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Paul Wellstone: His passion should be missed by those who won't miss his votes

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 28, 2002

The Senate will be the poorer because of the untimely death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. No doubt my view will surprise you. I cannot think of an issue on which I agreed with Wellstone. And I never met him. Still, he had passion for what he believed in. The Senate right now lacks passion on either side of the aisle, unless you count the passion of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) for bringing federal pork to West Virginia.

Wellstone was against the president's tax cut bill. He insisted on being present for the vote so he could vote against the measure despite being in terrible pain. His colleagues reported that he was in the Democratic cloakroom in tears waiting for the vote, his pain was so acute. He cast his vote and was taken by ambulance to the hospital immediately thereafter.

Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila are shown in New York City in 2000
Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila are shown in New York City in 2000

He was the only Democratic Senator up for re-election to cast a vote against giving President Bush authority to go after Iraq. He told his wife and grown children that that vote might defeat him. Instead, it appeared to have had the opposite effect in liberal Minnesota, where the anti-war sentiment is perhaps the strongest in the nation. Wellstone, who had been trailing his Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, all summer and into the fall, had opened up a lead. It wasn't much of a lead and he was still under 50 percent, so Coleman might have defeated him but, still, it did give him a boost at this critical point in his campaign.

There are other Senators in the past who were like Wellstone. Oregon's Wayne Morse comes to mind. The Republican turned independent turned Democrat was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war. He was a thorn in Lyndon Johnson's side all during the war as Johnson escalated this unpopular war. Again, I almost never agreed with Morse. Yet he approached the war and other issues with great passion. His comments were always pungent and worth listening to, to understand the ultra-liberal position. Whenever he would come to the Senate floor to speak, some in his own party would make a point of getting up to walk out. That was their loss. Morse was narrowly defeated by Bob Packwood in the 1968 election.

Wellstone was about at the same point as Morse. Some in his own party were uncomfortable with his passion. However, if you wanted to understand where the left was coming from on health care or tax cuts or the war and a myriad of other issues, you needed only to listen to Wellstone.

The vast majority of today's U.S. Senators are passionless. They make statements based on the polls. Or they echo what their president or their party would have them say. Only a few have similar passion. Jesse Helms comes to mind on the other end of the spectrum. Say what you will about Helms, you could always count on the fact that when he said something it was what he believed with his whole heart.

We would have better debates and better public policy if we had more conviction in the Congress. Paul Wellstone will be missed even if his votes will not be. May he and his family rest in a better place. May God have mercy on their souls.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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