September 14, 2005
Bill Lofy on Paul Wellstone: Unlike Other Democratic Senators, Paul Wellstone Knew How to Wrestle an Opponent and Pin Him to the Mat
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Like many BuzzFlash readers, we were great admirers of Paul Wellstone. He had two things that most Democratic leaders don't have: the fight in him and the ability to define the debate. Wellstone was a bantam-weight populist warrior, who also had another characteristic not often found among Democrats in the Senate: passion. Wellstone didn't look at the polls and fashion his policies. He stuck by his principles and the polls came around to him.
There's a new biography of Wellstone out called, Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive (a BuzzFlash Premium). We interviewed its author, Bill Lofy, who was a long-time associate of Wellstone and is now Communications Director of Wellstone Action, the organization created to carry on Paul and Sheila Wellstone's legacy after their deaths.
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BuzzFlash: In your biography of Paul Wellstone, you speak a lot about his wrestling. He was passionate about wrestling. He won a college championship. Wrestling requires certain skills including agility, strategy, sizing up your opponent, tenacity. What did wrestling mean to Paul Wellstone?
Bill Lofy: I think it’s really difficult to overestimate what wrestling meant to Wellstone. In large measure, it really shaped his life. Let me explain what I mean by that. When Wellstone discovered wrestling, it was a time in his life when he had really, in some ways, become unhinged. He had fallen into a precipitous decline into juvenile delinquency, but pulled himself together and was able to apply his considerable energy and aggression to the sport, and to use his height to his advantage. Throughout Wellstone’s life, he was able to really come from behind at various parts of his career in much the same way that he did when he was a fifteen year old who discovered wrestling and became a star athlete almost overnight.
The sport is very individual: it’s just you and no one else. You are the one who is responsible if you fail. But you’re also the one who’s responsible entirely for success. And I think that there is an intense competitive spirit in Wellstone that drove him his entire life. So in later years in his life, like when he ran for office and when he was faced with the challenges of being a senator, I think there was always a part of him that knew that he could come from behind -- in part because of the lessons he learned from the sport of wrestling.
BuzzFlash: It requires a lot of agility, tenacity, resilience, strategy. You have to be in some ways sort of rubbery to escape the potential strength of your opponent. It has some very different skills that seem to be very adaptable to politics.
Bill Lofy: One of the things he learned very early on in his career was that in order to be effective, he was going to have to learn the rules of the Senate very well and use them effectively. And there’s an analogy there to wrestling: the importance of understanding your leverage, having a very clear strategy and outsmarting your opponent. A lot of times, Wellstone won legislative victories because he out-hustled and outsmarted his opponents. He knew the rules so well that he would be able to trip up his opponents and take advantage of rules that some of his colleagues didn’t even know about.
BuzzFlash: As with politics, there is a lot of strategy in wrestling and you don’t know unless you follow through until the end whether you’re going to win. You can’t say at the beginning, well, I’ve lost this one, because you might make the right strategic moves and end up on top, pinning down your opponent, just when it appeared you had lost the match.
Bill Lofy: Exactly. A great example of that was when he won the ACC championship as a college wrestler at the University of North Carolina. In that match, he was behind the entire match. Only in the last few seconds of the match, he reversed his opponent and ended up winning. And I think that there was always a sense that Wellstone had that fight in him. No matter how dire the situation was, there was always that fight in him.
BuzzFlash: The reason I wanted to concentrate on the wrestling was it seems to me that Wellstone, who described himself – as Dean did - as the Democratic Wing of the Democratic party, really had the fight in him which many Democrats in Congress don't.
BuzzFlash: Paul Wellstone voted against the war in Iraq – and was one of the few senators to do so. He ran on that record, and was on the verge of winning against his infamous opponent in Minnesota, Norm Coleman. Even though Minnesota has been trending a bit more Republican, he was on the verge of winning a big victory because he, in essence, was admired for standing on his principles, and being consistent and not being wishy-washy. Wellstone combined form and content. He showed that people could see you were a strong leader for standing up for what you believed in.
He said this is who I am. This is what I stand for. And these are the reasons why. If you don’t like it, vote against me but I’m giving you a very compelling case. And people said, "Well, you know what? We might not agree with him, but we respect his position. And he’s strong." And the very fact that he projected a strength gave people confidence in him.
Bill Lofy: Right. Minnesotans elected Paul Wellstone not despite his strong convictions, but because of them. Like you said, they didn’t have to agree with him on all the issues, but they knew where he stood. They appreciated his honesty and they knew he was a person of integrity. In terms of the current state of the Democratic Party, people want to see the Democrats as an opposition party. The American public wants to see Democrats as a loyal and strong opposition. Today we have a Democratic Party that has failed to muster any kind of meaningful opposition to the current Administration, and particularly the war in Iraq.
It’s interesting, when Wellstone decided in October 2002 to oppose the Iraq war resolution, he received an enormous amount of criticism from Democrats. In the book, I quote a senior Democratic Party official who sent the Wellstone campaign an e-mail saying, “It makes me almost physically ill to even contemplate spending [money] on a candidate who decides to commit political suicide – however principled and otherwise defensible.”
Now the irony: in the 2004 election, John Kerry, who voted for the Iraq war resolution, became painted as a flip-flopper without firm convictions, primarily for his position on the war. If Kerry had just voted against the resolution in the first place – as Wellstone had done – he would have had far more credibility in opposing the war and would have been a far more credible candidate against Bush. So it’s not just the right thing to do. It was also smart politics. And I think that the Wellstone model really does point to the need to have this sort of conviction politics in the Democratic Party.
BuzzFlash: Returning to the wrestling metaphor, when you are a wrestler, you step on a mat and and you try to create the terms of the match. You try to make the opponent meet your terms of how you are going to engage. And it seems that Paul Wellstone is an example of someone who created a populism that wasn’t there before. Yes, there’s always been a strain of liberal populism in Minnesota - and the fine tradition of the Democratic Farm Labor alliance - but he created a unique brand and a unique identification with a lot of disparate issues and disparate people in a manner that the Democrats, for the most part, haven’t done and, in essence, built a constituency around his principles. That seems, as you’ve indicated, at odds with what many of the Democratic Leadership Council types who say, "Well, the American public is somewhere over here in the 'center/right,' so we have to go there."
Bill Lofy: Right.
BuzzFlash: Paul Wellstone said we share certain values as Americans. I’m going to articulate them as principles. If you believe in how I’m articulating them and fighting for them, vote for me. That's how he moved the public to a different position. It’s how you create the context and the phrasing. Most Democratic leaders seem unable to frame the terms of the debate.
Bill Lofy: Right. And who says that American values aren’t consistent with progressive values? It’s just false to suggest to the American people gravitate toward a center-right political agenda. They haven’t been offered a compelling alternative. I think the DLC’s argument is really hollow.
BuzzFlash: It’s pretty hollow, because if you break down the domestic issues, on virtually all domestic issues, the public is at odds with Bush in terms of his governmental policies. And when you get into issues of moral values, religion, those polls are stated so strangely that it’s hard to tell what it really shows. Do the Democrats or Republicans support religion more? Well, whose religion? The Democrats support everybody’s right to believe in his or her own faith. Our country was founded as a revolt against monarchs who received their authority from so-called divine sanction, which is what Bush is claiming. So what the Democrats are doing is sort of acceding to a viewpoint that goes back to what our American revolution was revolting against. I you’re really the patriot, you say you’re for religious pluralism, not for a leader who believes that he was anointed by God to lead the American people.
Bill Lofy: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Returning to Wellstone's Iraq War vote -- and the issue of being a wrestler who defines the framework of the match ... The issue, as Paul Wellstone understood it, was not whether one was for or against terrorism, which is how the Bush Administration was trying to portray the vote, and indeed almost everything since 9/11. The issue was, how do you fight terrorism to best protect the American people? Why can’t the Democrats state that this is an issue of competence in fighting terrorism? The issue isn’t being for or against terrorism. The issue is being for or against an effective policy that will ensure the national security of the United States. And the Democrats can’t seem to frame it that way.
Bill Lofy: I agree mostly. Here’s where I slightly disagree: I don’t think that it would be a successful strategy for the Democrats just to talk about effectiveness – that we’ll be more effective than the other side. I think that we need to do more than that. Democrats need to articulate an ambitious policy agenda, and we need to sharpen our opposition. We need to stand up now, and to stand up every day, and remind the American people that we have a more effective response. The problem is that we just didn’t do a good job of that over the last three years, and now we’re in a position where it’s much more difficult to come up with a proactive policy in Iraq because we’re stuck in what is increasingly looking like a quagmire.
BuzzFlash: This is the story of Bush’s life. He always gets into these fiascos. And in the past, his father’s buddies always bailed him out, in business or whatever. Getting back to Wellstone, the subtitle of your book is The Life of a Passionate Progressive. I want to talk about that word "passion" a bit, because, again, it’s not something you normally hear tied to most Democrats in Congress. What was it that made Wellstone passionate?
Bill Lofy: Wellstone knew that everything he achieved in his life he had to fight for. I think he knew that, in order for him to succeed as a senator and as a campaigner, he had to bring the same passion, the same energy, the same relentlessness to his work – because he knew that people would try to marginalize him for being too liberal. He knew that, without that passion and relentlessness, there was no way that he could have been elected in the first place. I think that part of it was the way that he grew up. He was a fighter, to the very core of his being, and someone who was totally committed to finding injustice and trying to make it right. And you’re absolutely right. If you think about any number of Republican members of Congress, you could apply the passionate label to them [however faulty their political philosophies]. I could come up with a dozen of them off the top of my head. On the Democratic side, there are precious few.
BuzzFlash: When we talk about form and content, I think American people, in some way, hear what they see. If they see a passionate person who stands up for what they believe in, they respect that person for their passion. And the Republicans kind of have the passion trademark right now on their party.
Bill Lofy: That’s exactly right. What is particularly discouraging about this is that it’s not only bad for the country in terms of the policy perspective – it’s also bad politics for the Democrats in the upcoming midterm Congressional election. Just recently a Washington Post poll came out saying that more than half of the people surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with Congressional Democrats for not opposing Bush more aggressively. You know, three out of four Democrats said that the Congressional Democrats haven’t done enough to oppose Bush. And six in ten independents say the Democrats have been too meek in their response to the Administration.
So this is evidence – and there are other pieces of evidence -- that this debate isn’t about policy direction. It could potentially be disastrous for Democrats in midterm election, at the very time when, just like in 2004, we have a weakened Administration. We have a weakened majority party. A clear majority of the Americans are dissatisfied with the direction that the country is going in. And yet Democrats may still find a way to lose in the midterm election. It’s very disheartening. I think if there’s any single lesson that Wellstone’s life could provide for the Congressional Democrats right now, it’s the imperative of being a strong and vocal opponent of this Administration and clearly articulating a political agenda.
BuzzFlash: There was a poll the other day that the more people knew about about the Patriot Act, the more they opposed it. But there’s very few senators who are going to stand up and, in essence, educate the American public about how UNPatriotic the Patriot Act is and about how unConstitutional it is. The Republicans seem to have a lock once again on defining what something is – falsely, that is – and the Democrats roll back and go, oh, gee, well, we can’t oppose the Patriot Act. We’ll be branded as unpatriotic. It's tragically ironic for America.
Getting back to your biography, what kind of accommodations did Wellstone have to make as a populist professor who got elected to the Senate? He didn’t go through the normal apprenticeship of being the mayor, and then the state rep, and then a lieutenant governor or whatever. He just kind of went right to the Senate. What was that like for him?
Bill Lofy: What’s interesting is that Wellstone was able to make a distinction between disagreeing with a policy, in the context of a policy debate, and not liking people personally. He recognized that he could become friendly, if not friends, with members of the other party, and with other Democrats who he might not have always agreed with – but also play a very active role.
Interestingly enough, in many of the debates that he had on the floor of the Senate, in some very, very tough debates against Republicans and sometimes Democrats - after the debates were over, he would walk up to the other person, and the other person would walk up to him and pat him on the back and say,“You really did a great job in that debate.”
When Wellstone first went into the Senate, he said, my job is not to get involved in doing backroom deals with Jesse Helms, and my job is not to make friends with people. That’s not why I was elected. Well, it turned out that people in Minnesota actually needed him to make friends with people. They needed him to be someone who could get along with his colleagues, because they needed him to be effective and deliver results for them. And that’s something that Wellstone recognized very early in his first term. Frankly, if he hadn’t, I don’t think he would have been reelected.
BuzzFlash: After his untimely death, you had people like Pete Domenici crying, and Jesse Helms was clearly upset. Those of us who observe politics can tell the difference when someone just kind of reads a formal statement, and when they’re really shaken up and feel the loss. Paul Wellstone was an extremely well-liked guy by the other side. Once again, you have this thing where standing by your principle doesn’t mean defeat. You actually earn respect from it.
Bill Lofy: One of the things that Senator Mike DeWine - by no means a liberal – said after Wellstone’s death is that Wellstone might have been a liberal, but he ultimately was most concerned about getting results for people. And if that meant that he would work with Jesse Helms or with other members of the Senate who he disagreed with 99% of the time, then he was going to do it. And those opportunities don’t just fall into your lap. Wellstone sought those opportunities out.
He went and looked for ways in which he could collaborate with other senators. And frankly his greatest legislative successes came from his work with Republicans – conservative Republicans. With Sam Brownback from Kansas he passed sex trafficking legislation that was a monumental achievement. There’s a long list of accomplishments. Wellstone often said that some of his best friends in the Senate were the people he disagreed with the most strongly. And I think that, at times, he had more in common with people like Jesse Helms, in terms of having the courage of his convictions than he did with some Democrats.
What Wellstone liked about Helms was the way that Helms treated the support staff, the custodians and other workers, the police officers and the other people working on Capitol Hill. Wellstone said that he always, always saw Helms treat them with dignity and respect, and went out of his way to recognize them. Of course, he was strongly opposed to Helms’ positions on issues. He took him on in floor fights and in committee and so on. But I think that says a lot about the humanness of both men.
BuzzFlash: In his campaign against Rudy Boschwitz, as it comes out in the documentary about him, there were two Jewish candidates – Wellstone, Boschwitz. Just before voting day, Boschwitz had this letter circulated that basically accused Wellstone of betraying the Jewish community. And Wellstone was just absolutely stunned by this. How do you fight back against that, to overcome that sort of last-minute attempt to smear you?
Bill Lofy: Well, in that case, the good news was that it was backfiring. The Jewish community was outraged. Boschwitz was saying that Wellstone was a bad Jew, in part, because he hadn’t raised his kids as Jewish and that he was married to a Christian. It ’s interesting how Wellstone responded. He was politically smart, and he knew that in a state that is 90 percent Christian, it didn’t hurt to remind Minnesotans that essentially he was being criticized for marrying someone with a similar background as theirs. Overall, the way that he responded was by trying to trust the intelligence of the people of Minnesota.
But what was interesting was that in 1996, the Friday before the election, Boschwitz had a press conference, accusing Wellstone of having burned a flag when he was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. It was a complete fabrication. There was no evidence of it. It never happened. And again, Wellstone’s response was, “You know, Minnesotans know better.”
BuzzFlash: In your biography, point out that Wellstone’s populist beliefs, his liberalism, stemmed from many of the lessons he learned as being raised Jewish and in a family that certainly recognized it was Jewish, that recognized Jewish discrimination against Jews. And this was a very strong part of his identity.
Bill Lofy: Exactly. Wellstone felt that part of being Jewish was being a part of the fight for justice. That was an intrinsic part of who he was. And while he wasn’t a practicing Jew, his passion was very much informed by his upbringing.
BuzzFlash: He recognized himself as Jewish. He just didn’t go to services
Bill Lofy: Yes, that’s exactly right. He absolutely identified himself as Jewish.
BuzzFlash: Now the final question is this: we’ll say these words so you don’t have to say them. Norm Coleman, the Bush water boy who replaced Wellstone, has a sketchy marriage and not a model home life, so to speak, according to Garrison Keillor. His wife lives in California, for starters. It's another case of Republican "family values" hypocrisy. And yet, here we have the Wellstones who were possibly the most committed, closest couple in the Senate. Did you just want to comment a bit about their relationship?
Bill Lofy: What was interesting about the Wellstones’ marriage was that, despite the fact that Wellstone was a very unconventional politician and unique individual, he and Sheila he also had the most traditional of marriages in many ways. They were high school sweethearts. They rarely left each other’s side. They were always traveling together. They were known to walk either the halls of the Capitol or the Senate building hand in hand. When they would go out to dinner, they would usually sit on the same side of the table, even if they were dining alone, so that they could be close to each other.
They had an extraordinary partnership, an extraordinary marriage. We knew that the Republicans were always trying to dig up dirt about Wellstone, and I’m sure they thought they’d find something. He’d been, in their view, a radical organizer in the sixties and seventies. They never could. Wellstone led a very, very conservative life. Never smoked marijuana ever in his life. Rarely drank. Was fanatical about staying in shape and exercising. And he and Sheila were really the model of a great marriage and great partnership.
BuzzFlash: I recall in the movie about him – the documentary – that someone saw him in an airport in Washington and he was smiling. And they said, "Paul, what are you so happy about?" He said I just can’t wait to get home and see my sweetie. And the person said, you know, it just struck me that anyone at that age, after being married, twenty-some-odd years, and, you know, they call their wife "sweetie" and just can’t wait to get home to see her – that’s some marriage.
Bill Lofy: It was indeed.
BuzzFlash: Bill, thanks so much for your time.
Bill Lofy: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Paul Wellstone: The Life of a Passionate Progressive, is available from BuzzFlash.com.
Minneapolis Star Tribune's Wellstone archive: http://www.startribune.com/stories/1752/