Mourn But Don’t Mythologize
Comment on the Death of Paul Wellstone
by Sunil K. Sharma
October 28, 2002
Since the tragic and untimely death of Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota in a plane crash last Friday, tearful remembrances have poured forth in articles and commentaries across the nation, especially in left liberal media publications.
Senator Wellstone was widely regarded as an outspoken progressive in the Senate, a tireless voice for the “little fellers, not the Rockefellers” of America. (Minnesota Star Tribune, October 26, 2002) His death “silenced one of the strongest voices for minority members and progressives” in the halls of power, giving them “pause about who will champion their interests in the inner circles of party leadership.” (Minnesota Star Tribune, October 28, 2002)
Wellstone was also perceived by many to be a voice against George Bush II’s mad push for war against Iraq. This was evident at the massive anti-war protest I attended in San Francisco on October 26, the day after he died. Laments for the fallen anti-war hero could be seen in many banners and placards, and movingly heard in the oratories of the rally’s speakers.
In some quarters of the Left, speculations that foul play was behind Wellstone’s death are fast proliferating.
The following comment may sound rudely insensitive or even malicious, especially on the heels of Wellstone’s death, but this certainly is not my intent.
Immediately after the death of Richard Nixon, the mainstream press bent over backwards to overlook his many sins, and Tricky Dick was literally canonized over night. The whitewash was not the exclusive work of the Right, but included mainstream liberals.
The Left is not immune from this sort of thing either. John F. Kennedy, who launched the invasion of South Vietnam in 1961-1962, approved chemical warfare against South Vietnam --with a terrible human legacy that continues today, initiated the murderous Alliance for Progress in Latin America, backed military coups throughout the "third world" (or initiated what successors later finished), and signed off on fiscally regressive policies that favored the rich, is still romanticized by many leftists as a shining knight stolen from us by the dark forces of reaction.
The fact about Paul Wellstone is that he was not the great "progressive" many liberals and leftists made him out to be, and as post-death commentaries are amplifying. He may have been pretty liberal in the context of the American ruling class, but given the extreme rightward drift in the US over the last 30 years (where a scumbag like Nixon is lamented by many as the last liberal president we've had on domestic affairs), that's not saying much.
Wellstone could have but didn't stand behind Senator Russ Feingold in opposing the USA Patriot Act.
Wellstone supported the war against Afghanistan.
His opposition to the looming war on Iraq was qualified and essentially unprincipled. He thought the US shouldn't act unilaterally; the implication being that if the UN supports American aggression -- which is very likely -- then the aggression would be justified:
"We should act forcefully, resolutely, sensibly -- with our allies, and not alone -- to disarm Saddam." "Authorizing the pre-emptive, go-it-alone use of force now, right in the midst of continuing efforts to enlist the world community to back a tough new disarmament resolution on Iraq, could be a costly mistake for our country." (Jewish Telegraph Agency, October 17, 2002)
He was a strong supporter of Israel, and had "signed or co-sponsored various congressional letters in support of Israel." (ibid)
"The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group, has told its members that Wellstone voted the pro-Israel position on 20 of the last 21 votes they rated. The lone exception was a 51-49 vote that broke down along party lines." (Minnesota Star Tribune, October 20, 2002)
Wellstone betrayed his early 1990s pledge to fight for a single payer health plan after being cowed by Hillary Clinton.
Wellstone was certainly an important voice of opposition to Clinton/Bush's Plan Colombia, the $1.3 billion US aid package to the Colombian death squad government, and he has been decent on other issues, but in the aggregate Wellstone could not be described as a "progressive" unless the term now merely refers to liberal. (see Steven Perry’s “The Seduction of Paul Wellstone,” Mother Jones, Jan-Feb. 2001, for more details)
The point is that it serves no useful purpose to inflate or misrepresent a person's legacy. Effective popular action requires a sober analysis of actual reality. Lionizing or mythologizing a political leader (or any individual) is potentially disempowering. It lends itself to the mistaken notion that positive change can come from "good" leaders, rather than what historically has been the source of positive change: ALL OF US, working together, creating and snowballing a popular movement.
One writer's comments on IndyMedia sums it up best: "If you want to mourn Wellstone, do so because another human being died a needless death--NOT because he was some kind of champion of Progressive politics, which is increasingly becoming a non-existent entity within the US political establishment itself. The only champion of Progressive politics you will find is within yourself--or not at all."
"Moreover, if you want to mourn Wellstone because you believe that he died under shady circumstances which deserve to be fully investigated, then do so. Indeed, this aspect of the story is one which deserves to be examined more fully as it obviously has great political ramifications in terms of political control of the US federal government--rather than a whitewashed eulogy of Wellstone's political career and politics."
And so as we organize and struggle in these dark days to fight for peace and social justice, let’s do it with our eyes open and without illusions!