Today -- Oct. 25 -- is the eighth anniversary of the day Sen. Paul Wellstone, members of his family and aides were killed when their plane crashed on the Iron Range. Later that day, Wellstone was scheduled to meet with the Duluth News Tribune editorial board, of which I was a member. When we were informed of the tragedy, I sat down and wrote this column (below), which appeared in the next morning's News Tribune. -- Jim
Wellstone Leaves Big Shoes to Fill
by Jim Heffernan
(Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, October 26, 2002 and reprinted in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, published in 2008.)
Paul Wellstone gone? Someone so full of life, of exuberance, of zest, of desire to do good by his fellow man–gone in an instant on a drizzly day right here in the Northland? Can't be, you think. But it's all too true.
I knew Wellstone the way a home-state journalist is likely to know a U.S. Senator. Since he was elected to the Senate, we saw him a couple of times a year. He'd come through for a visit with the editorial board, updating us on what was going on in Washington.
Always upbeat, often passionate about what he believed in, the interviews–chats, really–with Wellstone were something we looked forward to. Politics aside, I liked him personally. I admired his resolve to stand up for what he believed in.
I first met Wellstone in 1982 when he ran for Minnesota state auditor–and lost. Aching to be a major player in the liberal political traditions of his adopted state, the then political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield ran for a state constitutional office, probably seeing it as a stepping stone for bigger and better things to come.
I don't think he'd have made much of a state auditor, although he'd have worked at it. The job would have bored him. Wellstone had bigger things churning in that brain–a passion for helping people who need help and a conviction that government should do what it can to make people's lives better. In short, he was a liberal.
The word liberal has become a pejorative in some (conservative) circles. Those who disliked what Wellstone stood for know he was, perhaps, the most liberal member of the Senate. Wellstone wore that label proudly, unashamedly.
On the occasion of another of our editorial board meetings, after he'd been elected to the Senate, the subject of health care came up. Wellstone felt strongly that America's health care system was broken, and of course he was right. It still isn't fixed. In our conversation–four of us around a table–he became so impassioned about the subject that he began to tear up.
The rest of us, all male, became uncomfortable at his emotional display, but I never forgot it. And, reflecting on it, I could see that was what was best about Wellstone. He really felt what he believed in. He truly was a “bleeding-heart liberal” in the finest sense of that often cynical description. The world needs bleeding-heart liberals, and Wellstone filled that bill almost better than anyone else in a position to help shape American policy.
Finally, on another visit with us, I went to the newspaper's lobby to greet him and guide him to our meeting room, and as we walked up the stairs I noticed that his shoes–loafers–were shot. I mean shot. Hobos heating bean cans over fires in railroad yards had better shoes. Long cracks across the top, exposing his socks beneath, shabby soles.
I kidded him about it, saying something like, “A United States senator can't afford decent shoes?”
Wellstone wasn't a bit abashed. He muttered something about not having time to worry about shoes–too much to do and too little time to do it in. I later wrote a column about the senator's shabby shoes, but I never heard from him about it. Still too busy.
We had another editorial board meeting scheduled with Wellstone, this one Friday afternoon, to talk about the newspaper's endorsement in the Senate race this year. An airplane crash intervened. He was dead, along with his wife and daughter and others on the plane.
As the gray day wore on Friday, and details kept pouring in, for some reason my mind kept going back to those tattered shoes. Who will fill them?
No one quite like Paul Wellstone, whose unlikely life journey took him to the place where his death could affect the balance of the U.S. Senate at a time when the nation appears to be poised for a war he opposed, and when so many other issues remain unresolved that need a committed liberal voice.
Life goes on, but for the time being we'd better put it on hold for a truly good man who was more concerned about providing shoes for those who couldn't afford them than what he wore himself.