"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Modus Vivendi revisited

In October of 1990 I was seventeen years old and 1500 miles from home, embarking on my freshman year at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Although I would not be of age to vote in the coming election, I was swept along in the enthusiasm of new friends to attend a political rally in downtown Northfield. The candidate was a Carleton professor, on leave to make a longshot try at a Senate seat.

I had expected from the endorsements of my friends a god among men, a pillar of strength, a savior in a three-piece suit. I was disappointed when a small, balding elf of a man in jeans and a polo shirt bounded onto the improvised stage. What the hell? I wondered. This scrawny little guy is what everyone is freaking out over?

But then he spoke.

I did most of my growing up during the Reagan/Bush administrations, tucked away in rural Texas where Washington seems very far away and somewhat unreal, a strange fiction created for the evening news. The Reagan recession hit home, though, coming hard on the heels of the oil bust of the seventies, another blow to Texas' reeling economy. Things were always tight, but we had two cars that ran (most days) and a phone (with service), making us better off than many of my friends. And, of course, we had a television where the debacles of Grenada and Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, played out. I watched the Iran-Contra affair bloom and nuclear proliferation run rampant. I watched a health problem turn into a health crisis while our fearless leader deemed one word to profane to pass his lips: "AIDS".

The adults in my life were Democrats. After watching the 80s stagger past, I thought I understood why.

There aren't a lot of Democrats in rural south Texas these days, and one of the reasons I went to a rally for a candidate I couldn't vote for was the novelty of being surrounded by like-minded people. I didn't particularly care about politics, as I was too young to vote and had absorbed the message--true where I grew up, but not in my new home--that being a Democrat was an exercise in futility.

Paul Wellstone changed that, in the space of an hour. He spoke about the power and necessity of grassroots organizing, about ways ordinary people far from Washington can get Washington's attention, about creating a common voice loud enough to drown out corporate and special-interest lobbyists. He told us about the wretched state of health care in our nation, and the declining state of education. Voting is only the beginning, he warned us. After the election must come accountability.

He was relentless, fiery and inspiring. He did not shy away from hard truths about the worst face of our society, and he would not allow us to shy away from them either. He made us realize that we must know what is really happening before we can even dream of changing it. He encouraged us not to just take his word for it, but to go find out for ourselves, to probe beyond the nightly news soundbites for truths that might horrify us, but must be brought out into the light of day.

I finally got to vote two years later. I remembered, and tried to be an informed voter. I believe I have gotten better at that as the years passed. Four years after that, out of college and working contract jobs with no health insurance, I finally got to vote for Wellstone. It was 1996, and I voted Democrat for President and Senate, and Green Party for the House, due to certain conflicts of values I felt with our (Democratic) congressman. I voted my conscience that day, but I've voted for the lesser of two evils ever since.

Until today.

Wellstone was taken from us too soon, and this year's Democratic presidential candidate was not my first choice among the men who vied for that nomination. But the same congressman from 1996 is still on the ballot and a candidate much more to my liking got the Green Party endorsement to run against him. He got my vote today. He got my vote because as I lifted my pen to vote the party line I remembered Paul, and how he always insisted that change begins with us. The little people, the voters, the dissatisfied masses. I am not, have not been, satisfied with my congressman. Perhaps, when he sees whatever small number of votes went to the Green candidate in the newspaper tomorrow, he will take a moment to wonder why we didn't vote for him. Perhaps I'll write him and ask.

Voting, after all, is only the beginning.

"Paul Wellstone was the soul of the Senate.He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known.He was a gallant and passionate fighter, especially for the less fortunate.I am grateful to have known Paul and Sheila as dear and close friends.Their deaths are a shattering loss to Minnesota, to the nation, and to all who knew and loved them."
U.S. Senator Tom Dashle
October 25, 2002

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