It seems to have passed without much notice here in Australia, but one of the great Jews of American politics died on Friday October 25th. Senator Paul Wellstone, the unabashedly liberal-progressive, fiery, passionate two-term senior senator from the state of Minnesota, died in a small plane crash in snowy northern Minnesota, along with his wife, daughter, three staff members and two pilots of the plane.
Paul Wellstone was a man of deep principle and conviction, widely popular and an unshamed supporter of the little man. In 2001 he published his book The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda. He was also active in the American Jewish community, as a frequent columnist for Tikkun magazine. Wellstone was a former high school and university wrestler, and had taught at Carleton College in Minneapolis before his involvement in Democratic politics and his election as senator in 1990. In recent years, his name was frequently mooted as a possible Vice Presidential candidate.
But Paul Wellstone was something else: my teacher, and one of my first real mentors. He was the first person to instil a nuanced and deep political consciousness in me, and I will never forget him. In the (northern) summer of 1971, following my first year of university, I enrolled in summer programs at the University of California at Berkeley. One of my courses was “Introduction to Politics” taught by Paul Wellstone, then a newly minted PhD and young assistant professor. He was 27 years old.
On day 1 we students entered the classroom, but could not figure out who the instructor was – until a short barrel-chested guy started talking. This was the former champion wrestler, standing probably no more than 5 feet, 5 inches. For three times/week I sat in his class mesmerised by this dynamic, young, articulate teacher. Studying with him convinced me to major in Political Science and later do a graduate degree in town planning (at Berkeley, as it turned out). If we are lucky, a few times in our lives our consciousness is raised, placing us on a whole new plane of understanding. Studying with Paul Wellstone that summer was one of those times for me. My term paper was on the topic of racism, poverty and politics in America, and Paul (as he insisted we all call him) gave me an A+. I still remember his comment on the front: “Don, your paper was very moving to me. May I keep it? Paul Wellstone”. I did, of course, sadly not keeping a copy. (I can only hope that somehow it has made it into the collected papers of Paul Wellstone in some university archive, however I suspect not.)
But I have kept the memory of an inspiring and brilliant man, for whom the halls of academia were only a preliminary to a much larger stage – that of state and later national politics. Paul Wellstone was true to his convictions, drawing from his Jewish roots to promote his progressive politics. Like millions of others, I mourn his passing, but know that his teachings live on in many – who, like me – were touched by his example.