Just days before facing re-election in 2002, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), his wife, daughter and three campaign aides were killed in a plane crash. Among those hit particularly hard by the tragedy was Bill Lofy, author of the new biography “Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive” (University of Michigan Press).
“I was in graduate school when the crash happened … and was having a hard time concentrating afterwards,” Lofy explained in an interview. “I wanted to write about Wellstone’s impact on politics, and particularly the role he played in the progressive/populist movement.”
Lofy’s connection to the Wellstone family began some years before that tragic day, when he met Mark Wellstone, the Senator’s youngest son. “I was a bored nineteen-year-old art history major,” Lofy writes in the book’s first chapter. After talking to Wellstone, Lofy received a sense of purpose, taking a semester off of school to intern in his office.
Once he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1995, Lofy took a job on Wellstone’s first re-election campaign as the Senator’s travel aide. After a Wellstone-inspired two-year stint in the Peace Corps, Lofy returned to the United States to work in the Senator’s Minnesota office.
In writing the book, Lofy wanted to find a way to express both why and how Wellstone inspired people like himself. “As I did research into that, I realized that there was a lot to be said about his impact and legacy,” Lofy said, “but underlying all that was a fascinating story. I knew a lot about his life and story, but I came to appreciate the human story that was his life.”
The son of an immigrant, Paul Wellstone’s early years were not easy ones. After his brother experienced a mental breakdown, Wellstone’s grades began to drop and he fell in with a group of troublemakers.
He was able to straighten his life out, however. When he was 15, he joined the wrestling team. The sport gave him an outlet for his frustrations and brought him closer to his father. After graduating from high school he attended the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in three years.
“Wellstone had enormous resilience,” Lofy said. “Because of what he had overcome as a child, and as a young person … the lesson to be learned from his life is ‘don’t ever give up.’ I know that’s a clichéd lesson, but with Wellstone it was something he put into practice.”
A prime example of Wellstone never giving up was his reaction to being rejected by UNC’s graduate program. “Despite a good academic record,” Lofy notes in his book, “Wellstone had struggled with test taking … and he received dismally low scores on the Graduate Record Examination. The university rejected his application on the grounds that he had not distinguished himself as a scholar and that he did not seem to have the ambition to become a professor.”
In response, Wellstone filed a formal protest, then staged a sit-in until the admissions dean reconsidered the application. The university soon capitulated.
After receiving his doctorate in 1969, Wellstone moved to Minnesota and became involved with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. While he was, by most measures, a good teacher, the administration at Carleton College was less than enthused by Wellstone’s lack of academic production. Instead of publishing articles and books, he spent his time organizing laborers and protesters.
In 1982, Wellstone made his first foray into the realm of electoral politics when he ran for state auditor in Minnesota. “The auditor’s race is interesting,” Lofy said. “He was talking about all the things a state auditor has very little ability to change. I think that it marked a time when he had not matured as a political leader at that point, because I don’t think he took seriously what it meant to run for office and to represent an entire state. It was, in some ways, tilting at windmills.”
Although Wellstone was able to win his party’s nomination for auditor, he was soundly beaten in the general election. He did not let the defeat get him down, however. Wellstone threw himself into work with the DFL party, joining the Minnesota delegation of the Democratic National Committee in 1984.
In the spring of 1989, he decided to make a run for the Senate. “Democrats felt people had to stand up and proclaim that there was a Democratic Party in Minnesota,” Lofy said. By that time, Wellstone’s public speaking skills had become legendary, and he was seen by many as the best chance of building up a liberal Democratic Party in the state. “Without much money, and with an all-volunteer campaign staff, he went on to win the nomination.”
Winning the nomination, though, was only half the battle. “In September of 1990, Wellstone was down by 30 percent,” Lofy recalled. “There was very little sense that Wellstone stood a chance. The story of the next two months is one of a relentless challenger who used a lot of cunning and strategic decisions to defeat a complacent and unprepared incumbent.”
Wellstone squeaked out a 50.5 percent to 47.9 percent victory over then-Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) in 1990. He then managed to plant his foot squarely in his mouth on a number of occasions. “A week or two after he was elected he says that he despises Jesse Helms,” Lofy recalls.
In a post-election interview, Wellstone said something that would come back to haunt him in 2002: He claimed that he would only serve for two terms. “He never brought it up in his campaign,” Lofy said, “and never brought it up with aides. That was one of Wellstone’s tendencies, to speak first and think later.”
Wellstone’s legislative record is well known. After the Republican revolution in 1994, he was a constant thorn in the side of the GOP. What is oftentimes not remembered is that he reached out to the other side of the aisle to make friends with those he had once “despised.” After Wellstone’s untimely death, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) said that “he was my friend, and I was his.” Conservative commentator Robert Novak noted that “the fighting left-wing professor from Carleton College had not altered his views, but he did soften his style.”
The book features an afterward by Wellstone’s friend, former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), and several speeches that Wellstone gave. “I wanted to incorporate a sense of Wellstone in his own words, not just use my words to describe how he communicated with people,” Lofy said.
“We’re now on the eve of the third anniversary of the plane crash, and I think that it says a lot about Wellstone’s legacy that there is so much interest in his life,” Lofy said when asked what he thought Wellstone’s legacy would ultimately be. Wellstone Action, a nonprofit organization dedicated to progressive causes, “is doing extremely well and growing extremely fast. His legacy is alive and well.”
Bill Lofy will speak about his new book at 6 p.m. tonight at the Women’s National Democratic Club, 1526 New Hampshire Ave. NW. Tickets are $19 for nonmembers. Call (202) 232-7363 for more information.