Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


Maverick Senator Paul Wellstone Comes to Washington to Raise Hell—and George Bush's Hackles

Posted on

The White House invitation early last month was supposed to be a flattering introduction to power for the freshman Senator—a summons to a glittering reception and maybe some genteel banter with the President. But as Paul Wellstone, the newly elected Democratic Senator from Minnesota, grasped George Bush’s hand, the flashbulbs stopped popping around him. “A lot of people have been cut out of the loop because there hasn’t been a full-scale debate on the Persian Gulf,” Wellstone, 46, told the President, brazenly committing the Capitol offense of mixing politics with politesse. Nervous White House aides closed in and later advised the newcomer to cool it. Cooling it, however, is not Wellstone’s style. All in all he attempted to debate the Chief Executive three times during the evening, causing a vexed Bush to turn to another member of the Minnesota congressional delegation and ask, “Who is this chickens—-?”

Washington power brokers are not asking that question any longer. The wiry, 5’5″ Wellstone—the only 1990 Senate contender to unseat an incumbent—is Congress’s newest firebrand. He believes that desperate times call for unconventional politics. Upon meeting Dan Quayle at an early January affair, he handed the Vice President a tape recording of a Minnesota town meeting at which people had expressed their misgivings over the gulf buildup late last year. “I simply said, ‘I think you should listen to this tape,’ ” Wellstone recalls. “It was a tense moment, but I thought what I said was very appropriate.” Quayle did not respond.

Today he continues to question the wisdom of waging war against Iraq. “I support the families with loved ones over there,” he says. “But I’m worried about where this policy is taking us.” He said recently on the Senate floor: “We must not allow ourselves to become trapped in a deadly ground war…. Before the U.S. takes this fateful step, every effort must be made to develop and pursue [diplomatic] alternatives.”

A veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement, Wellstone has made a career of discomfiting people in high places. During two decades as a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., he was active in supporting striking Hormel meat-packers as well as farmers facing foreclosure. Last fall the little-known populist crisscrossed Minnesota aboard a rattletrap, green school bus as his anti-Washington, anti-big-buck campaign rallied voters against two-term Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. With Well-stone’s grass-roots savvy, abetted by critical miscues in the Boschwitz camp, the challenger won 52 percent of the vote.

The Senator still has the slightly befuddled manner of an absentminded professor. He never carries a wallet, for fear he might lose it. His curly brown hair is perpetually tangled. And until the campaign, he refused to dress in shirt and tie. Then, in a bid to look senatorial, he reluctantly bought four off-the-rack suits for $100 apiece.

The thriftiness is genuine, a legacy of Wellstone’s childhood in Arlington, Va. His father, Leon, a Russian émigré and frustrated playwright, worked as a writer for the U.S. Information Agency; his mother, Minnie, was a cafeteria worker. The younger of two sons, Wellstone was a pugnacious schoolboy. “By junior high I was a tough kid in a lot of trouble—fighting,” he says. Then he discovered wrestling. “Athletics saved me,” he adds. When he was 16, he fell in love with Sheila Ison, whose family had recently migrated from a coal-mining region in Kentucky. They were married three years later. The marriage has lasted 27 years, and he considers Sheila, 46, his closest adviser.

Wellstone completed undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill, in three years—working part-time to pay tuition—and went on to earn a Ph.D. in political science in 1969. He had dreamed of teaching at a public college in the South, where he had marched for civil rights, but Wellstone couldn’t find the kind of job he wanted. “I ended up going to Carleton against my will,” he says. “I thought it would be an elitist place.” Instead he found the small Minnesota college fertile ground for antiwar vigils and rallies. Over the years he attracted a loyal cadre of students, who then served as the core of his more than 10,000-volunteer campaign organization.

Outspent, about $7 million to $1 million, by Boschwitz, Wellstone relied on a secret weapon: humor. One TV ad was inspired by the movie Roger & Me; while a camera crew followed Wellstone from Boschwitz’s campaign headquarters to his Senate office, the challenger searched for his opponent, hoping to ask him to debate. Another ad depicted Wellstone as “Fast-Paced Paul.” who claimed that he had to talk fast because he didn’t have the money for longer commercials.

Wellstone’s high rpms, however, are more than a campaign stunt. Soon after he arrived in Washington, fellow Minnesotan Walter Mondale, now a lawyer, cautioned him to slow down. “You have six years,” he told Wellstone, “not six days.” But Wellstone has yet to take heed. From the moment he climbs out of bed at 7 A.M. for his daily jog, he is a wellspring of nervous energy. His $1,200-a-month town house apartment—with barbells in the dining area, newspapers and books scattered in every other room—is strategically situated just a minute’s walk from his Senate office.

While some of his colleagues in the Senate quietly complain about the low pay, Wellstone was delighted to discover that the $101,900 annual salary was over twice what he was making as a professor. On the other hand, the separation from his wife has been difficult. “He sounds like he is talking from the bottom of a well when he calls from his apartment—it’s so empty,” says Sheila, a high school library aide, who has taken an apartment with the couple’s younger son, Mark, 18, a high school senior. (Daughter Marcia, 21, is a senior at the University of Wisconsin, while elder son David, 25, is a Chatfield, Minn., farmer.) She plans to join her husband after Mark’s graduation.

Wellstone has promised Minnesota voters that he will fight for some hard-to-sell legislation: universal health care and child care, campaign-financing reform and a 7.5 percent surtax on big corporations to pay for the savings-and-loan bailout. But for now his main priority is to press for peace in the gulf. “It’s a somber time,” he says. “I don’t ever stop thinking about it.”

David Grogan, Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C.