Sen. Paul Wellstone frequently had the look of someone who'd just woken up from a two-hour nap. He would squint into TV lights and always seemed to be scratching the back of his neck. This was the default bearing of Minnesota's liberal senior senator: apparent discomfort, in public.
Wellstone, who died in a plane crash yesterday at 58, was one of the great agonizers in American politics. In an arena that prizes quick decisions and smooth delivery, Wellstone, a former college professor, always seemed to relish the time he spent in gray areas. If this made him a "softie" -- one of Wellstone's favorite self-descriptions -- so be it.
Fans hailed Wellstone's angst as a mark of his mental dedication to his job. It gave him an eggheaded credibility. Likewise, opponents would decry Wellstone's distress as tiresome liberal hand-wringing. Either way: "I just need to do what I have to do," Wellstone said after a debate last week in Moorhead, Minn., against Republican candidate Norm Coleman. During that debate, Wellstone was asked -- as he often was in his last days -- about his position on Iraq. His voice cracked slightly and he was hard to hear at first. "It would be a mistake to vote for a resolution that would authorize an administration to go it alone," he said, something he had muttered variations on several times. His views were widely known and well set.
Yet the mention of Iraq elicited a signature wince from Wellstone, as if the chore of giving his position again had set his mind churning anew. "I voted against the resolution," he concluded quietly, "and I just thought that was the honest vote for the people I represent and love in Minnesota." While his supporters applauded, Wellstone looked down at his feet.
For all his pained deliberation, Wellstone was a devout and reliable liberal. He and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) competed for the distinction of casting the most lone dissenting ballots in 99 to 1 Senate votes. Once he'd made up his mind, it was always clear where Wellstone stood on an issue, even if it ran counter to the Democratic mainstream. He supported Bill Bradley for president in 2000 and Jesse Jackson in 1988. "He was one of the most passionate and principled people I've ever known," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) said in a statement, a familiar theme expressed yesterday among senators from both parties.
Later in his 12-year Senate career, Wellstone developed a knack for blunting ideological edges. He became less averse to building coalitions with unlikely Senate allies. They included his ideological opposite, Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), with whom he co-sponsored legislation on human rights in China and whom -- without irony -- Wellstone considered a friend. "Win or lose, Wellstone learned to shake hands and be warm," says Blois Olson, co-publisher of MNPolitics.com, a political Web site based in St. Paul.
Wellstone followed in Minnesota's proud tradition of rumpled liberals such as Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale -- with a dash of Jesse Ventura maverick thrown in. He became the state's signature liberal at a time when Minnesota was being infused by centrist suburban voters, many of them transplants from the East Coast who were more inclined toward the executive pragmatism of Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul.
Wellstone was more respected -- or, in some cases, begrudged -- than he was wildly popular among Minnesota voters. A former college wrestler, he always seemed to be in the fight of his political life, barely managing 50 percent of the vote in his previous two elections and running just slightly ahead of Coleman in this race.
Pundits viewed the Wellstone-Coleman contest as an ideological petri dish for the Iraq debate, an evenly matched slap fight between high-caliber candidates with opposite views on the prospective war with Iraq. But what was more striking up close was how the race offered such a stark case study on contrasting political styles. It pitted a quirky muddler (Wellstone) against a telegenic smoothie (Coleman) in what was at times a nasty campaign. There was the standard array of negative ads and charges of distorting each other's records. But inevitably, in debates, when the subject turned to who was to blame for the campaign's harsh tone, Wellstone would jump out from behind his lectern and punch the air. "I'm 5-foot-5," he would say with a wide grin, "a little guy's gotta defend himself," and everyone would laugh.
Wellstone's earnest demeanor could melt into his trademark giggle. An old leftie protester on campus, he grew to tolerate the chummy machinations of Congress and even came to relish the give-and-take of retail campaigning. Wellstone was more a hugger than a backslapper and would commonly wade into audiences and clutch his supporters with both hands as he spoke to them.
He had a distinctive flavor of charisma: not the instantly magnetic Clinton vintage but more that of a lovable, accessible professor who enjoyed wrestling with issues late into the night.
At public events, Wellstone was a congenital lingerer. If a voter wanted to discuss an issue, the senator was prone to sticking around much longer than his staff wanted him to. After his debate with Coleman in Moorhead, Wellstone stood in the chill of a late Tuesday night and discussed a procession of issues that were raised by lingering voters -- Social Security, prescription drugs, corporate scandals.
Before he walked to a waiting car, Wellstone was asked if he had "agonized" over his vote on Iraq. "Well, I mean, uh, sure," he said. "But certainly not on the political part." He went on to give a classicly Wellstonian answer in which he seemed to be debating the response in his own mind while delivering the transcript in a quiet, halting cadence. "I think these questions, the sort of life-and-death questions, where you don't know what's going to happen . . ." He paused, scrunched his face and veered in another direction.
"You know, if people are going to be in harm's way, you really struggle to know what's right." He stopped again, and then injected a parenthetical about how he's consulted with experts all over the country about the Iraq question. And how that's one of the things he truly loves about being a U.S. senator.
Wellstone said he examined the Iraq question from every angle. This was a painful choice -- one that well could have hurt him against Coleman -- but the process of making it was invigorating. It reminded him why he came to the Senate in the first place, he said, and why he was eager to return.
Wellstone started to make another point when he looked up and noticed a car filled with staff waiting to take him on a five-hour drive to Minneapolis. "I wish we could talk longer," he said, but it was time to go.