America Loses A Bold Leader

"Something died in America," said civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Robert F. Kennedy's untimely death. "Something died in all of us."

Paul Wellstone's entire political career was dedicated to bringing that something -- that soul -- back to American politics. From his out-of-nowhere populist election to the Senate in 1990 to his courageous, polls-be-damned vote against the president's Iraq invasion resolution, Wellstone always let his conscience guide the votes he cast and the policies he espoused.

Throughout his time in the Senate, he was a tireless champion of those left out of our prosperity, fighting for affordable health care, raising the minimum wage, drug treatment programs, corporate reform and public financing of campaigns.

But beyond the issues he championed in this era of flaccid rhetoric and focus group-approved sound bytes, Wellstone had the rare ability to ignite a fire in his audiences. I'll never forget the rousing call-to-action speech he gave at the opening of the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles in August 2000.

"I'm tired of waiting," he said that night, taking on the rhythm of a gospel preacher. "It's time for us to find our own voice, to do our own organizing, to push forward on reform, to push forward on issues of economic justice, and to make the United States of America, this good country, even better."

And he brought the crowd to its feet when he recounted the story of abolitionist Wendell Phillips who, after making an impassioned speech condemning slavery, was asked, "Wendell, why are you so on fire?" Phillips looked at his friend and said: "Brother, I'm on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt." Wellstone, the former college professor, said it was his favorite quote from history, then pointedly added: "We too have mountains of ice before us to melt."

And the prospect of melting them without him is daunting.

His unique position in American politics is exemplified by the fact that he was the only Senator in a competitive reelection race who voted against the Iraq resolution -- just as, in 1996, he had been the only Senator running for reelection to vote against the welfare reform bill.

I asked him once what he thought made for a great president. "A great president," he answered, "is one who successfully calls on all Americans to be their own best selves." And that's what he was all about -- particularly when it came to galvanizing young people.

The last time I saw him was at a fund-raising event for his campaign at a friend's home. I had dragged my reluctant 13-year-old daughter with me -- something I never do. I wanted her to hear Wellstone speak -- to see what political speech could be, but so rarely is. She didn't stop raving about him and his speech for days.

And now his voice has been silenced.

Who now will inspire the next generation of voters? Who will speak up for the underdog? Who will say "no" when the consultants argue that it's political suicide not to say "yes"?

Wellstone's death has left a gaping void in the country that goes far beyond the question of how his absence will affect the balance of power in the Senate.

There are only days left before the election, and it's expected that two-thirds of eligible voters are not planning to turn up at the polls. And there is no one on the scene right now who is able to put the spotlight on the mounting social problems our country is facing.

Maybe in death Wellstone will be able to achieve what eluded him in life. He often quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt's admonition that "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." But he had not been able to convince the nation of this.

His greatest legacy would be if this tragic loss, which has so deeply affected the country, taps into the latent reserve of idealism in the American people, and as a result transforms both our politics and our priorities.

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