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THE NATION | OBITUARY

Paul Wellstone, Fierce Fighter for His Beliefs

October 26, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Paul Wellstone, the two-term Minnesota Democrat who died Friday in a plane crash just days before facing voters in his quest for reelection, took an unpredictable path toward becoming one of the best-known, best-liked and most committed liberals on Capitol Hill.

Born in the capital and raised in its Virginia suburbs, Wellstone came back to Washington in 1991 as a fist-raising outsider from the prairie, a rumpled and somewhat radical college professor who had upset a Republican incumbent with a remarkable populist campaign.

He promised to fight for liberal causes, kick up controversy and serve just two terms.

He died at age 58 having broken the last of those promises -- by choosing to seek a third term -- and having softened on the second -- by making so many friends on both sides of the aisle that he was no longer seen as such a lightning rod.

The erstwhile rabble-rouser, in the end, fit into one of the world's most exclusive political clubs. He mastered Senate courtesies, and the Senate mellowed him.

But Wellstone kept his first promise. Lawmakers and analysts from across the political spectrum said Friday that Wellstone fought relentlessly, often hopelessly, for what he believed in.

No less an adversary than Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a stalwart conservative whom Wellstone had brashly denounced when he first arrived in the Senate, lauded the Minnesotan on Friday.

"Despite the marked contrast between Paul's and my views on matters of government and politics, he was my friend and I was his," Helms said. "He unfailingly represented his views eloquently and emphatically. Paul Wellstone was a courageous defender of his beliefs."

Helms, no stranger to fighting hopeless battles, often teamed up with Wellstone on international human rights issues. In 2000, the two ideological opposites vigorously fought -- and failed to stop -- President Clinton's legislation to normalize trade relations with the communist government in China. Wellstone was one of the first to call this year to check on Helms after the ailing North Carolina senator had heart surgery.

In a Senate where compromise is valued far more than impassioned speeches, Wellstone stood out as an advocate more than a legislator. His was often a lonely dissent -- such as the vote he cast this month against the resolution granting President Bush authority to make war against Iraq.

Wellstone was the only vulnerable Senate Democrat seeking reelection this year who opposed the president. In explaining his vote, Wellstone told a Washington Post reporter: "Just putting it in self-interest terms, how would I have had the enthusiasm and the fight if I had actually cast a vote I didn't believe in? I couldn't do that."

But his opposition this year was far more muted than his anti-war stance in 1991.

Then, Wellstone made waves as an uppity freshman senator who confronted the first President Bush directly on his Persian Gulf War policy during a White House reception for new lawmakers. The president, irked, reportedly looked aside and responded with an expletive.

Wellstone also staged a news conference in front of the Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall, drawing the ire of many veteran groups. Wellstone later said the event was a mistake.

With the two Iraq resolutions serving as bookends to his 12-year Senate career, in between Wellstone compiled a record of advocacy for human rights in foreign affairs and higher government spending for domestic programs, such as health care, welfare and education.

Rarely one to cut deals in committee rooms, Wellstone was known for pleading his case at length on the Senate floor, even though it was frequently a lost cause.

Often, those watching a Senate debate could tell when it was about to end. There would be the 5-foot-5 Wellstone on C-SPAN, giving a speech, pacing next to his desk with a slight limp, his eyes bulging, his hands chopping the air.

"He was always the last guy standing with the last amendment," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "It was always about children, or the poor."

The Senate, almost always, would vote down that Wellstone amendment, whatever it was, and then finish the bill.

"Paul had a lot of heart, and a lot of passion, and intellect," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). "He occupied the liberal end, no question. In that sense, he was predictable. But that's a strength too."

His political alignment -- to the left of just about everyone -- also made him a prime target for Republicans. While Wellstone followed in the path of liberal Minnesota icons Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale, both senators who rose to become vice presidents and presidential nominees, his state also has sent conservatives to the Senate and elected an independent as governor.

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