paul recognized that no politics can serve the needs of justice without great hope. And as a leader, he recognized that we needed strategies for hope; coupled with a vision that extends to the far neighbor as well as the near, and that recognizes much of our work will be realized only in the fullness of time, and perhaps by others.

As long as I knew him Paul was lacerated by a sort of swift indignation about the conditions under which so many struggle. While he suffered physically, without complaint, his just anger arose out of beholding the suffering of others–his parents’, his brother’s struggle with mental illness, the pain of tenants and working people, new immigrants and welfare mothers with whom he worked.

He was especially sensitive to suffering rooted in poverty, and to the social arrangements which keep people poor. But he also knew that suffering could be rooted in moral or spiritual dilemmas; chronic physical pain; mental illness; violence and abuse; in the loss of sudden death and the grief which we feel so keenly now. It is fitting that he and Sheila died engaged in a work of mercy, on their way to be present to a family who’d just lost their father.

Most good political leaders recognize the need to lift up those they lead and give us hope and purpose. That’s essential. But not sufficient. Paul knew that instinctively. He knew that a focus on human suffering–and especially suffering that does not have to be, was crucial if his politics was to be authentic, and effective. This recognition of Paul’s was distinctive, and has not been much commented on. It was the well from which he drew his famous passion, his indignation, his humility, and egalitarianism.

There is a danger of sentimentalizing suffering in ways that don’t really share its burdens, or ask hard questions about how it might be alleviated. Paul avoided this by rooting his progressive populism in the stories and hopes and needs of actual people. There was not much talk of Aristotle, or high-minded musing about the common good, in the Wellstone camp. We focused on people, at his insistence. It was his genius.

Paul dreamed bravely. Not for him a threadbare vision. Like his hero Bobby Kennedy, he saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. He was part of every major social fight of the last four decades, and inspired along the way the young, the trustees of our politics, to join those fights.

It’s why in the ‘60’s he was engaged in the Anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Why in the ‘70’s he was organizing at the local level with groups like the Organization for a Better Rice County, and why he emerged as a national force in the anti-Apartheid movement, and helped organize farmers in Minnesota’s Powerline struggle. Why in the ‘80’s he was engaged in the anti-nuclear and family farm movements.

It’s why as a Senator in the ‘90’s he wasn’t content to just cosponsor other liberals’ bills and issue press releases, but he had to actually go to Tallulah, Mississippi to see first-hand the conditions under which young, mostly African-American men, many mentally ill, were being detained there. Or to the south, to follow in the footsteps of Bobby Kennedy’s poverty tour, to measure how far we’d come, and highlight how very far we have yet to go. It’s why he wanted to travel as a Senator to a Sarajevo besieged by snipers and mortar fire, to stand in solidarity with the desperate there.

Paul knew that we all still begin with great inabilities to see the suffering of others. Too often it is obscured by our political convictions, or social position. It’s also true that human experience is diverse, and it can take a long time to understand the suffering of others, and to discern the means of its relief. But time is not neutral, as he was fond of saying. That’s why thorough analysis, initiatives to engage the stories of others, and most of all an urgent action plan were essential to his politics.

In the Senate, Paul used his champion wrestler’s sense of timing, positioning, and leverage. This was important in an institution where, despite all of the bonhomie and backslapping, sometimes a certain stubbornness, combined with what he called “those two magic words, ‘I object,’ is what it takes to get something done for ordinary people–or to block things he believed would do them harm.

Because of Paul…

… toddlers in the hollows of Sheila’s home in Kentucky, and in inner cities nationwide, will get a leg up and a Head Start;

…women threatened by their partners’ violence will be empowered to escape abuse and given resources to cope;

…torture victims who make their way here from the dark dungeons of Central America or Asia will be healed through programs funded by his Torture Victims Protection Act, on which he worked with Senators Durenberger and Grams;

…workers on Minnesota’s Iron Range and across the country will be able to retool and retrain after being laid off, because of his job training legislation, crafted with Senator Dewine;

…Little girls in Thailand, the Philippines, Moldova will not be pressed into the sex trade, and countries who ignore this vile trade will be sanctioned, because of Paul’s sex trafficking legislation, developed with Senator Brownback,;

…An elderly couple in a mobile home on the outskirts of Duluth this winter will be able to afford heat because Paul relentlessly insisted, with Senators Specter, Jeffords, and others on adequate energy assistance funding;

Families who struggle with the mental illness of one of their kids will no longer be bankrupted by the financial burdens of their care, when the Domenici-Wellstone mental health parity bill is finally enacted as a tribute to Paul, transforming the delivery of mental health care in our country.

Paul’s legacy will not be measured by any move to or from the left or center in the Democratic Party. As he said so often, the only “center” he was worried about in American politics was that the issues over which we fight are those at the center of people’s lives – health care; education and its shining promise of equal opportunity for all; decent jobs that can sustain families. It’s that legacy, together with his long list of accomplishments, which we should remember and recommit ourselves to today.

I’d like to leave you with an image that has stuck with me the last few weeks…and then pose a question. The image is of the single candle that has burned steadily and reassuringly on Paul’s office desk since the morning he died, placed there, I like to think, as a spontaneous act of witness to the light–and heat–he generated for change.

And now the question I’d like to pose, which requires a brief set-up.

Paul was really on-the-go this past year, and so my five-year old Killian had mostly a phone relationship with him, since he would frequently call me (at least I thought he was calling me) at home to conduct business. She’s in that phase where she insists on answering the phone every time it rings, and when Paul would call, she’d settle into a lively and animated conversation for a few minutes, and I‘d be left wondering who she was talking to. When they concluded, she’d invariably pad over to me and hand me the phone and say casually, “it’s Senator Paul, he’s calling for you, too.”

How has Paul called you, and how will his warmth and love and legacy become a part of your own history? In the days ahead, think on these things, ponder them in your hearts, let it be your own small tribute, a final benediction for Paul and his extraordinary life.

Published with permission of Colin McGinnis.