When Sen. Paul Wellstone came to speak with this editorial board last weekend, we asked him what votes he would take back, if any. In Wellstone’s first year in office, there was a vote to prohibit the flags of countries known to harbor terrorists from appearing in parades. The vote stood 99-1, with only Wellstone dissenting. One of his colleagues at the time advised him not to make a fuss where there was no point. Wellstone, the junior senator, took his advice and the measure passed without dissent. Sen. Paul Wellstone told us he didn’t sleep that night, and from then on he never forgot that even one vote standing alone makes a difference.
In this country’s early days politicians were men of principle who held a keen sense of honor. These men who formed our country believed most fervently in the measures they backed. At every turning point each fought for the good of the forming nation as if everything depended on the outcome.
Perhaps because of that adherence to principle, their vision has endured. But for a long time cynicism about politicians has pervaded the country. There often seems to be no sense of honor or principle in politics, and “honest politician” still rings oxymoronic in many ears. Sen. Paul Wellstone, however, was a throwback to the golden days of politics, when the good of a nation was central instead of money and power.
It is telling of the respect Wellstone commanded while serving as a senator that some of his harshest critics have gone out of their way to pay respects to his memory. Republican Sen. Trent Lott called the loss of Wellstone “a death in our family Ö too heartbreaking for words.” And Pete Domenici, Republican senator from New Mexico, was too broken up to speak during a CNN interview. A man that inspires such respect even in his political adversaries is rare these days, and every man and woman in public office should sit up and take notice of the way Sen. Paul Wellstone won that respect. It was by a return to principles, to a sense of honor, that motivated his political life.
Now, with such a man gone, the DFL is left to nominate a worthy successor to take Wellstone’s place on the ballot, or if Wellstone is left on, to Gov. Jesse Ventura to nominate a worthy replacement. In either case the decision will not be easy. Wellstone possessed one of the most liberal voting records in Congress, jumping party lines when his convictions took him in a different direction. He emphasized the environment, education reform, health care expansion and veteran’s affairs. He was in a good position to start putting pressure on pharmaceutical companies to decrease prescription drug prices. Whoever steps up to fill Sen. Paul Wellstone’s shoes must be equal to the task.
In a world increasingly fueled by hate, more men and women of honor and principle are needed in this nation’s highest offices to insist on caution before the headlong rush to war, to raise protest when government unjustly takes away prisoners’ rights and to stand firm against the overwhelming vote when necessary.
There is more than one case in history where the lone dissenter proved correct in the end. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was called “the great dissenter” because he often stood firm in the face of eight opposing votes. He was frequently vindicated, and his dissents formed the foundation for later decisions. In the same way, our nation needs opposition now perhaps more than ever, as it is faced with so many threats to our way of life from abroad and from our own hallowed halls of leadership. If not Sen. Paul Wellstone, then hopefully another who brings to the Senate the same fiery conviction as the victim of yesterday’s tragedy.
The pain of the past year seems to never end as catastrophe piles on top of catastrophe. This most recent loss follows the tragedies of the Sept. 11 attacks, the battle in Afghanistan, the sniper attacks, or the conflicts in the Middle East. Though Sen. Paul Wellstone died for no good reason, we can only hope future leaders of this nation will learn from the example he set while he was with us.