The untimely death of Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash has cost the Democrats their foremost conviction politician. Wellstone had a passion for standing up for what he believed, a quality that is lacking on either side of the aisle in the Senate right now.
The story that exemplifies Wellstone's passion for practicing the politics of principle was his insistence on being present when the Senate was preparing to vote on President George W. Bush's tax cut bill. He had been in tremendous pain due to a back problem, and his colleagues reported that he had even been in tears while waiting for the roll call. But he did cast his vote and then was taken by ambulance to the hospital immediately thereafter.
Wellstone was the only Democratic senator seeking reelection this year to cast a vote against granting Bush authority to wage war against Iraq. He had told his wife and children that the vote might defeat him. Instead, it appeared to have had the opposite effect in liberal Minnesota where the anti-war sentiment is perhaps the strongest in the nation. Wellstone, who all summer and into the fall had been trailing his Republican opponent, former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman, had opened up a lead. It wasn't much of a lead and he was still under 50 percent, so Coleman might have prevailed on Election Day but, still, it did give him a real boost at a critical point in the campaign.
The deep respect that Wellstone was able to command from the left resembled the same admiration that Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina is held in by the right.
In 1972, the year that Helms made his first run for public office, President Richard Nixon had swept the nation. An attorney named Tom Ellis had run Helms' campaign, and it was a successful polarizing one because other candidates who tried to run as moderates that year ended up losing.
When Helms came to Washington after winning the election, a reporter stuck a microphone in his face and asked how he liked being viewed as an extremist. "Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder," replied the newly elected North Carolinian senator, a simple enough statement that left the reporter dumbfounded.
Helms ended up mastering the Senate rules. It is impossible to calculate the amount of legislation considered to be 'bad' in the eyes of conservatives that are not laws today because Helms not only had the knowledge on how to exercise those rules but also the courage to say "no." He is the only senator I know who was even willing to face the wrath of the colleagues by threatening to keep the Senate in session during a scheduled vacation period. By doing so, he killed a tax increase.
Like Helms who made many in his own party uncomfortable, Wellstone's passion could make colleagues on his own side of the aisle uncomfortable. However, if you wanted to understand where the left was coming from on issues such as health care, tax cuts or the war, then Wellstone was one of the few senators -- often times the only one -- that you needed to hear speaking on the floor. Interestingly, Wellstone and Helms overcame their initial mutual dislike in 1991 when the newly elected Minnesotan had first arrived in Washington.
Wellstone bought into the left's caricature of Helms as a comic book villain, and Helms had criticized his Democratic colleague for being unstable. However, over time the two began to work together on the few selected issues upon which they agreed and to develop a mutual respect. Sens. Wellstone and Helms combined forces to oppose granting China Permanent Normal Trade Relations status and to protect U.S. industries from unfair trade competition.
So, it was not surprising that Wellstone was kind enough to offer a tribute to the retiring Helms earlier in October, noting that there was no other senator who treated the support staff in the Senate "with more grace and is kinder and is more appreciated." And Helms replied in a note to Wellstone that he was that rare breed in Washington -- "a principled senator."
After having observed U.S. senators from the vantage point of over three decades, I must say that most are a passionless lot. That has made for many unedifying debates in what is supposed to be the world's foremost debating club. Too many senators make their statements based on the polls. Or they simply voice the talking points from the White House of their party's leadership. Very few have the passion of a Helms or Wellstone and the courage to back it up with action -- even if it means standing alone.
The way to achieve better public policy is to have more conviction in politics, specifically in the Congress. So, all Americans should miss the passion that Paul Wellstone and Jesse Helms brought to their jobs.
Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and chief executive officer of the Free Congress Foundation.
Outside view commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.