Paul Wellstone, R.I.P.

A Gopher State plane crash leaves the Senate a duller place.


Paul Wellstone is dead. The Democratic senator from Minnesota was, until today, in a tight race to keep his Senate seat. Now he's an ex-senator, ex-Democrat, ex-everything.

When someone powerful dies, men and women who hated the deceased and everything he stood for can be counted on to proclaim him a long-beloved comrade. So I want to make it clear when I write this that I am not merely muttering a postmortem platitude: I really will miss Paul Wellstone. Not because I liked his politics (I often didn't), and not because I liked him personally (I didn't know the man). I will miss him because he was one of the small handful of national politicians who regularly based his decisions on principle rather than political expediency. I will miss him because he stood well to the left of almost all of his colleagues, a rare maverick in a town full of centrist company men. And I will miss him because of the terrible way he died: with his wife, his daughter, three campaign workers, and two pilots, all killed when their plane crashed in the Minnesota snow.

Wellstone's independent ways may have been out of place in the Senate, but they had a following in his home territory, the same state that gave us Jesse Ventura, Eugene McCarthy, and the Farmer-Labor Party. With Wellstone dead, the Washington landscape looks even bleaker. This year alone, we've lost three eccentric congresspeople: the populist rogue James Traficant, the black leftist Cynthia McKinney, the right-wing constitutionalist Bob Barr. In the state houses, both Ventura and the nation's other libertarian-leaning governor, Gary Johnson of New Mexico, are seeing their terms expire. And now Wellstone too is gone, in the saddest way possible.

No, he wasn't an angel. He was elected promising to serve just two terms, then reneged when he came to the limit. He voted for last year's awful USA PATRIOT Act, precisely the sort of issue where you'd expect a '60s veteran to be sound. He… well, let's not speak ill of the dead, especially when the transgressions I'm listing are the sins virtually everyone in government commits.

Instead, let's think back just a couple of weeks, when Wellstone voted against Bush's Iraq war resolution. It was a risky move during a close election, but it was proof that, for all the inevitable compromises he's made over the years, he was willing to give his conscience its due. Few others in Washington can say that.