The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, October 28, 2002  

And Now This One Man Is Gone

I don’t cry when politicians die. When a hyena kills a lion cub on a National Geographic special my eyes tear up and my nose runs, but I don’t cry when politicians die. Until Friday, that is. Friday, the day Paul Wellstone died.

Those in public life called upon for their remarks on the passing of politicians are calling Wellstone determined, opinionated, pugnacious, outspoken, unapologetic, and quixotic. All of these observations are intended as compliments, and to me, as one who is opinionated, pugnacious, and unapologetic, they are that. But much is missing from most of the brief eulogies we have heard in recent days: words like kind, warmhearted, genuine, and humane, even words like angry, disappointed, and disgusted. These are the words that describe Wellstone’s much-disparaged “bleeding heart,” a heart that few seem willing to celebrate and honor even now that it has stopped beating.

I cared little for Wellstone when he first arrived on the national scene in the early 1990s. Another sputtering lefty, I thought; do we really need another Ron Wyden? With his hyperkinetic poses and irrepressible zeal, Wellstone droned incessantly about affordable housing, education, health care, senior citizens, living wages . . . “labor stuff,” “poor-people issues,” the things I cared little to nothing about as an aspiring 20-something and then 30-something professional.

Since then, of course, I’ve grown older and I like to think I’ve matured. In the intervening years I have lived more than a little and observed much, and as one’s life proceeds, things happen. It sounds simple enough, but things happen that you never expect will happen, at least to people you know. I watched perfectly self-reliant and individualistic people become mired in circumstances not of their choosing -- terminal illness, unemployment, family tragedies, crushing debt, lost savings, sudden death. No, life isn’t fair, but it doesn’t have to be so wretchedly unfair. Watching such as these suffer, these smart and successful people with their safety nets of family and friends, sparked wonder at how those truly less fortunate manage in difficult times, the times that make up the entirety of their lives.

And so, eventually, many of Wellstone’s greatest concerns became mine. I cared that too many children grow up in untended squalor. It mattered that too many senior citizens grow older in, well, untended squalor. And those concerns grew exponentially while living in turn-of-the-century New York, a city of unselfconscious class division where the exceedingly rich and even the merely affluent treat clerks, secretaries, waiters, and public employees as their very own servant class, downtrodden and maintained in a permanent state of steerage as if it were God’s plan to exalt this over class, this uppermost rung of society that subsists on -- and prospers by virtue of -- unfettered greed, unrestrained selfishness, and unmitigated gall.

How satisfying, then, to hear Wellstone’s persistent and lonely voice speaking with conviction, determination, and brutal honesty in that most selective of country clubs, the U.S. Senate. Though he was still to my left politically, I admired Wellstone for standing at the edge of mainstream American politics, extending the reach of our all-too-stifled debate over public and foreign policy, not always successfully, and, this being politics, that great game that “ain’t beanbag,” not always with his principles perfectly intact either. But principles he had, and in spades, principles that led to his being roundly outvoted on the Senate floor, at times by a margin of 99 to one.

And now this one man is gone. In an instant American politics, the Senate at least, lost a critical anchor. Who shall -- who can -- maintain and extend this honorable legacy? The body politic has lost its soul to a higher plane. From this some good must come, and so I pray that we are deemed worthy to be so blessed again.

[Note: Wellstone’s book, Conscience of a Liberal, published last year, is available at and better bookstores everywhere. Buy one for yourself and for a friend that this man’s noble mission may live and grow.]

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