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Mary McGrory

The Real Deal

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, October 31, 2002; Page A23

Paul Wellstone was 5 feet 5 inches tall, but he had the capacity to make his Senate colleagues look small.

It was known in the chamber that Wellstone had no consultant except his conscience and that he cast career-threatening votes.

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He was the lionhearted leader of the losers and the left out. He smiled if you called him a liberal.

His death in a plane crash that also killed his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, three campaign aides and two pilots has occasioned a flood of real tears and authentic, choked expressions from people who usually issue press releases about fallen colleagues. Sen. Tom Harkin broke down when he tried to broadcast his love, and Phil Gramm, of all people, issued the perfect epitaph: "He was a sweet man."

The lamentation was general and unanimous, going far beyond the heartbroken Minnesotans who gathered at campaign headquarters to weep and pray and leave flowers, and far beyond anxious Democrats who hoped the diminutive scrapper would help preserve their paper-thin majority in the Senate. His death was treated as a national calamity -- honest men are in short supply. The coverage was so comprehensive it suggested that the whole country bought ex-senator Pat Moynihan's long-ago description of Wellstone as "a gift to the nation."

His departure leaves a gaping hole in the Senate. He was irreplaceable. How many senators are praised for their humility and sweet nature? They have no other blithe spirit like the ex-professor who was proud of his recognition by the National Wresting Hall of Fame. He was difficult to demonize. He had guileless blue eyes, dimples and an air of eager kindness. He wasn't a stuffed shirt, which it is so easy to become as a member of the "world's greatest deliberative body." He wasn't a hair shirt, as principled loners often are. There was no breast-beating, and no browbeating of the timid either.

Wellstone's first famous kamikaze vote occurred in 1996, when Democrats thought they absolutely had to vote for Bill Clinton's welfare reform bill. The Republican chorus against welfare queens, welfare cheats and vodka drinkers had reached a climax, and incumbents were warned of the consequences of voting no on Clinton's pledge to "end welfare as we know it."

Wellstone found it too harsh and bravely voted no.

As he was hurrying back to Minnesota to campaign that year, I ran into him on the Capitol steps. He knew his colleagues counted him a dead man walking, but he was of good cheer. "I have wonderful people working for me in every county. They know what they are doing."

They did. He won.

This month Wellstone faced another perilous vote, and he was in an even tighter race for reelection. Party leaders said that it would be madness to vote against George Bush's war in Iraq. He was one of 23 Democrats to say no to a new Gulf of Tonkin resolution. He went home to Minnesota to face the music -- and went up 10 points in the polls. People who hated his vote loved his grit.

Wellstone, the indefatigable champion of the unfortunate, practiced what he preached in his private life. I found out during a conversation I had with him and Sheila during a quiet moment at a party. I was just back from a vacation and asked the Wellstones about theirs.

"We haven't had a vacation in eight years," he said. "Sheila and I each have our parents living with us. They're old and sick and we hate to leave them." It was said without self-pity. As Susan Brophy, Bill Clinton's congressional liaison says, "Wellstone is the real deal."

On the Hill, he was a hero to staff people. Some senators have a fit if a staff member's name appears in the paper. Wellstone had lunch every day with his staff, and several years ago, when his late chief of staff, Mike Epstein, was diagnosed with cancer, Wellstone made an emotional speech about him at the senators' caucus lunch. Later he went to the floor and spoke again of the great debt he owed Epstein. A mourning Senate aide told me, "Some of these guys don't even know our names."

Wellstone was unique in death as well. His memorial service, which commemorated all the victims of the crash, was like no other. Twenty thousand grievers crowded into the University of Minnesota -- and had a wonderful time. There was rock music, there were emotional, dry-eyed tributes from his two lovely sons, one of whom looks just like him. Both inherited his eloquence. Tom Harkin delivered what could only be called a fighting eulogy, almost every line of which was cheered to the rafters. It ended with a call to arms for the mourners to fight for the causes Wellstone had bequeathed to them -- along with his high heart for life and politics.

Funeral service as rally is a new concept, but as the master of ceremonies, George Latimer, said, "He would not have wanted it any other way."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company