My alma mater, Carleton College, has a fitting graduation tradition for a school that so values its instruction. New graduates walk through an aisle lined by professors on both sides. In addition to its symbolic significance, the moment offers an opportunity for graduates to say a few words to some of the men and women who impacted their education. One such person for me was Professor Paul Wellstone. I shook his hand that day, looked in his eyes, and said, “Thank you for inspiring me.”
As I reflect back on that moment, it is striking that he had already inspired me at that time even though it was before some of the outstanding moments I think of when I remember him. My graduation was seventeen months before he was first elected to the U.S. Senate, despite his campaign being outspent seven to one. And it was thirteen years before he was the only senator running for reelection to vote against authorizing the war in Iraq.
He did not live to find out if that vote would cost him his senate seat, though he was ahead in the polls at the time he died, twelve days before the election. Ten years ago today on October 25, 2002, Paul Wellstone, along with his wife, his daughter, three of his campaign workers, and two pilots, died in an airplane crash. That was shocking news when my father first told it to me by phone, and it is still shocking when I think of it today.
Professor Paul Wellstone had a big reputation at Carleton. Even people who didn’t agree with his politics were impressed with his dynamic style and the impact he had. It was sometime during my junior year when I realized that due to my late declaration of a major and my decision to study abroad for part of my senior year, there was no room for a class with Paul Wellstone in the plan. I didn’t want to miss the experience, so I decided to audit his Poli Sci 10 course.
Despite a very full schedule of regular classes, I sat in the lecture hall week after week and watched Paul speak passionately about politics and real people. I remember that he used his whole body when he spoke, pacing and gesturing to underscore his points, and sometimes sitting on the edge of the stage, close to us students. He was the antithesis of every cynical rumor about politics. He believed people’s actions ought to fit with their beliefs. He believed that was not only possible in politics, but he had the personal stories to prove it. He had a way of bringing out the simple in what seemed complicated—probably because the truth tends to be simpler than lies. I remember him repeating, “Always ask where the money comes from.” That was the quick way to discern the intent behind a movement or campaign.
Paul really loved people and knew how to connect with them. I saw it in how he spoke of others, and I experienced it myself. One day after class I found myself walking the same direction as he was. We got in a conversation about Berkeley, my hometown. From then on he always remembered me and would take the time to say at least “hello” when our paths crossed, even in situations when others might not find it necessary. The people were important to him.
When I heard the news of Paul’s death, I had been equivocating about making the drive from Oregon, where I lived at the time, down to San Francisco to participate in a demonstration against the Iraq war. The decision became clear. The next day, as I marched up a jam-packed Market Street, there were dozens of people holding signs with images of Paul. I had gotten used to the happy thrill of seeing his familiar face when senators would file into the House chamber for the State of the Union address, and when he was pictured in newspapers and magazines. Several times that day I had that happy moment of recognition and then remembered I was seeing his photo because he died. But I also saw that he had impacted people way beyond Carleton and Minnesota with his message of standing up for one’s beliefs.
I wish there was a happier reason to remember that message just before elections, but I can’t think of a better time to remember it. Paul Wellstone won a campaign against all odds because he spoke and acted based on what he thought was right, and that resonated with people. May we do no less than that in this coming election and in all else.
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Here is a good video to see and hear Paul Wellstone in action. It is produced by Wellstone Action, an organization that works to forward Paul and Sheila Wellstone’s beliefs.