Friday, January 14, 2011

Paul Wellstone and the 1991 Invasion of Iraq: 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago today, President George H.W. Bush ordered the U.S. military to begin air strikes against Iraq. When the vote authorizing the president to go to war came before Congress just days after being sworn in, newly elected Sen. Paul Wellstone courageously voted against it.

I was the first journalist to interview Wellstone after his historic upset victory over Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, and the following article--much of it focusing on the war--originally ran in the March 1991 issue of the Progressive magazine. It was part of a special anti-war issue the magazine put together, and my byline was featured there alongside the likes of Noam Chomsky, Daniel Ellsberg and Philip Berrigan. Of the hundreds of articles I've written over 30-plus years, this remains among my favorites.

An Interview with Paul Wellstone

By Karl Bremer

Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, a political science professor at Carleton College, was elected to the U.S. Senate last November in a stunning upset. He ousted twelve-year veteran Rudy Boschwitz, a conservative Republican, who was the only incumbent Senator to be defeated.

Wellstone’s campaign defied conventional wisdom. The forty-six year old activist began his drive for the Senate two years ago with a résumé that made old-line party leaders cringe: twice arrested for civil disobedience—once to oppose the bombing of Cambodia, once to support family farmers facing foreclosure; co-chair of the Minnesota arm of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 Presidential campaign; organizer of farmers and rural citizens on issues ranging from poverty to power lines; never before elected to public office.

With a populist-style grass-roots campaign, Wellstone handily beat back a host of more conservative challengers for the Democratic nomination. Outspent seven-to-one by Boschwitz in the general election, Wellstone ran a campaign fueled less by money than by the enthusiasm and dedication of a statewide army of volunteers. When the votes were tallied, people won out over money.

A dilapidated old green-and-white school bus was his campaign vehicle, a symbol of his down-to-earth campaign, and he rode it to Washington after the election.

Once there, he wasted no time in making known his views on the Persian Gulf. At a reception for newly elected members of Congress in December, he proffered his advice on the matter to George Bush several times, much to the President’s annoyance. Following his swearing-in by Dan Quayle, Wellstone presented the Vice President with a tape recording of a town meeting on the Persian Gulf, one of a series Wellstone conducted throughout Minnesota after the election. The tape features comments—predominantly critical—from citizens, many of them veterans, concerning the Administration’s lust for war.

When it came time for Paul Wellstone to make his maiden speech, it was January 10, and the debate was on the resolution authorizing war:

"This is not the speech that I wanted to give," he said. "I wanted my first speech to be about children and education, about health care, and about a credible energy policy and the environment.

"I never thought that the first time I would have an opportunity to speak in this chamber the topic would be such a grave topic: life and death . . .

"Town meeting after town meeting after town meeting, citizens would stand up, quite often a Vietnam vet, point a finger at me and say: ‘Senator, how many of the Senator’s children are in the Persian Gulf?’

"And I would respond this way. I would say, ‘I’m a son of a Jewish immigrant from the Soviet Union, and if I believed that Saddam Hussein was a Hitler and that we must go to war to stop him . . . I could accept the loss of life of one of my children, ages twenty-five, twenty-one, and eighteen.

"‘But this is the truth. I could not accept the loss of life of any of our children in the Persian Gulf right now, and that tells me in my gut I do not believe it is time to go to war. And if I apply this standard to my children, then I have to apply this standard to everyone’s children. I have to apply this standard to all of God’s children.’"

Senator Wellstone and I spoke in St. Paul on December 27, 1990, two days before he left for Washington. In late January, after the outbreak of war, he answered a few more questions.

Q: What kind of Senator did Minnesotans want to send to Washington when they elected Paul Wellstone?

Paul Wellstone: I think it’s an unusual mandate. Even people who didn’t vote for me, I see them in cafés and they shout out, "Don’t let ’em get you down in Washington." Or, "Give ’em hell in Washington." And I think what all that means is, number one, people do expect me to rock the boat. I think people expect me to be outspoken. And I think people expect intellectual honesty. I think people expect me to be honest about my positions on issues, willing to bring conviction to politics. I think people also want discipline.

That first dynamic—to be your own person, speak your own mind—comes from people all over the political map. It comes from people who don’t necessarily agree with me on specific issues. I think people would be very disappointed if I went and served an apprenticeship and dutifully built up a résumé there in the Senate, and then became a kind of consummate insider politician. There is a real role for people who are good at that, but I think people would be disappointed in me. That’s not what they’re expecting.

There are high expectations when it comes to a personal code of conduct. I think people don’t want to see me amass a huge war chest. They expect to see me staying away from the corrupt mix of money and politics, and I think people expect to see me lead the way in campaign reform.

Then the final thing I think people expect is that, since this was an unabashedly progressive campaign, I think people will expect me to be a stalwart progressive in the Senate.

Q: You’ve promised not to serve more than two terms, haven’t you?

Wellstone: Yes, but not during the campaign; I want to point that out. And I don’t actually support that as a matter of public policy.

Q: Then you wouldn’t support mandatory limits?

Wellstone: As a matter of fact, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I think it’s a technical fix. The problem is the way in which money has come to dominate politics and subvert democracy. The problem is that the system is wired for incumbents. The problem is there’s no level playing field. But the answer is to that set of problems is not a fixed term. People should have the right to re-elect someone for a third term if that’s what they believe. And the people also should have the right to throw the rascal out.

Q: What are your ideas for campaign reform?

Wellstone: I want to see the link broken between wealth and political power. I think we should move away from private money. I think there should be a system of public financing. I think that television and the media should be required to devote x amount of time to debates and we should require in turn that candidates take part in those debates.

Q: What’s first on your agenda?

Wellstone: First and foremost, my goal is to be part of a citizenry that opposes war in the Persian Gulf. That’s the first thing. War will define the whole decade of the 1990s in an awful way. Everything for me right now—from these town meetings to the writings I’ve done to conversations in Washington—is the question of life and death, war and peace, that stares me in the face.

Q: Would you oppose a resurrection of the draft?

Wellstone: Yes, right now I sure would. Because it becomes part of making the case for war when I don’t think such a case is credible.

Q: What are your first choices for committee assignments?

Wellstone: The first committee I list as being far and way most important to me is Labor and Human Resources, for a whole range of obvious reasons. The agenda that deals with children and education—this is the committee from which that kind of legislation emanates. The same thing can be said for health care and a national health-care program.

And at these town meetings I’ve talked about the Energy and National Resources Committee. I would really like to serve there because I think that, in light of what’s happened in the Persian Gulf, this country must formulate, develop, and implement a credible national energy policy.

This is an area I’ve done a lot of work in. I see for the future a soft-path energy policy—safe energy, efficient energy, renewables, not coal, not nuclear, not oil. And I also see all sorts of possibilities of linking energy and environment and economic development. [Senator Wellstone has been named to both these committees.]

Q: What do you think of the President’s energy proposal?

Wellstone: It sounds awful. First of all, it sounds like an environmental disaster. To try and push for more off-shore oil drilling is, I think, just outrageous. Second, the effort to rekindle or remake the case for nuclear power is sadly mistaken. It’s hugely expensive, an economic boondoggle, and the health-and-safety issues have not be resolved. I will tell you, the bottom line is that until anybody can show what you do with nuclear waste, you can’t build nuclear plants any more. Period.

That’s my test.

I just don’t happen to think that the alternatives are oil, nuclear, and coal. It’s as if we haven’t learned a thing about fossil fuels. It makes no sense. It’s as if there’s been no discussion of the greenhouse effect, no discussion of air pollution.

A credible energy policy must look hard at how we begin to redesign certain key sectors of the economy. For example, agriculture really can’t continue to be such a petrochemical industry. It’s a dinosaur. There’s a real future for sustainable agriculture. And transportation—agriculture is the second most wasteful energy sector; transportation is the first. I mean, it’s a marriage made in heaven to start thinking about mass transit, a national rail system, from the point-of-view of the environment, of safe energy, of physical infrastructure, jobs, you name it. And I would also argue that in the industrial sector of the economy, there’s so much that we can do by way of redesign. I think the Bush energy program is just more of the same of what we did in the 1980s, which is outrageous, a huge disappointment.

Q: What are your other legislative interests?

Wellstone: I’m interested in small business. A lot of my work has been in farm and rural areas. I lived in Northfeld for twenty years, and I have a very healthy respect for entrepreneurship and small businesses. I think that small businesses are a little bit like family farmers—everybody loves them in the abstract, but public policy in terms of access to capital at reasonable terms is not there.

And I’m interested in Indian affairs, which is not a committee people always want to serve on. It involves a lot of controversies and, if you do the right thing, that’s not usually the political-majority thing to do.

I want to use my position to empower people back home. What that means is I don’t want this to be the end-all—that I was elected. I want this to whet the appetite of people in the state of Minnesota, especially the progressive community, for much more. Not only did we defy the odds. I think we also turned conventional wisdom on its head about who gets to run, who’s mainstream, who can win.

I want to—when I’m back in the state, which will be quite often, or when I travel to other parts of the country—meet with people with whom nobody meets. The people who are the most shut-out of politics. I’m going to do a lot of that. It would be easy to just come back and meet with people who are already in the political orbit, but I really want to expend dramatically the circle of people I meet with. The Indian community would be one example.

Q: Whom do you rely on for advice and information?

Wellstone: I’m going to be far more reliant on a staff that I ever have been in my life. With college teaching, you’re your own boss, you do all your own work. I didn’t have anybody to write speeches for me, until at the very end of the campaign. I’m not used to any of this.

In Minnesota, I brought a community organizing background to the Senate race, and we’re going to do that here in the state.

And I’m not excluding anybody. I spoke to a group of CEOs from large corporations after the election. A very successful meeting, everybody said. I enjoyed it because I didn’t have to do much to be successful—the expectations were low. I went in there to talk about economic performance, and people were relieved that I was interested in that.

But the point is, we’ll be meeting with lots of different people and that will be important. And again, I want to make it clear that the people who have been the most shut-out and have been struggling the most are people I most especially want to spend time with.

I also expect to develop from the beginning a close working relationship with a lot of public-interest groups outside of Congress itself. I’m not going to spend all my time on the Hill. My strength will be to present legislative agenda that is sweeping, that is worth talking about, that people can organize for.

Q: In what ways other than legislation will Senator Paul Wellstone effect change over the next six years?

Wellstone: I’ll be back here at home as a U.S. Senator traveling, speaking, organizing, and helping to provoke the hopes and aspirations of the people here and be part of building strong progressive politics in Minnesota.

And, obviously, over the next two years, there will be a very important and healthy debate about the Democratic Party and national politics, and where the political center of gravity of the Democratic Party should be, and how you win a Presidential race.

Q: When we spoke in December, you said you did not think President Bush had made the case for war in the Persian Gulf. You devoted your maiden speech in the Senate, in early January, to an eloquent argument opposing the resolution authorizing the use of force. Now that we are at war, have you changed your mind?

Wellstone: No, I haven’t changed my mind at all. I’ve had a sense of foreboding ever since November 8, with the massive troop buildup. I’m more worried than ever about the direction we’re heading.

Q: What is your response to those who insist that, since we’re at war, we must rally around the troops, around the President—in other words, just shut up and hope for an early victory?

Wellstone: I said at a town meeting way back in December that I would never make the mistake so many people made in the 1960s of attacking the men and women fighting the war, or attacking their families. At the same time, all the questions I had weeks ago before the outbreak of war, against the policy of war, I continue to have. And I continue to express my misgivings.

Q: Assuming, as I think we must, that the United States and its allies will win this war militarily, what happens in the post-war world?

Wellstone: I’ve tried to think and speak about the postwar world, and I don’t believe I see a New World Order, but rather a new world disorder, a primitive world order linked to violence. An opportunity to build some permanent structure to deal with problems in nonviolent ways is lost; we were unable to do that. I fear what the military solution will mean. I think that relying on the military and not giving economic sanctions and diplomacy a chance has scrambled the Middle East, will unleash forces there that are unknown and unknowable. Tremendous anger will be directed at the United States, Beirut writ large.

Finally, in a domestic part of the picture, we will have an Administration unwilling to fight any other war—the war against AIDS, the war against poverty, against illiteracy, against drugs. And I believe if we don’t fight those wars, we will see only further decline in our country, our economy, our society.


  1. What a tremendous loss. We've missed Wellstone's unapologetic progressivism in Washington and in St Paul. We read his answers to your questions and we see how far ahead of the curve he was.

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