Senate needs Sen. Wellstone

John Troyer

On several different occasions in November I started to write the same column but never finished it. The topic was both timely and tragic to consider – an event most commentators felt compelled to discuss because the situation seemed too important to miss. For some reason I would not let myself join in the chorus because I knew the day would come, not so far from November, when I would finally explain how deeply I miss Sen. Paul Wellstone.

A few of the houses in my neighborhood still have their Wellstone signs up in the yard, and I pause every time I pass by the green rectangles with white lettering to think about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Most of the time I remember listening to the newly elected Wellstone make a passionate floor speech about the impending gulf war on C-SPAN in January 1991 when he asked his fellow senators what happened to the war on drugs, the war on education and the war on poverty. I was an 18-year-old high school senior who thought the Persian Gulf war was a bad policy decision from the start and believed it would only cause more problems in the long run, and Wellstone offered at least a moment of critical thinking.

Even though I was in Wisconsin, I knew Wellstone represented my own ideas about how public policy for the United States should develop in the post-Reagan years. Now, in 2003, with a group of Democrats whose voices are quieter than the sound of no hand clapping, I really wish Wellstone was on the floor of the Senate or in the Foreign Relations Committee asking critical questions about what exactly the George W. Bush administration plan for the Middle East is.

When the most critical voices of the Bush administration are James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, I begin to wonder if the madness of current U.S. foreign policy has also infected the Democratic Party. I give Sen. Lugar a lot of credit for asking a number of pointed questions about what and how the Bush administration plans to rebuild the Iraqi infrastructure. The problem is the plan (such as it is) seems to change day to day depending on who in the administration is talking. I am beginning to believe no plan really does exist that would make sense if in fact Afghanistan is the model being followed.

Somehow, if he were still alive, I firmly believe Wellstone would be pushing the administration to at least produce some kind of policy plan for Iraq as well as advocate for the soldiers now serving in combat to make sure they have veteran’s benefits in the years to come. For some reason, the current Congress feels compelled to both support war and cut money for veterans. Many people do not realize how hard Wellstone worked to make sure veterans received the health care they were promised when enlisting, and I know it is the veterans of the current war who could really use a representative like Wellstone as they return from combat and begin looking for support. Wellstone supported the troops in no uncertain terms and in ways few politicians achieve.

In retrospect, many people feel the public memorial held on the University campus for all the people killed in the plane crash last November went too far in becoming a political rally. While I personally did not boo when Sen. Trent Lott’s face was shown on the jumbo television screen, I do wonder now what we in Minnesota seemed to know a month or two before the rest of the country and Strom Thurmond’s birthday party.

Wellstone had the same kind of uncanny ability: to see the future of policy and to work for long-term results in planning government programs. When he made speeches, they didn’t sound like the same recycled non-sequiturs I have heard Bush give 10,000 times in recent weeks, e.g., “Freedom Freedom, Liberation, Liberation, Terra, Terra, the Dictator, Tax-cuts, God Bless,” usually in front of a tough crowd to sell such as Boeing Aerospace employees or the U.S. Marines.

More than once, Wellstone marched into the middle of a skeptical crowd to deliver his message and usually won some hearts and minds along the way.

It is these qualities – Wellstone’s sense of resolve to act for all his constituents and unflappable respect for most people – that I have missed the most in U.S. politics since his death. I know many buildings will be built and/or named for Paul and Sheila Wellstone. A number of monuments and streets will soon bear the Wellstone name. Yet none of those gestures can adequately fill the void missing in critiquing current U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Whenever a person of great quality and integrity dies unexpectedly, nostalgia for that individual can often overshadow the more important ideas motivating their actions. The danger we all face in the future is the celebration of buildings and not policy changes per the Wellstone plan.

Wellstone was a man of average height who grew bigger and bigger as he spoke – pounding the podium and raising his voice against social injustice. When I fist saw him speak in 1991 on the floor of the Senate, I realized he was asking questions few others seemed to raise. More important, he never received answers to those questions so he started working out the solutions himself.

Wellstone died at the end of a long re-election campaign largely about whether his policy ideas were out of touch with the people of Minnesota. The question was never really if his ideas were out of touch; rather, Wellstone never forgot the concerns he raised at the beginning of the gulf war – problems that persist today.

John Troyer’s biweekly column appears alternate Fridays.

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