Remembering Paul Wellstone and his impact on my life 13 years later

by Patrick K. Meacham

Many things have been said about Senator Paul Wellstone. On the anniversary of his death I wanted to express how one day in my life was vastly impacted by the death of a man I had never met.

There I was, between thoughts of how long until my wife will let us leave the party and how bad will traffic be on I-94 heading home. I was hearing this millennial speak about all of his life defining moments that he has had in the 4 years since he graduated some fantastic, 3rd rate liberal arts college, that everyone has heard of but no one can remember an acquaintance that actually went there.

You can probably guess a few his life defining moments – hell, you’ve probably heard them from friends, thought about doing them yourself or actually had eerily similar life moments.

Turns out he backpacked through Europe after his freshman year of college – staying at hostels and “roughing it”. At one point he bought a $900 bottle of champagne in a Budapest strip club or was it somewhere near Munich…doesn’t matter. But existential…religious…architecture…something, he rambles on about as I dreadfully eye the naked ice cube void of the scotch it was swimming in two minutes ago. Now I’m wondering how I could afford to travel to Europe on a county paycheck, let alone at 19. All of my money went to Ron Diaz and Skoal in college. It helps, though, I suppose when mom and dad paid for your ticket, college and that apartment you dreadfully call a flat – YOU LIVE IN MINNEAPOLIS! Nobody calls it a flat – not even the the bartender at Brit’s Pub.

Next I begrudgingly learned that he up and quit his non-profit job because the company’s ideals didn’t meet up with his – and he became an organic farmer for a summer while contemplating joining the Peace Corp – which never happened. Oddly enough, I never did learn what he currently does for work. I envision him working in real estate or as a mortgage broker in some exurb that he commutes to an hour a day because it’s a stepping stone to his “real goal” of becoming the next Jack Dorsey or Nick Woodman.

As if that wasn’t enough for the man – and his manhood – he informs me that he just finished his first marathon last week. By that time I was dreaming of hooking the Laphroaig Quarter Cask up to an IV and peacefully drifting into a coma of solitude with hints of a peat bog, butterscotch, and vanilla. I came out of my imaginary coma to hear the end of his pontification on how confidence is everything and that I should and can accomplish the impossible. Which is odd considering we were just talking about marathons and I’m an obese white male with a history of bad knees and smoking.

About that time my wife tugged on her earlobe and gave the universal sign of let’s get the hell out of here – but it was too late – I had already fallen into the trap. It started with the wondering of why all of his life defining moments are all full of a synthetic, non-organic, predisposed occurrences and it consumed me on our walk through the parking lot. What are my life defining moments?

On the drive from Minneapolis to our home in the small bedroom community north of the Twin Cities that only Rockwell could paint and Keillor could put into prose – Mason Jennings was playing on The Current singing “The Ballad of Paul and Sheila”.

And it hit me…

Like a ton of fucking bricks – I knew what my single life defining moment was, and I was instantly brought back to that moment in time – I didn’t know it then but I knew it now

Thirteen years ago today, an 18 year old version of myself was lying on the 70’s fall floral patterned pullout couch in my parents basement enjoying one of my last free afternoons prior to hockey tryouts – and Peter Jennings came on with a special report that Senator Paul Wellstone had died in a plane crash outside of Eveleth, Minnesota.

My first election was 11 days away, my first political hero had died, and the nation’s progressive conscience was gone.

One of my life defining moments.

It was easy then and is still easier now to support a man that fought tirelessly for economic justice, health care, peace and the everyday underdogs in our society. I’m not ashamed to admit that 18 year old me was also intrigued by the thought of how a skinnier George Constanza became the liberal voice in the United States Senate.

Senator Wellstone was the only Senator with a tight reelection looming to vote against the Iraq Resolution. Many notable Democratic Senators (Clinton, Biden, Kerry, Reid, Schumer, Harkin, and Edwards to name a few of the 29 Democrats) voted for and sent our troops into the quagmire that was, became, and is Iraq. I didn’t know how much that vote would mean to me at the time but when a high school best friend is buried after being killed in the Anbar province – you get mad, you cry, and then you wish there were more people like both Senator Wellstone and Corporal Linden.

Bernie Sanders said on the 5th anniversary of Paul and Sheila’s deaths “he understood that the way you can win elections is by rallying ordinary people at the grassroots level. And perhaps that achievement, from a political perspective, will be what he will be most remembered for”. The legacy he left and the bridge that he built between protests and unrest to movements and political change is still being used today – the playbook on grassroots politics he wrote helped President Obama mobilize hoards of volunteers, phone bankers, and door knockers in 2008. Bernie Sanders himself is taking a page out of and benefiting from the Wellstone way of campaigning – it wouldn’t surprise me if Senator Sanders goes to bed with “The Conscience of a Liberal” on his night stand and “Winning Your Election the Wellstone Way” is required reading for his staffers.

Eight years after Senator Wellstone’s death, I was sitting next to a Mayor Betsy Hodges, then a city council member from Minneapolis, at a pizza restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota for an evening get-together for classmates and speakers of the graduate program that I was attending at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Hodges asked where I was from and what I did when I wasn’t traveling 2 hours on a Friday afternoon for weekend graduate classes in Advocacy and Political Leadership. I tried to recite to her my elevator speech, and it felt like we could have climbed the IDS Tower and back while I fumbled through my background and resume. She then asked how a white male from northern Minnesota ends up coaching girls’ hockey, volunteering for Democratic Politics, and working with and advocating for individuals struggling with mental health and other challenges in an urban area.

I didn’t have to search for or fumble through an answer to this question “I guess, I like to fight for the underdogs – I learned it from Senator Wellstone”.

To me, one of my life defining moments is in what I said to Councilwomen Hodges and in what my life has become – and my attempt to adhere to my favorite Wellstone quote “live a life in which you don’t have to separate the life you live from the words you speak.”  It was that day 13 years ago that profoundly impacted my course through life since and hopefully it defines my life and the words I speak for rest of my life.

One Comment Add yours

  1. The Historical Diaries says:

    wow I really love this post. I admit that I knew not anything about senator Wellstone, but you make him sound like the kind of people I want to see running this country. I appreciate your insights, thanks for the post =)

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