As Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone began campaigning for a third term, some pro-Israel activists tried to generate support for his opponent by whispering that the two-term incumbent was insufficiently supportive of Israel.
But in almost every respect Wellstone, who died in the crash of his campaign plane in remote northern Minnesota last week, was more representative of the Jewish political tradition than almost anyone else in political life.
Wellstone, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was a bleeding-heart liberal in the best sense of the phrase. The 58-year-old Democrat genuinely cared about the nation’s most vulnerable citizens, putting social justice and civil rights ahead of almost every other consideration during his 12 years in the Senate.
Defying the anti-government mood that has even crept into Democratic circles, he
made the case for active, creative, compassionate government intervention to elevate the poor, treat the sick and protect the vulnerable.
Many Democratic colleagues had come to fear the taint of the liberal label; Wellstone wore it as a badge of honor. He did it with humor and grace and a lack of the humbug that seems to infect even politicians who come to Washington as self-proclaimed populists.
Wellstone often appeared at public events in a dark T-shirt, not the jacket-and-tie ensembles chosen with the TV lights in mind. He was forever rumpled, forever looking like an energetic but distracted college professor who had consumed too much caffeine and too many ideas.
He looked — there’s no other way to put this — totally Jewish. There’s a breed of younger Jewish politicians who strive for the bland, generic, blow-dried look that political consultants say wins elections. Wellstone was the guy at the corner deli in Brooklyn arguing politics with a thoroughly Jewish zest.
His unabashed ethnicity was all the more amazing because he represented the land of Garrison Keillor’s Norwegian bachelor farmers — an overwhelmingly Lutheran state, where the Jewish population is a measly 0.4 percent and the favored political style is Scandinavian deadpan.
Wellstone used to refer to himself as one of the “Frozen Chosen.” He was among the more regular attendees of the Capitol Hill events sponsored by American Friends of Lubavitch.
“Disagreement never led to disrespect with Paul,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the group’s Washington director. “He and I agreed on very little politically, but he was always extremely polite, courteous and respectful. He had a real respect for Jewish things. He was a real mensch.”
His Capitol Hill office was just as revealing.
Most offices of lawmakers are monuments to oversized egos. Walls are covered with photographs showing them with kings, presidents, prime ministers and movie stars. Or they’re lined with bookshelves filled with volumes of the U.S. code, looking more like decorator objects than treasured books.
Wellstone’s office looked like the office of a quirky, widely read college professor, which is what he was before his quixotic Senate victory in 1990. His inner office looked like a used bookstore. It smelled of musty pages, not political testosterone.
Wellstone did not wear his religion on his sleeve, but he made it clear to friends over the years that his Judaism was an essential element in his compassionate liberalism.
“He was motivated by fundamental values and was a brilliant advocate for his beliefs,” said Hannah Rosenthal, executive vice-chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
As a Midwest political activist and then an official of the Clinton administration, Rosenthal worked with Wellstone throughout his Senate career.
“He was proud that those beliefs were motivated by the prophetic values of Judaism,” she said. “As the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he believed in the strength and beauty of American democracy.”
When Wellstone came back to Washington more than a decade ago — he was raised in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac — he sometimes seemed more interested in being a liberal gadfly than in leaving his imprint on legislation, a process that requires compromise and ability to forge bipartisan coalitions.
But even political detractors say Wellstone quickly shifted gears, reaching out across partisan and ideological lines to make a difference on the issues he cared about: healthcare, the environment, abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights.
His consistency was impressive in a city where deeply held views often last only until the next public opinion survey.
Wellstone voted against the 1991 Gulf War resolution, and he voted against a similar resolution a few weeks ago, despite predictions that it would hurt his re-election bid against former St. Paul Mayor Norman Coleman, also Jewish. It didn’t. Polls showed his stand was part of the reason he had reclaimed the lead in the tight race. But that didn’t seem to matter to Wellstone; he was against a pre-emptive, unilateral war, case closed.
He remained a reliable supporter of Israel, but he didn’t vote the straight party line, just as he didn’t vote the straight party line when it came to domestic matters. Wellstone strongly supported an active U.S. role in Mideast peacemaking, something that didn’t always endear him to pro-Israel lobbyists but was consistent with mainstream Jewish thinking.
Wellstone supported a congressional resolution of solidarity with Israel earlier this year but insisted that “I don’t think it should be viewed as an open-ended endorsement of the policies of the Sharon government.”
Paul Wellstone was buried as a Jew, and he will be remembered for living a life that reflected the best in Jewish political activism.
In a 1998 speech to students at Swarthmore College, he made a statement that could serve as his epitaph.
“We can do much better as a country,” he said. “We should not focus just on how to grow our economy, but we should focus on how we can grow the quality of our lives, and how we can grow the quality of our life as a nation. We must foster a new atmosphere where values become sensitive to public policy. And we must build a nation, a community where no person, no neighborhood and no community feels left behind.”