Column

STANDING UP TO GEORGE

PETER C. NEWMAN November 4 2002
Column

STANDING UP TO GEORGE

PETER C. NEWMAN November 4 2002

THE LAST DAYS OF PAUL WELLSTONE

JONATHON GATEHOUSE interviews the anti-war senator-just before his death

U.S. Politics

With the American economy sputtering, and the country on the verge of war with Iraq, the battle for political control of the U.S. House and Senate has taken on a special urgency this fall. Mid-term elections are scheduled Nov. 5, and for the past several weeks Democrats and Republicans have been duking it out in a number of bitter contests. One of the closest races is in Minnesota, where Senator Paul Wellstone, a liberal, anti-war Democrat, faced a stiff Republican challenge. Macleans National Correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse travelled to Minnesota last week to interview Wellstone—three days before the senator, his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three staffers, and two pilots died in a small plane crash. His report on the senator’s last days:

THE DILAPIDATED, bright green school bus that Paul Wellstone used to travel between campaign stops was meant to send a message to voters. It practically screams frugality, environmental consciousness, man of the people. In 1990, it was one of the most effective props of his shoestring run for the Senate— aDemocratic-David-versus-Republican-Goliath shocker that propelled a small-town activist and college professor to Washington’s halls of power. Twelve years later, Wellstone, flush with almost US$10 million in campaign funds from party coffers and political action committees, was more cautious about playing the little guy card. But the

bus—and the values it proclaimed—continued to carry him in his quest for a third term.

Rumbling between Zumbrota and Rochester on a cold, grey October afternoon, Wellstone seemed to be a little tired of the questions that had dogged him throughout the campaign. A half-eaten piece of cheesecake on the table in front of him, surrounded by framed photos of his political heroes—Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther Kingjr.—he could barely wait for the end of my sentences before unleashing his rebuttals in torrents.

A dove and unrepentant left-winger in an increasingly hawkish and conservative Washington, Wellstone was facing a stiff challenge from Republicans. In 1990, he vowed that he would only serve two six-year

terms if elected, and here he was breaking his promise. But the conventional wisdom was that he had made an already tough race an almost impossible uphill battle by voting with his conscience. In early October, Wellstone was the only senator facing a close reelection race who opposed a resolution authorizing the President to take unilateral action against Saddam Hussein. His opponent, Norm Coleman, the former mayor of Minnesota’s capital, St. Paul, pounced on it as proof that Wellstone—long labelled the first Sixties radical in the Senate—was ill-suited for a post-Sept. 11 world. The pundits and political strategists piled on.

“I don’t know how the Iraq vote will count. I don’t know,” Wellstone snapped when the subject was broached. “I do think that in the last year this administration has been too unilateral—rejecting the Kyoto accord, turning our back on human rights legislation. There’s been a lot of go-at-it-alone attitude and I think that’s a mistake. I think that terrorism is for real. I think there will be more of it in our own country. So, we need the international community, we need to be working with lots of other countries, we need to have assets or intelligence on the ground in a lot of parts of the world to head this off.”

I mentioned a stat carried by a local newspaper, that Wellstone had voted against Bush more than any other senator in 2001 —opposing 41 per cent of White House initiatives in a political system where representatives generally get their own legislation passed by horse-trading and building coalitions. “Listen, if I was to try and keep up with these bogus statistics...” Wellstone

started, until he thought better of it and changed tacts. “It depends on the issue. Everything dealing with the war against terrorism, everything dealing with support for military for the past two years, given what we’re going through, I support,” he said. “Where I differ is on the economy, on education, on health care, the environment.”

The interview ended. He turned his attention to the other journalist on board, a grandmother from nearby Byron, who writes and takes photos for a weekly paper. The senator made sure she got a slice of cheesecake and all the answers she needed. Later, when his accompanying staffers—including Tom Lapic, one of those killed in the crashfound out she was in danger of being late for a piano class she was teaching, they moved heaven and earth to get her back home. It was vintage Paul Wellstone. Combative, sometimes prickly, passionate, attentive to details.

Wellstone’s chartered twin engine King Air plane went down Oct. 25, outside Eveleth, Minn., about 280 km north of Minneapolis. The senator, his family and staff were trav-

The tragic plane crash threw the political situation into chaos as the Republicans fought to regain control of the Senate

elling to attend the funeral of the father of a Minnesota state legislator. The weather was poor and speculation is centring around a possible ice build-up on the plane’s wings.

ANGER OVER THE ECONOMY, big government and corporate greed are what propelled Wellstone to the Senate during his first campaign. The 58-year-old son of Russian immigrants was perhaps the closest thing American politics had to the lefty ideal of West Wing president Jed Bartlet. (Both the character and the real politician were small-town college professors, and both grappled with the effects of multiple sclerosis.) In a world of increasingly bland and corporatized politicians, he stood out for both his willingness to speak his mind and his disdain for image. (In the September issue of Washingtonian Magazine, Capitol Hill staffers voted him Congress’s number one fashion victim.)

Mid-term elections have traditionally been a wash for the party occupying the White House, but this year Republicans have high hopes of spinning their president’s strong post-Sept. 11 approval ratings into tangible gains. Recapturing control of the Senate—the Democrats currently enjoy a one-vote majority—would allow the GOP to set and control the legislative agenda for the next two years, a big leg up on the 2004 race for the White House. Minnesota, long considered one of the country’s most liberal states, shocked political junkies four years ago by electing Jesse Ventura, a libertarian former pro wrestler, as its governor. Republicans were hoping their Senate candidate, Coleman, a Democrat who crossed over in 1996, and was hand-picked by senior Bush adviser Karl Rove, would offer them a similarly stunning upset.

Tall, slick and well-dressed, Coleman is the antithesis of Wellstone. In an interview at a St. Paul restaurant early last week, he delivered perfect sound bites while simultaneously shaking hands and kissing babies. The Republican message to Minnesota voters was calibrated to raise questions of Wellstone’s patriotism in a time of national crisis. “The debate on Iraq wasn’t whether we should act unilaterally,” said Coleman. “The President, myself and many others have said we’re going to act multilaterally. But how do you build a multilateral coalition? You do it from strength. Paul Wellstone would do it from weakness. He’d sit back and let the UN decide whether something

should be done. That’s bad judgment.” Before the accident, the two parties had already spent a near-record US$18 million, biting and clawing for the seat. President Bush travelled to Minnesota to stump for Coleman as did Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and the closest thing the Republicans have to a saint. Radio and television airwaves were saturated with attack ads. “You have a bad case of Wellstones,” a serious voice informed a man who complained about “a bad taste” that has plagued him for the last 12 years. An ancient picture of the senator, wearing a turtleneck and sporting a beard that made him look like Lenin, appeared on every Republican mailing and commercial. On the other side, a Democratic ad featured a sympathetic granny confiding her fears that Coleman would cut social security payments, and grainy video of the former mayor’s 1996 endorsement of his opponent and Bill Clinton played in almost a loop on local channels.

But the growing fear for Republicans was that they might have blown their chance for a Senate breakthrough by overplaying the Iraq card. The latest opinion polls showed Wellstone opening up a four-to-six point lead after months of deadlock. Washington’s sabre-rattling and tough talk had apparently failed to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein is their most pressing problem. A recent national survey found that 41 per cent say the sluggish economy is the biggest issue in this election, compared to 34 per cent who cite war with Iraq. And while 66 per cent agreed that Saddam poses an “imminent threat,” only 24 per cent think ousting him should be the most important priority in the war on terror. “This administration doesn’t reflect where the majority of Americans stand,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. “The concerns about terrorism and 9/11 are still there—people feel horrible. But what they don’t see is that going to war unilaterally with Iraq is going to solve those problems.” Last week, at an all-candidates debate in St. Cloud—a Lake Wobegonesque town in central Minnesota where the well-mannered locals couldn’t find an expletive stronger than “gosh dang” to describe the 20 cm of early snow blanketing the ground—Iraq didn’t even come up. “The only people talking about Iraq are the CNN junkies,” said Matt Zemler, a goateed, 23-year-old envi-

‘ln the last year this administration has been too unilateral. There’s been a go-at-it-alone attitude and I think that’s a mistake.’

ronmental studies student on the fringes of a subsequent Wellstone rally at St. Cloud State. “People don’t care. It’s pretty removed from us. We’re more concerned about our grades and how to pay for tuition.”

The sentiments were similar further to the south in Cannon Falls. Standing hunched against the cold at a high school football playoff game, Steve Bodette rattled through a list of complaints about the government. “My issues are taxes and all the fat and waste in government, and health care,” said the kitchen renovator. The cost of medical insurance for his three-member family now ranks second only to the mortgage as a monthly expenditure. He wasn’t thrilled about Wellstone’s position on Iraq, but it was hardly his biggest beef about the Democrats.

At week’s end it wasn’t yet clear what the Democrats would do after the tragic loss of their candidate. Minnesota law allows the party to replace Wellstone on the ballot, and speculation was rife that officials would try to draft former vice-president Walter Mondale, now 74. The situation is reminiscent of what happened in Missouri two years ago when Gov. Mel Carnahan, a candidate for the Senate, was killed in a plane crash three weeks before Election Day. His name remained on the ballot, and respectful voters awarded him a posthumous victory. His widow, Jean, was appointed to her late husband’s seat and is now seeking re-election.

In a country that remains as politically polarized as it was in the last presidential election, a similar wave of public sympathy in Minnesota could well frustrate Republican efforts to gain control of the Senate. Twelve years ago, on the eve of the Persian Gulf conflict, Wellstone, the then newly-minted senator for Minnesota, was almost universally pilloried for staging an anti-war news conference in front of Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Now, it appears his final act of political courage will stand as his lasting memorial. Hü

jgatehouse@macleans.ca