Joe Conason's Journal

The nation loses a hero with the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, the happy warrior whose enemies could not help but love him.

By Joe Conason

Published October 25, 2002 5:18PM (EDT)

Win it for Wellstone Our country lost a hero today. Paul Wellstone personified the progressive tradition at its most hopeful and humane. He was a tough but never bitter competitor, a passionate but always pragmatic advocate -- a smart, fearless, dedicated politician who stood up and fought for ordinary people. The sadness of his sudden death, along with his wife, daughter and staff members, is overwhelming.

What a mighty heart Wellstone had. To continue the struggle that defined his commitment, he had surmounted serious illness and was on the verge of winning yet another election that he was expected to lose. Despite a truly vicious campaign against him this year, and even though he started his third Senate campaign as a decided underdog, the Minnesota Democrat was pulling ahead on the day he died.

Ever since his first stunning victory in 1990, the former Carleton College professor has endured relentless attacks by conservative bullies who seemed to think his small stature and earnest demeanor made him an easy target. But those who trifled with the former wrestler learned how mistaken they were to underestimate him. He was the very rare politician who always felt that even at moments of political defeat, there was victory in holding onto principle. During the past decade there was simply no politician of greater integrity in this country.

In a time when Democratic leaders seem to value caution over courage, Wellstone proved that fighting back leads to victory. He risked a vote against the war resolution, knowing that he would do better defending what he really believed. That conviction is his legacy.

He had much to teach the left as well. His patriotism was the profound love of country that emerges as deep, passionate concern for the people and the land. His lack of pretension and his dedication to healing the injuries of class belied the stereotype of the "limousine liberal." File footage running on the networks today showed him being welcomed into the union halls of his state by big, burly men who knew that this liberal intellectual was their best friend.

When nine miners trapped in a hole became a national news story, politicians and pundits suddenly asked a few questions about mine safety. They found Wellstone already there, demanding better funding and exposing the deficiencies in the federal mine safety bureaucracy. Mine safety wasn't a hot issue until that moment, and it quickly lost its momentary cachet once the miners had been saved. That didn't matter to Wellstone, who pursued the issues he cared about -- mental healthcare, minimum-wage increases, the lobbyist gift ban, national health insurance -- not the fads and fashions that attract TV cameras.

Wellstone's Senate colleagues in both parties mourn his passing. Democrats will miss him, of course, but so will many Republicans. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., was so choked with grief for the Wellstones this afternoon that he was literally unable to speak; Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., issued an astonishingly warm statement of condolence.

Those conservatives, who had regarded him from the beginning as a rather dubious radical, came to know a quintessential American, the son of immigrants who loved sports and married his high-school sweetheart. His own heroes were Eleanor Roosevelt and Robert Kennedy, who like him represented an idealism that is our best national tradition.

Foolish critics could be heard in recent years saying that Wellstone had compromised himself by learning the ways of the Senate and by befriending his ideological adversaries. They didn't begin to understand what he had become -- the happy warrior whose enemies could not help but love him. He wanted to get things done, and he did.

There were moments when Wellstone's liberalism seemed anachronistic, even to sympathetic observers. He wasn't always right. Although his instincts were usually correct, he sometimes resisted changes that made sense. Yet on the fundamentals of compassion and fairness, his insistent voice was indispensable.

This fine man cannot be replaced, but in 11 days there will be an opportunity to honor his life and work. Facing difficult odds, as he always did, the Democrats should pull themselves together, pick up Paul Wellstone's banner, and win this one for him and his family.
[2 p.m. PDT, Oct. 25, 2002]

Russert responds to reader fury
The very name of Tim Russert is a provocation to many readers, and quite a few protested angrily after I wrote, in an item about the last Florida gubernatorial debate, that the "Meet the Press" host "tries to be fair." So, thinking Russert ought to know how some viewers feel, I sent him a small sampling of the comments I'd received:

"Hello??? Tim Russert unbiased? What planet do YOU live on?? Why do you think other Democratic candidates have refused to debate [on 'Meet the Press'] ???"

"Russert? Fair? You're kidding, right? ... If Russert is 'trying to be fair,' he's not trying hard enough!"

"I want to see some evidence that Russert is fair concerning character questions he asks [Democrats] vs. character questions he asks [Republicans]. You can't support that statement, because Russert is not fair and balanced when it comes to questions of Dems character.

"Sorry, Joe, just can't get behind your statement that Russert tries to be fair. He does no such thing -- he trashes Democrats (he was a leading Gore basher - Somerby covers Russert's deeds thoroughly) and [he] treats Republicans, particularly those in the current regime, with kid gloves."

After Russert had an opportunity to digest several of these complaints, I called and asked him to respond. "Both campaigns called the next morning," he said about the Bush-McBride debate, "and they used the same words: It was a great debate and Tim was incredibly fair. People always see things through their own prism."

Russert didn't seem defensive. He laughingly pointed out that he takes heat from the right as well as the left. "The same day I got those e-mails from you, I got the latest release from the [right-wing] Media Research Center. It says, 'Brent Bozell chastised Tim Russert for going on a personal campaign to repeal the [Bush] tax cut.'" And indeed, Bozell's outfit has repeatedly bashed Russert, a committed deficit hawk, for promoting his "liberal anti-tax cut mantra."

Russert strongly denied that he had let Jeb Bush slide, suggesting that it was McBride who had failed to take advantage of tough questions he had posed to the Republican.

"I asked Bush, if Proposition 9 [to limit class size] passes, will you sabotage it or will you implement it? And how are you going to pay for it? This was the first time anyone had asked Bush that question, and it was in all the local papers the next day." He had pressed the Florida governor hard on his fiscal priorities, he insists. "I turned to Bush, and I said, during your term you've reduced taxes by $6 billion. Wouldn't it have been better to cut less and spend some of that money on other priorities, such as reducing class sizes?"

As for ethical issues, Russert did ask Jeb about the overpayment of $100 million in federal funds for the Big Cypress oil leases owned by the Bush-friendly Collier family. "I raised the issue of Republican donors being paid an excessive amount of money for Big Cypress," he says. "I raised the $6 billion in tax cuts. I raised the issue of the federal government being used as a piggy bank for Jeb's reelection. And I raised the issue of gay and single adoption, asking why Florida is the only state with this [restrictive] policy."

Russert acknowledges that he has opinions and biases, likes and dislikes -- but he doesn't think that his preferences skew partisan either way. He noted that unlike most other TV political chat shows, neither of his weekly broadcasts has ever hosted Ann Coulter.

By contrast, "Last week's guest on my CNBC program was Michael Moore, for the full hour." (I should add here the disclosure that two years ago, Russert interviewed me on that program for a half-hour about "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton." The first half of the show featured Peggy Noonan and her Hillary-bashing book. Peg was none too pleased to run into me in the green room, particularly because I had shredded her book in my Observer column that morning. But I couldn't help noticing that Tim grinned broadly when he introduced us.)
[10:15 a.m. PDT, Oct. 25, 2002]

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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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