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Paul Wellstone: Not a Faker, Just Plain Honest

From the October 28, 2002 Wall Street Journal: Remembering a straight-shooting senator.

10:30 AM, Oct 28, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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THE LAST TIME I SAW Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, he blushed. It was the third or fourth time he'd been on the "Beltway Boys," the Fox News Channel show Mort Kondracke and I host, and I introduced him as our favorite liberal. Despite the insignificance of the honor, he smiled and his face reddened slightly as if he felt flattered.

Wellstone was running for a third six-year term when he died, and his death evoked the usual encomiums from senators and political figures for a well-liked colleague. But something unusual happened as well. Conservatives like me, who disagreed with Wellstone on every issue imaginable, lauded him passionately.

Now it's obvious why liberals feel the loss of Wellstone so strongly. He used to describe himself as a member of the "the Democratic wing of the Democratic party"--the left wing. But why would conservatives express admiration? The answer is he was an honest liberal, a rare breed in Washington. He occasionally called himself a "progressive" but never a "new Democrat" or "moderate." Nor did he insist, as many liberals do, that political labels mean nothing. He was not a faker.

When the Iraq resolution came before the Senate there was speculation Wellstone might vote for the popular measure. His Republican opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, had made Iraq and support for President Bush a part of his campaign. In daily tracking polls, Wellstone was trailing narrowly. But he voted against the resolution and said it wouldn't hurt politically. "Probably what would hurt is if people thought I was doing something just for political reasons," he told a reporter.

Wellstone's relationship with conservatives softened over time. After his upset victory over Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, he declared that conservative GOP Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina "represents everything to me that is ugly and wrong and awful about politics." Then he met Helms, became friends, and even co-sponsored legislation with him on freeing Tibet.

To the surprise of conservatives, Wellstone attended the funeral of Barry Goldwater, the former Arizona senator and 1964 Republican presidential nominee, in 1998. Few Democratic senators showed up. Goldwater's Republican friends "enjoyed giving me a rough time," Wellstone wrote later, and gave him a copy of Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative" to read on the plane ride home. "I explained I had read the book at a young age--that's why I'm a liberal!"

Wellstone styled his own book, "The Conscience of a Liberal," after Goldwater's. It was published in 2001. What he admired about Goldwater, he wrote, was his political integrity. Oddly enough, he also wrote that he agreed with the populist sentiment against "overly centralized and overly bureaucratic government policy" that led to the Republican sweep in 1994. Only Republicans wrongly interpreted it as a mandate for a harsh conservative agenda, he said.

In 1996, I went to Minnesota to write about his first re-election campaign. Many liberals running for office are wary when a conservative appears to cover their race. Frequently their aides make things difficult, refusing to make the candidate available or divulge where he is campaigning. Not Wellstone. He was extraordinarily welcoming and constantly accessible for interviews. He sat next to me at lunch. My impression was he regarded conservatives not as enemies but as potential converts.

For political reporters, Wellstone served as a reminder that face-to-face campaigning--and not just TV ads or the recounting of legislative votes--still matters in politics. On paper, his hyper-liberalism seemed to make him unelectable, even in liberal Minnesota. On the ground, a different Wellstone emerged, every bit as liberal but a warm and effective campaigner, a "happy warrior" as the cliche has it.

When Wellstone grabbed an issue, he went whole hog. One, close to his heart, was medical research. Both his parents suffered from Parkinson's, so he spurred the drive in Congress to increase funding for research into it. He took on the extra duty of sitting in on hearings on medical research conducted by a Senate committee he wasn't a member of. He sought and was granted the privilege of asking questions. In 1997, with him as the chief sponsor, the Morris K. Udall Parkinson's Research Act added $100 million in funding.