Senator Paul Wellstone
A Small Tribute to a Great Man
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The tiniest bird on the planet, the hummingbird, is feisty and colorful and exuberant. This bird of superlatives also has the largest heart relative to its body size of any warm-blooded creature. Paul Wellstone, the tiniest man in the United States Senate, was its feistiest, most colorful and exuberant member. And the one with the warmest, biggest heart.
Many years ago, sometime around 1990, I watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a wire at my mother-in-law’s. Suddenly the tiny bird started twittering in an animated way. I looked in the direction its beak was pointed, and saw an adult Bald Eagle flying high overhead. The moment the eagle crossed into the hummingbird’s airspace, the tiny guy zipped up and started dive-bombing the enormous eagle, bonking him on the nape of his neck and his upper back. Now an adult eagle weighs on average a good ten pounds, fully 1600 times the weight of a 2.2-gram Ruby-throated Hummingbird. But that amazing, feisty bird kept at it, over and over, like a tiny Senator taking on the entire military-industrial-corporate complex all alone. And if the eagle didn’t seem to take notice of the little bird, that was hardly the point. The hummingbird returned to his perch, ready to take on the next cause just as courageously, just as certain about who he was and what he believed in as the lone holdout in so many 99-1 Senate decisions. The eagle who flew on, not even taking notice of his little opponent’s bravery, seemed diminished in my eyes, like the president in 1990 who, at a White House reception, was earnestly divebombed by a tiny newly-elected senator trying to voice his passionately-held views on that decade’s Gulf War. The president turned to an aide and asked, “Who is this chickensh--" . well, I'm not allowed to say on the air the word that he said to his aide, except that it had to do with poultry excrement and said mountains about the way most politicians treat genuine human beings who are speaking from their hearts.
Paul Wellstone was one of the most consistent pro-environment voices in Washington. Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote, “Paul Wellstone was an environmental giant, fighting to protect families from toxic pollution, to keep the air we breathe safe, and to keep our lakes and rivers clean. But it wasn't his consistent environmental votes that made him my hero - it was the depth of his convictions, his passion and his courage.”
There have been many reasons for people on every point on the political spectrum to grow increasingly cynical over the 30 years since I cast my first vote. I’ve paid close attention, and the only person I’ve always known would absolutely never cast a vote he didn’t believe in was Paul Wellstone. He was the genuine article, a hummingbird whose honesty and passion shone as clear and bright as sunlight on iridescent feathers. His quick, lively manner, enthusiasm, and genuine friendliness could never be mistaken for wimpiness—watching him work crowds and give speeches during this final, grueling campaign it was hard to remember that he was suffering from multiple sclerosis. He captured the essence of hummingbirds and the very best of humanity in his 5’5” frame. Shakespeare never saw a hummingbird in his life, but knew enough about the best of man to sum up Paul Wellstone, “His life was gentle, and the elements/ So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up /And say to all the world "This was a man!'”