-- Paul D. Wellstone never walked into a room. Even after an illness slowed him down, he still seemed to bound, to trot -- a bundle of energy coiled in a small frame. He didn't just shake hands. He hugged, he kissed, he embraced, his strong wrestler's arms transmitting affection wherever he went.
Wellstone loved, just loved, seeing people he knew, and he knew lots of people. He was a politician -- a very good one, in fact -- but he was at heart an organizer. Wellstone built his political army in Minnesota person by person over many years. Most of those years were spent in the wilderness of the left as he organized not on behalf of himself but to lift up poor farmers and neighborhoods and tenants and low-paid workers.
The full Wellstone was right there to see at a campaign rally on Wednesday at the University of Minnesota at Crookston. He was traveling with Sheila, his wife of 39 years. They shared the same passions -- for politics, for people, for the poor and unlucky, and for each other. When Wellstone saw an old friend, he'd let out a happy yelp and a "Sheila, look who's here!" Person by person, he'd remember some old organizing campaign, or a relative, or a cause.
And then he spoke. He said he didn't want to be "passionate" in his remarks because the town was experiencing a tragedy. He had just learned he was arriving on the day of a funeral for a teenager who had killed himself.
He spoke quietly about jobs and education and health care. He spoke of another of his favorite causes, mental health. It was important for the town to comfort and reassure the family of the dead young man, to remind them that many families had suffered through the same thing, and that they should not blame themselves.
He almost pulled off not being passionate, but in the end, he couldn't make it. What fired him up was his attack on a conservative interest group, supported by big money of unknown origins, that was spending $1 million on television ads attacking him. His voice rose not when he defended himself but when he offered a classic Wellstone litany of the salt-of-the-earth people.
"I can tell you who these people are not," he shouted. "They do not represent firefighters. They do not represent teachers. They are not family farmers. They are not wage earners. They do not represent senior citizens." And on he went, listing group after group, concluding with a shout: "I can assure you: We will beat this crowd!"
And then he paused, realizing he had just done what he said he wouldn't, and offered a self-conscious smile. "I guess I got passionate," he said by way of apology. The whole room grinned.
It's painful that my first visit to Crookston will be my last encounter with Wellstone. I suppose a political columnist isn't supposed to say such a thing, but I loved the guy. Yes, I admired his unwavering progressivism, but there are plenty of liberal politicians around. What made Wellstone special was a democratic spirit that matched his party label -- it doesn't always happen -- and an unquenchable enthusiasm for the craft of pulling people together. He was grateful to every single person who had ever done anything for him or with him on behalf of one of his many causes.
I came to Minnesota to write about Wellstone for two reasons -- and they are both still relevant. The first was to find out why his stand against the Iraq war, far from hurting him in his election, was helping him in the polls. "I thought maybe that vote would be it, and I don't think it is," Wellstone told me on Wednesday. "I've never had so many people come up to me and be so respectful even if they didn't agree." This is not a point about Iraq policy but about the benefits of being a conviction politician. Voters actually respect politicians who say and do what they believe.
The other reason I came to Minnesota was to describe the unique political formula Wellstone had created and to see whether it might be a model for a better kind of politics. Unlike many politicians, Wellstone, the old organizer, believes elections are won not just by television commercials -- though he ran a lot of them -- but also by people reaching people. Wellstone put more into field organizing than almost any other politician, and it was a source of family pride.
And conviction plus grass-roots organizing led to a grass-roots way of raising money. At the time of the plane crash I was visiting Wellstone's headquarters here, a warren of offices in a ramshackle building full of people. None of us there had heard the news. At one table, a half-dozen older women were slitting open hundreds of envelopes containing checks from people all over the country.
"There's a very emotional aspect to the contributions people made," said Rick Kahn, an old friend who was Wellstone's campaign treasurer. "People look on Paul not only as someone who speaks for them but does so in a strong, clear voice."
The Wellstone promise was of a new politics, or perhaps a new-old politics. I couldn't say this of any other public official, but I think I know what Wellstone would say about what's happened: "Don't mourn, organize." That's what he did, that's who he was, and that's why he'll be so hard to replace.