Monday, October 28, 2002
I'm the last man in the blogosphere, obviously, to weigh in on the death of Paul Wellstone. Nonetheless, a few comments.
* One of the first things I thought of when I heard of his death was Brutus' line from Julius Caesar (well, I was at a Shakespeare festival at the time): "There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition." Being a politician is not usually considered a hazardous profession. But flying around from one corner of the state to the other, over and over, to remote airports, in all kinds of weather, is quite hazardous. It's apt to get a significant percentage of those fired by ambition for high office killed. Ambition may be yoked to honorable or base motives, but in either case can be deadly.
* I never met Senator Paul Wellstone, and did not know him as a person. The testimonies to his character have been moving. But I cannot join the chorus who laud him as a leader on the grounds that he was a politician of integrity. Faithfulness to ideology is not integrity, and that, I believe, is what Paul Wellstone manifested as a Senator. I'm pleased and impressed that he showed warm personal feelings for ideological opposites like Senator Jesse Helms, and I think that speaks well of him as a man. But such comraderie across party and ideological lines is, actually, not terribly rare in politics, witness the Jeffords-Lott, McCain-Kerry and Kennedy-Hatch friendships. So: those who knew him attest that he was a kind and loving man. Was he an admirable leader, because he remained true to his convictions? I cannot say that. From my little experience of him, his convictions were not learned and labored over but received. And what he practiced was not the art of leadership but that of noisy dissent. It is relatively easy to elect oneself a martyr to principles; much harder to lead people in a principled fashion. I'm not saying Wellstone was the worst sort of Senator. I prefer his sort to the Jim Jeffordses of the world. But he was no Ted Kennedy. And no Barry Goldwater either; I don't recall Senator Wellstone leading a movement to purge the Democratic Party of its accommodationist wing, damn the electoral consequences. My point is not that he wasn't principled; he was. It's that he wasn't a leader. He was less interested in seeing his principles achieved - and making the deals or leading the intra-party fights necessary to do it - than in showing his willingness to stand against consensus in the name of principle. I know I sound a little peevish pointing all this out about a man who died tragically. I have no doubt he was a good man. But when we eulogize we set a standard, and Wellstone was not my model of a good Senator. I would frankly prefer a Senate full of Charles Schumers - who has, I suspect, a pretty similar voting record - to a Senate full of Paul Wellstones.
* Moreover, I think the torrent of conservative encomia are in somewhat bad taste. I do not remember any of these people saying that Paul Wellstone was their favorite liberal Senator when he was alive - or, if they did, it was with imperfect ingenuousness. To whit: conservatives liked to cite Wellstone as being an "unabashed" or "honest" liberal - one who was unafraid to speak his full agenda. They liked to cite him as such not because they admired such forthrightness but because they think his principles are generally unpopular; by calling him the "real deal" they tarred all of those dissembling liberals with the Wellstone brush. An entirely fair move; don't get me wrong. But it does make me less than impressed with their outpouring of posthumous support.
* I heard the news when in the company of members of my family and their friends. Democrats all, they were uniformly convinced that Senator Wellstone's death was a blow to Democratic fortunes. (I disagreed, citing Missouri's Senate race last year and this year's race in New Jersey; with Mondale potentially the candidate, I think it's even clearer that this seat, once within GOP reach, is now a long-shot, Ramesh Ponnuru's wishes notwithstanding.) What was much more disturbing was that no fewer than three people immediately speculated on whether this was a hit, whether the GOP or its allies planned the death in order to ensure a Republican takeover of the Senate. Now, these were educated people, people who had never feared for their lives from the American government, who had never lived in a regime based on corruption and political repression. These were not people who grew up in Argentina during the dirty war, or in Communist East Germany, or even in post-Communist Russia. These were people who had never known anything but freedom and security, and yet it did not seem odd to them to speculate that American was a country where a major political party routinely engaged in murder to win power from the other major political party. I was always disturbed by the paranoid fringe of the Clinton-hating right, the sorts of people who thought that the black helicopters were coming for them and that everyone who ever died and knew Bill Clinton was bumped off. But in general I wrote these people off as obvious fools, people who could entertain such fantasies of corruption because they had never come close to power, had little of it themselves, had little education about the world, and got their ideas from cheap novels or movies. But how to explain a comparably paranoid style by doctors, lawyers and such, educated people who probably have met Senators, or have met people who have met Senators, people who in general are not afraid of the world and the unknown, who get their ideas from purportedly reputable newspapers? These are the most bitter wages of the New Left, the spring from which Senator Paul Wellstone drank deeply: that a great many "right-thinking" and educated liberals out there assume they live in a functional dictatorship, assume that murder is a routine tool used by those in power in our Republic, assume that their ideological opponents as a class - not merely one dubious individual - are willing to do anything to remain in power. This is the important backdrop to understanding the outrage over the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, and the willingness of Vice President Gore to accuse (implicitly) the Bush Administration of starting a war for political reasons. It's hard for me to express how disturbing I find these kinds of casual allegations, and they are made - casually - by all sorts of people on the left, up to and including the highest-ranking Democrats in our politics.