Paul Wellstone spoke to me from the grave


That’s a sensational headline for a strange but not really occult occurrence. I couldn’t seem to find a way to write about it until now, but let’s see if today, the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, gives me the opening I need to work through how a post-mortem message from Sen. Paul Wellstone helped me escape from the so-called mainstream media.

Sen. Wellstone and I weren’t close. We talked occasionally, always on business. He wasn’t as funny or huggable as his public image. But he was passionate and outspoken in his beliefs and it came across in most encounters.

I wrote about him many times, but the way these things really work, most of my journalistic needs were handled by his staff. As a so-called objective reporter on a newspaper that was constantly accused of liberal bias, it seemed important to be no friendlier to him, in person or in print, than I was to the Republicans in the Minnesota delegation. He called me “Eric.” I called him “Senator.”

To the limited degree that I allowed myself to feel admiration for anyone about whom I wrote, I admired Wellstone as a conviction politician who seemed, more often than most, to vote his conscience rather than seek political safety. I never expressed this to him privately, and now I can’t.

Then, suddenly, five years ago today, he was dead. I felt sorry, but not bereft. I consoled some friends and colleagues who took the tragedy more personally, and threw myself into one of the most intense reporting assignments of my life, a day by day account of the 13 days between the plane crash and the election.

Several years ago, also in the fall, I received an unexpected email from Rick Kahn. Kahn, you may recall, was the Wellstone friend who got carried away at the late senator’s memorial service and urged everyone in the audience — including the Republicans — to help the Democrats win the Senate election as a tribute to Wellstone. This enabled Republicans to portray the memorial service as a partisan stunt, which may have turned the election.

I describe the email from memory because I no longer have a copy. Kahn wrote that the Wellstone family had given him one of the Paul’s suits as a remembrance. Kahn had left it hanging in the closet for years, and then decided to wear it to services on Rosh Hashana (or Yom Kippur). He put his hand in the pocket and found Wellstone’s staff-prepared schedule for the last day he wore the suit, not long before he died.

On the schedule was an appointment to talk to me about foreign policy. Kahn was apparently writing to everyone on the schedule to let them know, I guess as a way of renewing their connection to Wellstone. Pretty weird, huh? But, other than noting how much Rick Kahn was still grieving, I might have blow it off, but I didn’t.

It hit me hard and I knew why. I remembered the story that resulted from that last appointment. I was assigned to write the foreign policy story for the “issues” series that the Star Tribune ran as part of its Wellstone-vs.-Norm-Coleman campaign coverage.

It was the fall of 2002, so the biggest foreign policy issue was the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Wellstone opposed it, Coleman favored it.

An issue story on the eve of an election is a highly scrutinized exercise in this kind of “balance.” By the time I wrote that 2002 foreign policy issue piece, I had come to doubt the value of such pieces, especially during the run-up to the Iraq war, when the “balanced frame” method seemed to be almost disinforming the electorate. But I did my job as I then understood it, giving no hint of my own strong conviction that the doctrine of pre-emptive unilateral war based on an unproven, non-imminent threat and without the legitimization of U.N. would be a huge mistake and national disgrace.

I don’t want to overdramatize. This was just one of many moments that led to my decision to drop out of mainstream journalism. And, after all those years of writing in the disembodied voice of a reporter, it still embarrasses me to write something this personal.

But by the time I got Kahn’s email, I had moved into open rebellion against the model of so-called objective journalism. The memory of that lame piece, written at such a crucial time, seemed an abdication of responsibility. That, combined with my repressed admiration for Wellstone as a guy that at least stood up for his beliefs, felt like a message from Paul. The message was:

Seek the truth. Share the closest approximation of it that you can assemble. Stand up as bravely as you can for your convictions. When the end comes, don’t be full of regrets for things you should have said.