The Passionate Humanism of Paul Wellstone

The Passionate Humanism of Paul Wellstone

As Ethical Culturists we are idealists. We look at the way the world is and imagine how is might be; indeed, how it ought to be. When we apply this basic moral perspective to the state of American politics we can be easily led to feelings of despair. The much-vaunted pride we feel in America as the world’s bastion of democracy is built on nostalgia and false presumptions.

For when we look at how our political system truly works, we are a democracy in name only. America, practically speaking, is not a democracy but an oligarchy. We are not a government of the people, by the people and for the people. We are ruled not by the wishes of the people as a whole but by an elite few whose interests supersede the interests of the many, and who wield power wildly disproportionate to their numbers.

The corrupting effects of big money on American politics are well known and deeply felt. In presidential elections, barely one half of the electorate votes. In mid-term elections, it is far below 40%, and the major sector of the eligible populations that refrains from voting are poor and blue collar workers. They sense correctly that the political culture does not speak to them and does not address their needs. They sense that they have little more to lose and nothing to gain by voting, so they simply don’t take an interest and don’t bother.

The wealthy have lots of money to give to political candidates who reflect their interests, and whose politics they can mold to their interests. Corporations can and do spend millions of dollars hiring armies of lobbyists to ensure that their economic and political interests prevail. Such lobbyists have easy access to legislators and their staffs, as well as to the executive branch. They use their money, expertise, media contacts, status and prestige to frame and define the issues. As assuredly as day follows night, you can be certain that if Congress is developing legislation involving the cost of drugs or insurance it will be the high paid lobbyists of the pharmaceutical and insurance companies that will crowd the cloak rooms and corridors of Congress, and not the consumer or the common man. Most politicians will not dare to defy moneyed interests, and most politicians have little to say on behalf of those without money, the poor and low-income wage earners. As these sectors drop out of the political process, the dynamic intensifies and the circle grows more vicious. And so our representative democracy, in which each person theoretically counts as one, and no more than one, is further destroyed.

It is almost impossible to run and get elected to high office unless you are wealthy, indeed, very wealthy. Of our hundred senators more than half are millionaires. It takes millions of dollars to run for national office, much of it in the start-up phase of a campaign if a candidate is to be electable. Hence, he or she needs to appeal to moneyed donors in order to run, which means that a candidate’s ability to raise funds from such sources becomes more important than the issues that he or she stands for. Consequently, the major preoccupation of candidates becomes fund raising to solicit support from wealthy backers.

Bill Moyers put it well when he observed:

If a baseball player stepping up to the plate, were to lean over and hand the umpire a wad of bills before he called a pitch, we’d know what it was, right? We’d call it a bribe. But when a real estate developer buys his way into the White House with big bucks and gets a favorable government ruling that wouldn’t be available to you or me, or when the tobacco industry stuffs $13 million in the pockets of Gingrich, Lott and their band of merry looters, what do we call it? “A campaign contribution.”

What we should really call it is a bribe, a legal bribe.

The only way it seems one can avoid this circumstance is if he or she is independently wealthy. Indeed, Jon Corzine could afford to be liberal because he had $30 millions dollars of his own money to spend in order to get elected.

The grossly disproportionate influence of big money is not the only factor that undermines the vitality of our democratic culture, though it is certainly related to the second major roadblock. The yen to get into office and to stay there has diminished the ideological differences between the two major parties, and has blunted the possibilities of making significantly different choices. In most basic terms, democracy thrives on difference, on a variety of viewpoints, on political diversity, all of which is in short supply.

For the first time since the Eisenhower administration, the executive branch and both houses of Congress are under the control of the Republican Party. Since the Reagan revolution that party has moved very far to right, and with it the entire political spectrum. One hesitates to even call the dominant political culture “conservative”. Classic conservatism sustains a principled respect for civil liberties, church/state separation, and a healthy skepticism for the concentration of power, which so-called conservatives for the past 20 years have not. Their efforts to use the government to foster religion or to erase abortion rights go far beyond the traditional conservative agenda. A tragic consequence of this regnant political culture is to anathematize liberals and transform the term “liberal” into a smear word, virtually making it the political kiss of death to be called a liberal. Since Reagan, the American public, in a crude and unnuanced way, has imbibed the notion that taxes, a governmental role in helping the neediest (except for corporations in need), even government itself, is evil.

Faced with this conservative triumph, the strategy of Democrats has been to hug the center, and give up those elements that traditionally have defined the Democratic Party as the party of the common man and woman, of the middle class, of workers, of the poor, or the marginalized.

The last election was a case in point, an election in which when it came to Senate races, Democratic losses were far worse than anticipated. In my view, the Democrats out of fear of being labeled “leftists” or “liberals” refused to act like the opposition party they are supposed to be, ran for the innocuous center, ducked for cover, acted like “Republicans-light”, and deservedly lost the Senate, victims of their own cowardice. The message conveyed is that politicians place their own political survival ahead of the needs of the public by virtue of whom they serve.

Such conditions are broadly representative of our political environment, and it is an atmosphere that fails to inspire.

It is against this bleak landscape that the life and career of Paul Wellstone shines even more brilliantly. Paul Wellstone was perhaps one of a kind. – a contemporary politician who was actually guided primarily by conscience. But that was not all.

Paul Wellstone was a humanist – not solely in the values he held personally, but in the values he brought to politics and the political culture that he so passionately attempted to transform.

Paul Wellstone was dedicated to taking the truisms of modern politics and standing them on their head. Whereas modern politics says you need to be wealthy in order to run, Wellstone was an unknown college professor before he entered political life, and was one of only a few member of Congress to live solely on his senatorial salary. Whereas modern politics dictates that one cultivate primarilyy the rich and well-connected, Paul Wellstone’s major constituents were farmers, miners, veterans, middle class professionals, welfare recipients, college students and children. Whereas modern politics commends the cultivation of charisma and a glossy image, Paul Wellstone was a modest man, driven by his passions and commitments, who truly loved to be connected to the ordinary people he served, including and especially the disenfranchised and the needy. His influence came from engagement and sincerity, passion and perseverance, and not from charisma, or a contrived media image.

From a humanistic perspective, democracy is more than pulling a lever in a voting booth once every four years. As John Dewey believed, democracy is a life style of activism, a grass-roots engagement with the issues of the day – in one’s school, workplace, and neighborhood. Democracy is civic commitment put into action at all levels of social and public life.

Wellstone exemplified democracy in that engaged, hands-on way. He was fond of saying that he represented the “democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Paul Wellstone grew up in Arlington, Virginia, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. His mother had worked in a junior high school cafeteria, and his father, who spoke ten languages, had been a writer for the United States information agency.

Before politics, Wellstone’s first love had been wrestling. Although he was only 5’5” tall and weighed 126 pounds, he was admitted to the University of North Carolina partly on a wrestling scholarship. Indeed, when a reporter had once noted that the State of Minnesota had elected two wrestlers to high public office, Wellstone had responded, “Yes. But I am the real wrestler.”

Wellstone graduated from college in 1965 and stayed at Chapel Hill to get his doctorate in political science. He later landed a teaching position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and at the age of 28 became the youngest tenured professor in the history of that college. Although frequently branded as a 1960s radical by his political opponents, Wellstone who married his wife, Sheila, when they both were only nineteen, spent his student years in the 60s struggling to support his young family.

In Wellstone’s first year as the junior senator from Minnesota, he voted against the Gulf War. His last major vote was to oppose authorization to the current president Bush to invade Iraq again. Up for re-election, Wellstone was tempted to vote in favor of the War, but recalled by his conscience, he voted against it. To his surprise, he found that Minnesotans commended him for acting consistently on his conscience, even those who disagreed with his anti-war position.

In 1995, when he was up for re-election for the first time, Wellstone became the only incumbent Democrat to vote against Clinton’s popular welfare reform bill. Always the champion of children and the poor, Wellstone believed that more children would be plunged deeply into poverty, that the cut in food stamps would be unconscionable, and with federal guarantees abandoned, vulnerable people would be left to state policies which in too many states would be harsh. With the economy in recession, and all state budgets facing severe shortfalls, Wellstone’s concerns may tragically prove correct.

Wellstone was the most visible and vociferous opponent of the welfare reform bill on the Senate. But despite the fact that it passed by a landslide 89-11, Wellstone won his re-election to a second term.

He was not the only person of note to oppose the legislation, however. Peter Edelman and Mary Jo Bane, deputy directors of Health and Human Services, who would have been the personnel to administer the new law, both resigned their positions as acts of conscience. They, together with Paul Wellstone, were brought together by Ethical Culture when they were publicly honored by the New York Ethical Culture for their courage and principled convictions.

Wellstone often found himself on the minority side of a vote on the Senate floor. And when the vote in the senate was 99-1, more often than not the lone dissenter was Paul Wellstone.

But it would be wrong to conclude that Wellstone was a maverick who was simply living out 1960s left-wing politics 40 years later. It was not so much that Wellstone brought his left-wing politics to Minnesota. It was rather that he learned his politics from engaging himself with the life experiences of the people he encountered in Minnesota. He was able to meld his East-coast radicalism with the populism characteristic of the northern Mid-west. He learned his politics from marching at the side of striking Hormel meatpackers and getting arrested with farmers protesting bank foreclosures in the 1980s, just as he had learned his politics in the mining towns of Minnesota’s northern Iron Range. It was this hands-on approach that gave Wellstone’s politics an authentic, grassroots and humanistic character, virtually unknown in today’s political world dominated by high gloss media campaigns that keep politicians at a distance from their constituents.

Wellstone’s politics emerged from experiences which were personal, including his own. His need to put his father in a nursing home opened his eyes to flaws in the health care system, and caused him to become an advocate for national health insurance. A brother who was mentally ill inspired Wellstone to promote legislation that would put insurance coverage for mental illness on par with coverage for physical illnesses, despite tremendous resistance from the insurance industry.

In one 99-1 vote in which Wellstone was the lone dissenter, he opposed a bill requiring standardized testing to the exclusion of other approaches to raise the level of education performance in America’s schools. Wellstone, himself, despite his formidable educational achievements, had learning disabilities which caused him to never score more than 800 cumulatively out of 1,600 on his college boards. His life experience had taught him well about the tyranny of standardized tests, in the absence of adequate funding for schools smaller class sizes and attractive salaries fro teachers, all of which he championed.

In his first run fir the Senate in 1960, Wellstone faced the incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, who outspent him seven to one in the campaign. Wellstone was able to pull out a narrow victory because he was able to respond to people’s needs in a personal, direct and caring way. Traveling the length and breadth of Minnesota in a rickety school bus, Wellstone held over 800 meetings with people from every sector of society. As he noted in his autobiography, “Of the one hundred members of the U.S. Senate, I suspect that I am one of the few who has actually worked with a welfare mother, sat in her living room, spoken with her at gatherings, and strategized with her on issues.”

Wellstone was fond of meeting with constituents for breakfast in small town cafés. He reported that at those meetings, no one asked, “`Are you left, right or center?’ No one cares.” he said. What people wanted to know was what they were going to do, if their income was $600 a month and their prescription drugs cost $300 a month. Or what they were going to do for their anorexic daughter when their insurance plan would not approve hospital cots. Or where a battered woman could find a shelter. Or they worried about the cost of child care they could not afford. Teachers spoke to him of hungry children coming to school, or the need for mental health services, or substance abuse. Veterans were anxious about their treatment.

Ordinary people such as these were the base of Wellstone’s supporters. He reached out to them directly, with the help of a legion of college students he was able to inspire to get involved in politics again. It was these people who elected Wellstone to the Senate twice, and most likely would have given him a third term, had he, his wife and daughter, and three campaign staffers, and two pilots not tragically died in that plane crash on October 25th. Wellstone was a champion of a whole range of progressive issues which included health care, education, child care, environmentalism, gun control, support for the mentally ill, anti-militarism, labor rights, civil rights and human rights. While Wellstone lamented that 80% of his work as a senator had involved him in playing defense, curbing the extremist enthusiasms of the conservative agenda, rather than moving forward on a progressive agenda, the major legislation that he introduced and passed the he was most proud of was The Trafficking Victims Protection Act along with the Violence Against Women Act, both of which passed by a 95-0 vote.

Noting that one of the darkest aspects of the new global economy, the trafficking of up to two million women and children – five hundred thousand in the U.S. – for forced prostitution and forced labor, Wellstone’s bill provided funds through USAID to developing countries for public information and election campaigns to prevent women from being exploited and requiring tough prosecution of traffickers – including life sentences for trafficking children for forced prostitution.

On the campaign trail, Wellstone was fond of saying, “I don’t represent the big oil companies. I don’t represent the big pharmaceutical companies. I don’t represent the Enrons of this world. But you know what, they already have great representation in Washington. It’s the rest of the people who need it.”

One group that needed it was America’s war veterans. Despite the fact that Wellstone was an antimilitarist, he was immensely popular among Minnesota’s veterans. In the face of Bush’s tax cut program, Wellstone was able to add an amendment that diverted $17 billion to veterans’ programs.

When Wellstone ran for his second term, again against Rudy Boschwitz, in 1996, the Republicans launched a vicious ad campaign against him. On the Friday before the election, Boschwitz held a press conference to announce that Wellstone had burned a flag when he was student at the University of North Carolina. Wellstone was vulnerable to such an attack since he opposed a Constitutional Amendment banning desecration of the flag. The smear of Wellstone was a desperation tactic by his opponent and a slanderous lie. To Wellstone’s benefit the St. Paul press inquired of Boschwitz to the produce the evidence that Wellstone had indeed burned an American flag. When no evidence could be produced, veterans groups demanded in droves that Boschwitz apologize for the fallacious attack on Wellstone. Wellstone went on to win the election by nine points, and he credited his support by veterans for his victory.

From a progressive standpoint, Wellstone’s political career was not unblemished. He joined the march of Congress to support the Patriot Act in the wake of the 9/11, despite its curtailment of civil liberties. On that vote, the sole dissenter in the Senate was ironically Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; ironic because Feingold considered Paul Wellstone his political mentor.

Although the gay community heralded him as a defender and friend, Wellstone voted in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, when it looked as if the Hawaiian Supreme Court might legalize gay marriage. It was a vote that Wellstone agonized over, and which he later came to regret.

Wellstone most likely would have been returned to the Senate last month had he survived. Though it did not go unnoticed that in running for a third term he betrayed his promise not to do so, and his long-standing support for term limits.

I met Paul Wellstone twice. The first time was at a peace rally in Jerusalem, when he came to that embattled city to advocate for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians during the first intifada, and before the creation of the Oslo accords. The second time was at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, years later, when the New York Society gave an award to Mario Cuomo for his long-standing and courageous opposition to capital punishment. Cuomo’s opposition to the death penalty was assuredly a conscientious one, and it was altogether appropriate that the man who would introduce him was Senator Paul Wellstone. Though I cannot remember Wellstone’s remarks from either gathering, I do recall this intense man, speaking in loud cadences with a heartfelt and urgent passion.

Paul Wellstone has a place in the annals of contemporary politics that exceeds his manifest accomplishments. He stands, in my view, as an exemplar of what a politician can be, and what politics needs to be in these times when our democracy has been so compromised by the disproportionate influence of power brokers and the self-interest of politicians who value their careers more than their constitutional duty to serve the people as a whole. Paul Wellstone courageously stood against these currents — and he won.

On October 25th, when Wellstone’s plane crashed in northern Minnesota, during the last weeks of an intense campaign, a beautiful life was extinguished. It was a life fueled by conviction and conscience. Let us hope, for the future of our democracy, that the life of Paul Wellstone has inspired other lives to carry forward his dedications and his passions in a political climate that needs them so badly.

Dr. Joseph Chuman
1 December 2002

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