Shields and Brooks on Sen. Wellstone’s Legacy
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MARGARET WARNER: Now some reflections, personal and political, on Paul Wellstone, and his death today, from Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard. Joining them tonight is Dan Balz of The Washington Post.
David, your thoughts on Paul Wellstone — both as a man and as a senator.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he was sort of one of a kind in the Senate. The Senate is sort of a group of chain stores, people who fit a formula. And he fit no formula — 5’5″, no hair on top, his hair was often disheveled, was voted the worst dressed Senator quite a lot.
But he had the convictions. And really Robert Kennedy, I think if you had to pick one person, — he listed a lot of people as his heroes — Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King — but Robert Kennedy sort of exemplified some of the liberal values he stood for.
One of the things that really impressed me, and this as a senator, he wasn’t a particularly good senator when he started; made a lot of unnecessary enemies, didn’t really play the game. But he decided pretty quickly that he didn’t want to just be a noble loser. He wanted to actually get some things done and he made some allies; he worked with people like Jesse Helms, who he earlier said he despised; worked with John Ashcroft, won support from veterans groups, not automatic. So he really improved as a senator and was always a man of conviction, always very popular with conservatives.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Margaret, I don’t disagree with anything President Bush said or David said.
I just add this. Paul Wellstone was not a perfect man. He was a public man. And as a public man, he was that rarest of exceptions. He was a man of enormous passion; at a time when politicians are advised by the shrewdest strategists to be cool, detached, dispassionate, and all the rest of it — he was hot and passionate. And there’s no better scene than when he endorsed Bill Bradley for president of the United States. He would introduce Bill Bradley at rallies, and his fiery, just enthusiastic zealous, introduced ironic laconic Bill Bradley and Bradley’s people said, gee, if he could only infect the senator with that enthusiasm.
But in addition to the passion, conviction was central to the man. The other thing that was so exceptional about Paul Wellstone was his authenticity. He was authentic. There wasn’t a sense that the Paul Wellstone you were seeing or I was seeing was different from the one that anybody else was seeing in Duluth or Eveleth or St. Paul. That was the sense of him that I will always cherish. That and rare political courage.
In 1996, Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich had fashioned and crafted together a remarkable political document called the welfare reform plan, which as Daniel Patrick Moynihan pointed out, left an awful lot of poor children out. And the only Democratic incumbent in the United States Senate that year who stood up and risked his political career to vote against a very popular, politically popular welfare reform plan was Paul Wellstone.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Dan, at the same time despite this conviction, he also had a real sense of humor, didn’t he? I know you traveled with him and covered him some.
DAN BALZ: I did. I recall a trip to Mississippi five years ago, both David and Mark have talked about his authenticity and that this is a guy who did not run from the “L” word at a time when every other Democrat did.
He took a trip down there which was really a trip following in the footsteps of his political idol, Bobby Kennedy, a trip that Kennedy had taken back in the ’60s in which he brought child poverty really to the attention of the country. Wellstone’s feeling was that the country had lost that sense of what was going wrong, had lost a passion for poor children and he wanted to rekindle that. And I spent a day with him down there as he traveled through an area of Mississippi that has changed some since the ’60s but still had a lot of poverty. And it was a remarkable day to see both the passion, the sense of humor that he would bring to things.
Incidentally, his wife was with him that day. I think she traveled with him so much. I rarely have seen a spouse who traveled as much with her husband as she did. And she was there, every bit as passionate as he was. They were a remarkable couple in that sense.
DAVID BROOKS: There is a story, this was in the second campaign in 1996 — Rudy Boschwitz was running ads saying he was embarrassingly liberal. A voter came up and said why do they keep running those ads against you; we know you’re embarrassingly liberal; now, that’s something we already know about you and we’re voting for you anyway.
MARGARET WARNER: And he also showed a lot of humor in his own ads.
DAVID BROOKS: Especially in the first race when he had no money. He was running against the well-funded Boschwitz at that point. He said I don’t have any money. I’m here, I’m there.
MARGARET WARNER: I have to run from place to place because I can’t afford a long ad..
DAVID BROOKS: Right. Absolutely. And he was also a person who believed in ideas. And I think that’s one of the reasons he was so popular across the aisle. He would go to panel discussions, which is not something most Senators do, but he would go to the Brookings Institution and you could see him on a panel talking about ideas.
And he always thought that he could persuade you. He didn’t have any disdain for conservatives, didn’t think any less of them. If he could talk long enough, he was going to win you over.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, did he leave a legacy in the Senate or was he such a maverick that he sort of just stood alone?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Dan put his finger on it.
The trip to Mississippi, I recall interviewing him on the subject of child poverty and the legacy was and David’s touched on it. This was not somebody, Margaret, who took you to lunch – invited you to lunch -the idea – this is the bill I’m introducing and don’t you want to do a profile. He cared about the subject. What he was interested in was not about writing about Paul Wellstone or reporting on Paul Wellstone – it was reporting on the subject of child poverty, which has fallen off the national agenda and the national scene. And he understood that Robert Kennedy, when he went there, brought with him cameras as only a presidential candidate or somebody like Robert Kennedy, who people thought would be, can do. And he knew that he couldn’t do it the same, et cetera.
If you want to see a legacy, we just had a big vote on going to war in Iraq. Only one senator in a tough race voted against it. I’m not saying the others didn’t but he was counseled, saying look, wouldn’t it be safer — you can vote with Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt and John Kerry. There’s enough covered politically but– and then the Minnesota connection was seen, he voted and his numbers went up in the polls.
Republicans were conceding privately that he was going to win and he was going to win as an authentic candidate, someone who didn’t trim his sails. And that in itself is a legacy that politics so desperately needs.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan, what is your assessment of his campaign? Because he was in a tough race or started out as a tough race, wasn’t it?
DAN BALZ: This was one of the toughest times, one of the nastiest campaigns in the country and that’s saying a lot this year with a lot of nasty campaigns. But Mark’s right. There was a feeling, I think, on both sides, Republican and Democrat that Wellstone had the edge at this point in the campaign, and that it was an uphill fight for his opponent Norm Coleman.
This obviously leaves everything in disarray, but he had weathered some of the worst of the battle and had come out in part because I think he did what he stuck to his own convictions and was willing to put his neck on the line for that. There were a lot of people who obviously thought voting against that resolution on the war was political suicide for any candidate.
And Wellstone, because of the way he had always run there, said I’m not going to do that. I’m going to go ahead and vote against it because it’s true to who I have been.
And in a state like Minnesota, I think there was some reward for that, or the polls so suggested.
MARGARET WARNER: Dan, what can you tell us about where this all leads now? What happens next both in terms of the immediate vacancy created and then what happens on the ballot?
DAN BALZ: Well, there is an immediate vacancy.
It is not clear whether Gov. Ventura will fill that immediately or wait. He gave very little indication today at a very brief press conference about what he is planning to do other than to say he would not appoint himself to the vacancy.
It appears as though the Democrats in Minnesota will have to find a new candidate. Under the law, they have, at this point — they’re more or less required to find a new candidate. They probably can’t keep him on the ballot. There has been a discussion among Democratic lawyers ands strategists throughout the afternoon about (a): Whether they can do that legally, and (b): If they could, if it is the wise choice.
I think that at this point it’s settled on the idea that it is not wise to try to fight that legal fight to keep him on the ballot and they will look to replace him.
The name that has become most prominent quickly in the day is former Vice President Walter Mondale, who is 74 or 75 years old, practicing law, enjoying life in Minnesota and enjoying his grandchildren there.
But there’s pressure at this point on him to step in. He’s heard some calls from — I’m told — from some labor leaders this afternoon. Senator Kennedy who was campaigning with Senator Wellstone earlier today, is also out there. I’m told he has asked Mr. Mondale to try to consider this. Beyond that, there are not a lot of obvious choices for the Democrats in Minnesota in terms of a replacement candidate.
MARGARET WARNER: So, David, the Mondale idea would be sort of like the Frank Lautenberg — what they did in New Jersey, which is finding an old tried and true, I mean, someone really well known to the voters.
DAVID BROOKS: Remember, you can’t underestimate the emotional trauma that will be spreading through Minnesota after Mel Carnahan died.
It affects the opposition just as much. And the tendency with voters in these circumstances and of late we’ve had too many of these circumstances, is they want to cheat death. They to continue the legacy of the candidate. They want to keep Wellstone in some sense alive. And so there’s a great wellspring to try to somehow allow him to go forward. And the thing about Minnesota is you can register to vote on Election Day.
So people will be moved, who might not have ordinarily voted, to try to keep the legacy alive.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that would work even– or be in play even if his name isn’t on the ballot unlike Missouri where the former Governor Mel Carnahan was on the ballot.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. I think it would. And the campaign, I can’t imagine, would pick up in any real sense. The campaign is basically going to coast for the next eleven days, I would think.
MARK SHIELDS: I know Frank Lautenberg and believe me, he is no Walter Mondale. Let’s get that straight. Walter Mondale is a towering figure.
MARGARET WARNER: I meant turning to someone who had instant name recognition.
MARK SHIELDS: I was just trying to make a point that Walter Mondale is a product of when the Democrat – formerly, the Labor Party in Minnesota — was truly a dominant and progressive and vibrant political institution.
It produced Hubert Humphrey, it produced Gene McCarthy, it produced Walter Mondale, Orville Freeman – I mean, great national leaders. But, the party has fallen on terrible times.
To be very blunt about it, they’ve won the governorship once in the last generation. The candidate for governor finished third in a three-way race in the last election when Ventura was elected.
So, the point is, there is no farm system, there is no bench. They have a pretty formidable House delegation but they have not produced state-wide candidates.
And for that reason, I think, Mondale answers a lot of questions and a lot of prayers and, if in fact he would be willing to do so. I mean I think he reminds Minnesota Democrats and Minnesotans of when the party really was a vibrant organization.
MARGARET WARNER: At what degree were the Democrats at this point counting on winning Minnesota to hold on to the Senate?
DAN BALZ: Oh, I think they had put that one pretty much in their column, rightly or wrongly. I think they thought of the three Midwestern incumbent Democrats in tough races that Wellstone was in the best shape of the three with Sen. Carnahan in Missouri probably in the worst shape of the three.
So I think they were turning their attention somewhat away from Minnesota, particularly to Missouri, but also to South Dakota to try to make sure that they held those. This is a blow. I mean I think David is right that, you know, under these kinds of circumstances, many voters may want to try to continue the legacy of what’s there. But in any situation like this, this is now a very unpredictable environment.
I agree with David that I don’t think there will be much of a campaign there. I heard this afternoon that Democrats in Minnesota were sort of emotionally struck, that the idea of thinking about naming a replacement was almost distasteful to them; that it was almost disrespectful to do that, to have to think about that this quickly.
I think that the whole state will have to go through this period. And it does make it much more difficult to think about how voters will think about the race once they go in on Election Day. But this was clearly one that up until today, the Democrats felt pretty good about.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Dan, and Mark, David, thank you all three.