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An honorable man

They held the election in Minnesota on Tuesday without Paul Wellstone. The name isn’t well known around these parts, so not many of us mourned the fact.

He was a United States senator, and he and his wife and daughter died on Oct. 25 when their chartered plane crashed in northern Minnesota. Just another victim of bloody October, lost amid the carnage of the D.C. sniper and those hostages who died while being held prisoner in a Moscow theater.

So why a column in a South Philadelphia newspaper about a man who meant little to us, whose label as a liberal would have probably brought him scorn in this area?

Because Paul Wellstone was an honorable man, and that precious commodity is in such short supply.

Wellstone wore the liberal label proudly, even passionately. He was among the last of the true believers on the left in American political life. He reminded me most of another Minnesotan, Hubert H. Humphrey; his love of life, his unadorned belief in government as an instrument to ameliorate the injustices of the poor and downtrodden. His joy in politics made him like Humphrey, "The Happy Warrior." Even when locked in angry debate on shows like CNN’s Crossfire, Wellstone was impossible not to like. His self-deprecating sense of humor always defused even the most heated moments.

It has become a clich� to find good things to say about the dead. It has become an even bigger clich� of American political life to laud a deceased politician as a man of deep convictions. But in Wellstone’s case, there is no other way to sum up his political life. Like conservative icon Barry Goldwater, he was man respected even by those who vehemently disagreed with him. Wellstone, like Goldwater, was that rare politician with whom you could at once disagree and yet be thankful that they were part of that most important political institution. Both were serious men who didn’t take themselves too seriously.

Wellstone began his political odyssey in 1990. He barnstormed the state in an old green bus as the longest of long-shots. Somehow he upset the incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, and pledged to serve no more than two terms. But even after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Wellstone decided to run again.

Maybe he, like so many others, had been bitten by political ambition in breaking his pledge. Maybe an honorable excuse is that he looked at the political importance of his senate seat and the slimmest of margins by which the Democrats held the senate and decided the cause was worth breaking his word. Whatever the reason, Wellstone’s reelection became crucial to the Democrats’ strategy to stave off Republican control.

Despite the closeness of the race, Wellstone, unlike so many of his fellow Democrats, decided to put his principles on the line when he voted against the resolution that gave President George W. Bush widespread authority to conduct war against Iraq. Other notable Democrats, such as Tom Daschle and Hillary Clinton, rationalized their vote in support of the president as a way to force the United Nations to enforce strict inspections on Iraq and thereby prevent war. Wellstone could have obfuscated in the same way, but characteristically he refused.

It was the same with Bush’s tax cut. Other Democrats blamed the tax cut for deepening the deficit, but lacked the political courage to call for its repeal. Not Wellstone.

Despite being the poster boy for old-style liberalism, Wellstone became known for fighting on the side of conservatives to oppose unfettered free trade with China. He also teamed with them again to draft legislation to stop the sale of women into sexual bondage overseas.

There was a time as a young man that I would have liked nothing better than to work for the idealism of a Paul Wellstone. Instead, I followed the politicians of my time — John Kennedy and Gene McCarthy. It turned out that both JFK and McCarthy were more cynical than idealistic. Today, my political beliefs have changed to the extent that, had I been a senate colleague of Wellstone, I would have fought him tooth and nail on the other side of issues. Such as the application of American force against tyrants like Saddam Hussein. And on welfare reform, which Wellstone opposed. But that does not change my respect for him.

No, his name doesn’t resonate around here and, yes, some of his ideas seemed trapped in the ’60s, but Paul Wellstone was a man who made politics an honorable profession, an arena of ideas in which we could debate the future course of America. And because of that, all of us should take one moment to mourn his passing.

Tom Cardella can be heard before and after the Eagles-Colts game Sunday on 94-FM WYSP.

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