General 2-16-2004

Book Review: Cry Today, Organize Tomorrow

Dean Seal reviews "Twelve Years and Thirteen Days," a book of photos by Terry Gydesen and essays by Jeff Blodgett and Walter F. Mondale, on Paul and Sheila Wellstone. It's published by University of Minnesota Press.

Black-and-white photography is the right medium for news photographs that aspire to being about History. We are not swept away by color or by beauty, but only by The Thing that is happening in the shot.

In this book every picture has something happening.

The book walks along next to Paul and Sheila Wellstone on their first two campaigns, where they took on Rudy Boschwitz and Big Money and kicked ‘em back to the bank. It’s a great collection of action photos, showing the mouthy little wrestler walking up to everybody, and asking for their vote, and he is just Lit Up with the pleasure of human contact.

His Jewishness is evident in every picture, in his sheer pleasure in talking about ideas. His shortness is evident in every picture where he is looking up at someone, which is pretty much all of them. His co-Senator Sheila is basking in his reflected glory, you
think at first, and then you see she is watching every move, making mental notes for later. She would leave him notes in his lunches: “We’re going to win!” Here you see why they called them Senator Paul-and-Sheila.

When Bobby Kennedy got shot, a light went out. Attempts to memorialize him fell short, because he hadn’t quite gotten there yet. His family decided to found an award named for him, but they are given to people outside of the United States, and what Bobby stood for in his politics seems to have faded from the public eye.

When the Wellstone plane went down, a light went out. When the news came that his wife and daughter went with him, it was like three hard punches to the face. Over the next five days, I found myself bursting into tears again and again. The emptiness of the loss is in the last section of the book, where Gydesen hung out at the headquarters, covering the crippled, magic-marker election effort of Fritz Mondale.
When Karl Rove’s Butt Boy Norm “Hey Baby!” Coleman rolled into office, I wanted to crawl behind a log and hibernate for a couple years until all this went away.

Can we talk about good news now? Paul Wellstone’s legacy looks better every day. His sons were not the ones who were to inherit the mantle, but they picked up where their sister left off and helped rally people around Wellstone Action. People are being trained to organize the way Paul did, to beat money with shoe leather, to beat television with conversation, to beat a machine by being human.

Some of us are going to read his book this week, The Conscience of a Liberal, which he wrote in response to Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Maybe one of these days we won’t be such a bunch of chickenshits about being liberals, about defining that as people who think before they speak, who care about more than making money, who bring their conscience into the workplace. Martin Luther King Jr., ladies and gentlemen, was a liberal. And if I can plant myself between the Baptist minister and the Jewish Senator, I don’t have any problem making up my mind. I know what to do. I know where to go.

Here’s my favorite Wellstone quote: “Cry today. Organize tomorrow.”
Every year, Wellstone looks better, and Coleman looks worse. Paul represented people in nursing homes, people with chronic illness and no health insurance. Coleman represents Karl Rove. Flawlessly.

Senator Wellstone is buried about two blocks from where I live. When it was warm out, I kept going down there, to see the Senator. The grave is unmarked so far, but people keep showing up. There is an intense private grief to anyone making the pilgrimage. I have walked around that cemetery for years, because it is huge and beautiful and has lots of cool statues. But I have never, ever seen anyone in a wheelchair driving across the bumpy turf to go cry at a grave site before, and I’ve seen it here again and again. Who represents the wheelchair vote in this year’s Senate? Their Senator is gone.

Get this book, look at page 46. It’s Wellstone and Boschwitz after their first debate. Paul is cool, calm and collected, Rudy is scratching his head and wondering what hit him. Rudy was going to have that look on his face again. Paul knew what he was doing. He was doing Democratic politics. He was chatting up old women and back-slapping old men across the State of Minnesota. He loved the work, because he loved the people. Imagine, a politician that cares about something besides himself.

Paul could’ve left after two terms, gone back to Carleton, wrote more books, been a consultant. But he knew the Senate could be turning on a one-vote dime, and he just couldn’t bear to turn the keys over to Dick Cheney without a fight. The Republicans of this state spent a lot of time calling Paul Wellstone a liar, and look who they have for a President and a Vice President.

Look on this man’s face, and smile. Look at how his wife looks at him, and think of how Norm Coleman’s wife looks at Norm. Look at these pictures, and be refreshed. Look at Paul on Victory Night, and see that it is possible. Look at this big goofy smile on the back of that big goofy bus, and let it fill your heart with love.

Have a good cry. Then, go.