Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #002. First published in the St. Cloud Times Sep. 25, 2007

WWWD? "What Would Wellstone Do?"

The question will be 5 years old one month from today, and it is sharper and more critical now than ever.

What everybody remembers is his courage, and the coherence between what Sen. Paul Wellstone said and what he did. He didn't spin, he didn't obfuscate, he didn't try to have it both ways or every which way.

From the power line controversy of the 1970s to his bold words on the Senate floor just three weeks before he died — "A pre-emptive go-it-alone strategy toward Iraq is wrong. I oppose it" — Wellstone stood his ground. And on his ground he stood up for the people whose voices tend to get drowned out by the powerful and the rich.

Joyful life

Those who didn't have the privilege and huge pleasure of knowing Paul might assume that someone of such resolute convictions would have been unsmiling, a juggernaut of seriousness, not much fun to be around — someone you're glad to have on your side but wouldn't want to spend much time with. But the stories of his joy in life, the lilt of his humor and the gladness people found in his company, make clear that for Paul the delight of politics far outweighed its drudgery. Wellstone stories are an essential part of American history, and we need to keep telling them for the sake of generations yet to come.

When Paul, along with his wife, Sheila, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and five others, died in that plane crash Oct. 25, 2002, we lost not only an effective legislator who spoke the truth amid an avalanche of lies, but also a rare demonstrator of an elusive truth — democracy works if you trust people

Paul was not naïve. He knew power corrupts and how special interests pull strings to manipulate systems. But he knew that embedded in the instincts, the values, the hopes, the faith of common people is a wisdom that serves the good of all. When money and influence seem to carry the day, it is worth looking at pictures of the Green Bus and thinking about its symbolism. Minnesotans can be proud of that bus — which made its last stop in the 2002 campaign in St. Cloud — as one of the icons of our political identity.

My friend Colin McGinnis, who served as Wellstone's chief of staff, gave a memorial talk in November 2002 to the Washington Hebrew Congregation. At the conclusion, Colin told about his then-5-year-old daughter's encounters with the senator. "She's in that phase where she insists on answering the phone every time it rings, and when Paul would call, she'd settle into a lively and animated conversation for a few minutes, and I'd be left wondering whom she was talking to. When they concluded, she'd invariably pad over to me and hand me the phone and say casually, 'It's Senator Paul, he's calling for you, too.'"

Spurred to action

Colin then volleyed this back to his audience: "How has Paul called you, and how will his warmth and love and legacy become a part of your own history? In the days ahead, think on these things, ponder them in your hearts; let it be your own small tribute, a final benediction for Paul and his extraordinary life."

I count myself among the many thousands who have found themselves deeply engaged in politics — far more than I would ever have dreamed or predicted — because Paul Wellstone's legacy has become part of my own history. Paul put it clearly: "Politics is what we create by what we do, what we hope for, and what we dare to imagine." Create. Do. Hope. Dare. Imagine. Five verbs to wake us up.

This is a time in our national and state life when we need all the inspiration we can get. As Paul said, "The future will belong to those who have passion, and to those who are willing to make the personal commitment to make our country better."