Paul Wellstone always blazed his own path. A former championship wrestler, who grew in northern Virginia, he had wrestled at UNC, taking a BA and also a Ph.D. in political science. In 1969 he moved to Minnesota, taking a faculty position at Carleton College and becoming as well known for his liberal activism as for his scholarship (he had written a well-received book, How the Rural Poor Got Power, published in 1978). In 1990, Wellstone challenged incumbent Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz for the US Senate seat from Minnesota, defeating the incumbent by 37,000 ballots despite being outspent by almost $5 million.
Writing on Wellstone after the young senator’s emergence in 1991, Michael Barone observed that Wellstone wasrepresentative of a still-lively impulse in American politics, the spirit of student protest that blazed out in the late 1960s and, on some campuses at least, lives on in embers. Wellstone himself is a Rip Van Winkle, the spirit of Woodstock 1969 come back to earth. As a “rock the boat” professor at Carleton College, he taught nothing but the politics of protest and appeared at faculty meetings only when he was leading a group of students to protest something or the other.
Wellstone had been active outside of campus as well, leading protesters in support of a strike against the meat packer, Hormel; running for state auditor in 1982 (he lost); national committeeman to the DNC in 1994; and chairing Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign in Minnesota.
Wellstone’s campaign was unique. The campaign was run out of an old green school bus, which Wellstone would later ride to the capitol for his swearing-in. His quirky, humorous television advertising was compared to the cutting documentary work of Michael Moore (the architect of Wellstone’s advertising strategy would later help elect another wrestler to be governor of Minnesota -- Jesse Ventura). The campaign created an image that the incumbent Boschwitz was ducking Wellstone. The campaign was turned negative by Boschwitz, and eventually denigrated into a debate over who “was the better Jew.” The Minneapolis papers eventually broke towards Wellstone, as did the local vote, ousting Boschwitz and sending America’s first Sixties radical to the US Senate.
Wellstone was escorted down the Senate aisle to be sworn in by fellow Minnesotan and former Vice-President Walter Mondale. After being sworn, the new senator’s first act was to hand to Vice-President Dan Quayle a video tape of a Minnesota town hall meeting where voters spoke out against the looming war to retake Kuwait from Iraq. Most of Wellstone’s first few months in Washington were taken up with anti-war activism, whether it was lecturing the national security advisor Brent Scowcroft or leading protests. Barone observed in 1991 that Wellstone’s anti-war position “does seem to reflect impulses that are of some strength in Minnesota: the 1960s protesters now grow older, but not greatly changed in their attitudes, and the Farm-Laborites of the 1930s who were sympathetic to socialism on foreign policy.” Put another way, he was a lot like his late Minnesota predecessor Ernest Lundeen.
Wellstone, a hyper-energetic individual, had difficulty adjusting to the more deliberate pace of the Senate. The norms are tough on radicals and outsiders. By August his chief of staff John Fox Blackshaw quit in frustration, saying “[Paul’s] so lost. He’s desperately trying to find himself. He’s becoming everything he wanted not to become. And he’s found it a tremendous conflict in himself.” Wellstone’s approval rating at home crashed, causing him to have to work hard to reinvent himself.
The new senator started to exhibit pragmatism in his political career. Despite his anti-war sentiments, he was strongly pro-veteran and spent much of his career on Veterans’ Affairs, working to expand the scope and quality of benefits to vets. In 1996 Wellstone voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA); and in a reelection rematch with Rudy Boschwitz, the vote helped him with swing voters but upset gay and lesbian groups that thought they had a reliable friend in Wellstone. After his reelection, Wellstone sought to expand his national political profile, toward a possible presidential bid in 2000. he ended up not making the race, and instead through his support to Senate colleague Bill Bradley of New Jersey.
Despite his anti-war profile – Wellstone voted against both Iraq wars– he was not the anti-war liberal that he is made out to be. On every authorization on use of force sought by Bill Clinton, Wellstone voted “aye.” He voted for the use of force in Afghanistan after the September 11 2001 attacks, and Wellstone voted for the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (HR 3162). When Wellstone voted against the Bush administration’s effort to seek authority to invade Iraq on October 11, 2002, he confided to those close to him that he might have cost himself reelection.
The Iraq vote came up late in a highly contentious campaign. Wellstone’s opponent, Democrat-turned-Republican Mayor Norm Coleman of Saint Paul, had previously lost a three-way gubernatorial campaign to Jesse Ventura in 1998. Polls showed the two major opponents running neck-and-neck.
No one will know how a Wellstone-Coleman election would turn out. On October 25 2002, eleven days before the election, a Beech King Air carrying Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter Marcia, and campaign staff Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic, and Mary McEvoy, crashed short of the runway at Eveleth, Minnesota. Wellstone was flying to Eveleth for campaign events. He and his party were then was supposed to travel by car back to Dultuh, Minnesota. The flight took place in severe winter weather, with low visibility; IVR conditions prevailed. The NTSB investigation rejected a variety of explanations including weather, and instead focused on the performance of the flight crew of Richard Conry and Michael Guess. Conry had a controversial record of flight management and was deemed unsafe by some other pilots with the charter service (Aviation Charter, Inc.) while the copilot Guess was deemed to be of below average proficiency with a habit of not maintaining airspeed on approach. The craft had no flight recorder, so an exact reconstruction of the events leading up to the crash is not possible; however, the most likely explanation is that two pilots of questionable proficiency stalled their craft on approach in foul winter weather, leading to a fatal crash into trees two miles from the airport.
Wellstone was as controversial in death as in life. He was replaced on the ballot by former Vice-President Mondale. A memorial service for Wellstone, attended by 20,000 plus a variety of Democratic and Republican national figures including GOP leader Trent Lott and former President Bill Clinton, turned into a partisan rally where Lott and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura were booed off the stage (both left the event). Governor Ventura appointed independent Dean Barkley to fill out Wellstone’s term, and Mondale lost the general election to Norm Coleman.
The death of Paul Wellstone came with the crash of Mel Carnahan still fresh in the memory of political watchers. Conspiracy theories abound, focused mainly on Wellstone as an object of assassination because of his anti-war stance. Kevin Diaz, writing for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, observed that “when federal investigators released a report last month about the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, some members of Congress hoped it would dispel talk that his plane was sabotaged. It didn't.” Instead, the conspiracy theories that started within days of Wellstone’s crash took on new life.
Much of the talk of conspiracy found fuel in writings from Kennedy-assassination theorist James Fetzer. Fetzer dismissed most of the explanations that would subsequently be offered by the National Transportation Safety Board, including pilot error, and instead fixed on not-provable speculation:
Fetzer's articles have seized on the possibility of sabotage brought on by a futuristic electromagnetic pulse weapon that he said could have disabled the plane's computerized components. Evidence for this, he said in an interview, was the absence of any distress call from the pilots . . .
Long before the NTSB released a report discounting foul play, the internet had positively hummed with speculation. It had began within three days of the crash, as reporter Kevin Diaz documents:
In an Oct. 28 article published on an alternative journalism Web site under the title "Was Paul Wellstone Murdered?" Buffalo State College journalism professor Michael Niman wrote, "There is no indication today that Wellstone's death was the result of foul play. What we do know, however, is that Wellstone emerged as the most visible obstacle standing in the way of a draconian political agenda by an unelected government. And now he is conveniently gone . . . Niman's article was also followed by a number of similar pieces in the left-wing press, notably one by syndicated cartoonist and commentator Ted Rall speculating that Wellstone was killed so Republicans could regain control of the Senate. "Did government gangsters murder the United States' most liberal legislator?" Rall wrote in a column Oct. 29 . . . The column was followed by a piece by ex-Los Angeles police officer and journalist Michael Ruppert, who concluded in his political newsletter, From the Wilderness, that top Democratic officials are twice as likely to die in plane crashes as Republicans.
Who did it? According to Fetzer, it was a shadow government consisting of Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. But, as is often the case with such conspiracy theories, Fetzer offers no evidence.