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An honest look at Wellstone's legacy

November 1, 2002 | Page 3

OF COURSE, no one in the Washington establishment was going to speak ill of the dead. But you couldn't help but notice last week that people who despised Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)--or at least his liberal principles--suddenly had nothing but good to say about him.

When he was alive, the Republicans mocked him as "Senator Welfare"--and were in the midst of an ugly campaign to defeat his campaign for reelection. But after his tragic death in a plane crash last week, the likes of dirtbag Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) were suddenly paying tribute to this "man of conviction."

Still, the liberal-bashers' praise for Wellstone was no less dishonest than the fuzzy tributes of many Democrats, who would speak only of how well liked he was among his Senate colleagues. If anything should be remembered about Wellstone, it was his efforts to draw attention to the concerns of ordinary people--not his relationships with the snobs and bigots of the "world's most exclusive club."

Wellstone came to the Senate with a history of grassroots political activism behind him--which made him pretty much unique. He became a professor at Minnesota's Carleton College in 1969, where he immediately infuriated the administration by protesting the Vietnam War and helping welfare recipients to organize. Wellstone took his students to walk picket lines--for example, during the bitter strike of meatpackers against Hormel in the company town of Austin, Minn., in the mid-1980s.

In 1990, declaring that the Democratic Party had "lost its soul," Wellstone won the Democratic nomination to run against incumbent Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz--largely because the party bosses thought Boschwitz was unbeatable. But Wellstone organized a populist campaign and eked out a close victory.

Wellstone's first vote as a senator was against George Bush Sr.'s Gulf War on Iraq. But he soon began to succumb to the go-along-to-get-along atmosphere in Washington. For example, Wellstone won his Senate seat as an outspoken supporter of a single-payer system for universal health care. But in 1994, he backed the Clinton administration's lousy pro-corporate health care reform plan that collapsed before even reaching a vote in Congress.

As a Democrat, however liberal, Wellstone was part of a party that puts Corporate America first. Thus, he inevitably faced a Catch-22 situation. When he tried to remain true to his principles, he was dismissed as "unrealistic" and "irrelevant" by Republicans and Democrats alike. When he set out to accomplish something "realistic," he had to compromise his principles.

Then there are the votes that can't be explained away as a "compromise"--his support of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and the USA PATRIOT Act last year, for example.

Wellstone's career shows what happens to even the best-intentioned people who join the Democrats, hoping to use this party of big business to change the system from within. They find that the system is stacked against them--and that it changes them, not the other way around.

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