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The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda

The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda

by Senator Paul Wellstone
"Never separate the lives you live from the words you speak,” Paul Wellstone told his students at Carleton College, where he was professor of political science.

Wellstone has lived up to his words as the most liberal man in the United States Senate, where for the past decade he has been the voice for improved health care, education, reform, and support for


"Never separate the lives you live from the words you speak,” Paul Wellstone told his students at Carleton College, where he was professor of political science.

Wellstone has lived up to his words as the most liberal man in the United States Senate, where for the past decade he has been the voice for improved health care, education, reform, and support for children. In this folksy and populist memoir, Wellstone explains why the politics of conviction are essential to democracy.

Through humor and heartfelt stories, Paul Wellstone takes readers on an unforgettable journey (in a school bus, which he used to campaign for door-to-door) from the fields and labor halls of Minnesota to the U.S. Senate, where he is frequently Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott’s most vocal nemesis. Along the way, he argues passionately for progressive activism, proves why all politics is personal, and explains why those with the deepest commitment to their beliefs win.

Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
Wellstone promised to be what Washingtonians always say their city desperately needs: a colorful character. No one was disappointed. He still considers himself an activist, and his book reads like the work of an activist.
National Journal
A call to arms aimed at politically like-minded Americans, time and again The Conscience of a Liberal argues that a grassroots movement of progressives can defy the odds.
Washington Monthly
Wellstone relishes the role of the lonely hero taking on powerful bullies, and irritates his jaded colleagues with his stubborn stand on principles.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Minnesota Senator Wellstone opens this memoir with his attendance at the funeral service of archconservative Barry Goldwater. Wellstone was there because as a boy he had read Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative. Paradoxically, he credits his admiration for Goldwater's political integrity with providing the moral basis for his own liberalism. And he is very liberal, indeed. After reading this lucid and personal book, however, even those of opposite views would find it hard not to admire him. Wellstone presents two propositions. The first, that integrity in politics is essential, will be widely applauded. The second, that liberal political values reflect mainstream American values, will receive a mixed reception. At the core of this account is Wellstone's desire to mobilize voters to organize around issues he believes important to the country's well-being. The litany of societal problems addressed is broad and includes health care, education and testing, economic justice (welfare reform) and campaign finance reform. About each, Wellstone provides cogent and thought-provoking facts, figures and expert opinions, as well as personal stories that humanize the damage and loss of human potential he sees flowing from current public policies. He also offers solutions consistent with his view that government is capable of making a positive difference. The book is, for the most part, pleasantly free of partisan invective; his criticisms are generally oblique. Wellstone's 1996 Senate campaign adds drama. The only senator facing reelection who voted against welfare reform, he survived an extremely negative campaign, even by modern standards. Many readers will be glad he did. (May 22) Forecast: With millions of voters disappointed that their man barely (and, some would argue, unfairly) lost the recent presidential election, Wellstone offers reassurance that liberal values are still alive and well in Washington. As he tours New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with his home state, the senator will surely attract die-hard liberal readers with his concise but thoughtful tome. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An inspiriting call for active citizen politics from Minnesota Senator Wellstone, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal whose passion for participatory politics is as enlivening as a breath of fresh air and as heart-gladdening as all things generous, inclusive, and discerning have a way of being. Wellstone's is a politics of compassion, in pursuit of "affordable child care, good education for children, health security, living-wage jobs that will support families, respect for the environment and human rights, and clean elections and clean campaigns," for he is a devout believer in electoral politics. His book is anecdotally rich, not in the manner of self-serving testimonials, but rather as examples of how politics can work on the local, personal level, outside the ridiculous folkways of the Senate floor, where issues give way to maneuvering. He is not content here to simply provide a laundry list of American governmental failures—many of which stem from economic injustices, in his opinion—but he endeavors to convey a sense of how grassroots organizing and participatory democracy ("the challenge is to make a place for all Americans at the decision-making table") can educate an electorate still firmly behind the Bill of Rights to demand action on all fronts, from true welfare reform, where market forces aren't left to tend the hen house, to agricultural subsidies going where they are most needed, rather than agribusinesses. He provides insights into the pathetic defeat of health-care reform, a sobering portrait of how the Senate works, and why stumping in the hustings is not just effective politics (his own campaign is a worthy example), but fundamental to democracy. Wellstone also has aremarkable way of making what sounds naïve in other mouths sound sincere and realizable from his: "Politics is not about money and power games. It is about improving people's lives, about making our country better." Running counter to the tide, Wellstone's progressive, populist voice is as rare and bracing as that of our national bird. Author tour

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University of Minnesota Press
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5.44(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt


I met Sheila Ison when we were both sixteen, on the beach at Ocean City, Maryland — a big high-school hangout place — right after the school year ended.

She is the daughter of Appalachian Southern Baptists. Her parents were from Harlan and Letcher counties, Kentucky — coal-mining families. When I first met them, I immediately thought of the song “Two Different Worlds.” They were half my parents’ age and completely different from them. Her grandfather, who was visiting when I first came to their home, even said after I left, “He is a nice boy, but he is a Jew. You wouldn’t want to marry him.”

But we were married just after turning nineteen. Sheila had been at the University of Kentucky, and I was at the University of North Carolina. I told my parents in December that I was very unhappy separated from Sheila and that I wanted to marry her. Almost everyone was opposed for obvious reasons, but not my father. As usual, he could see ahead. We were married August 24, 1963.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was a great place to be a student. The civil rights movement was exploding all around me. At first, I was hesitant to get involved, because of time. I was married, competing as a wrestler, taking an overload of classes (I graduated a year early), working, and a father at age twenty. There was no time for political activism.

Direct action is powerful. Sheila and I saw the sit-ins — men and women, black and white, young and old, asking to be served in restaurants and instead being beaten and arrested by police. It made you think. And it made you act. Ifound a way to be a foot soldier in this movement — not a hero, like my present colleague John Lewis from Georgia. But we helped out in whatever ways we could and became a small part of many of the justice struggles in Chapel Hill: civil rights, antiwar, antihunger, and antipoverty work.

I did my graduate work in political science at UNC and received a doctorate at twenty-four. But I had learned a great deal in a short period of time. I met many men and women who should be famous. They had little in the way of financial resources, but they were the ones who made history. Their courage, their ability, their love made our country better, not just for people of color but for all Americans. I learned from firsthand experience that ordinary people can be extraordinary and have the capacity to make our country better. I became a believer in grassroots organizing, in grassroots politics.

I came to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in September 1969, with the knowledge that individuals can change the world. I was determined not to be an outside observer but to use my skills as a political scientist to empower people and to step forward with people in justice struggles. If this sounds a bit too romantic, remember that I was only twenty-five. And yet today I still feel the same way!

We act on what we believe in where we live, where we work, or where we go to school. (I always feel the need to include students.) I organized on campus on many different issues. But most of my work was organizing with poor people in rural Rice County, Minnesota (population 41,000; 495 square miles).

First, I supervised studies of housing, health care, and nutrition needs. We identified needs but made no policy recommendations. It was controversial work. The college was not used to this kind of community research. And when it became clear that the data would be used by poor people for poor people, neither the county nor college officials were pleased. I remember one of many confrontations over this research. The then-president of Carleton said: “One would think that in good political science public-policy research, there would be a clear set of policy recommendations for the relevant decision-makers.” The untenured assistant professor — me — replied: “This isn’t for the politicians and the elite, it is for poor people that are affected by the problems. It is to help empower them to take action.”

This organizing work, which I will detail later in the book, combined with my activism on campus, was too much for Carleton College. After two years, I was given a one-year contract with a warning that I would be fired if I did not change. I didn’t change, and they carried through with their threat. It was a unanimous decision by the political science department, the president, the dean, and the board of trustees. I was given one year’s notice. When the dean called me into his office and notified me of this decision, I was shaken. Right away, I thought of Sheila and our three children. Where would we go? What were we going to do? I felt tremendous fear and guilt. This experience gave me a real feeling for why many people put up with so much and are so passive. You do not want to lose your job. You have to put bread on the table and prioritize for your family. That is why most people, as someone once said, are more concerned with making a living than with making history.

This firing came right after I had received the best student evaluations of all third-year teachers. Lucky for me, there was a student rebellion. Fifteen hundred students out of sixteen hundred signed a petition demanding that the decision be reversed. The 150 black and Latino students (most of whom were attending Carleton through a Rockefeller grant program aimed at ghettos and barrios) all signed a separate petition and were a major force on my side. The student paper, in spite of considerable pressure, carried many strong articles and editorials of support. And an older mathematics professor, Sy Schuster, stepped forward and said he would help me.

This was a yearlong fight. The students organized, poor people in Rice County came to my support, and Sy Schuster successfully challenged some of the ways the decision had been made. The college, under tremendous pressure, agreed to bring in prominent political scientists as outside evaluators. Their evaluations were great (much more than I deserved).

But at least some trustees remained in favor of firing me. Dean Bruce Morgan, who now felt I had been wronged, threatened to resign if the board did not reverse the decision and, most important, immediately grant me tenure. He argued that I, of all professors, needed the protection of tenure. The trustees acceded to his demand.

It was amazing. In one year, I went from being fired to being the youngest (age twenty-eight) tenured professor in the history of Carleton. I owe so much to Sy Schuster and especially to the students. As one student put it to me, “Paul, you taught us how to organize, and it was a pleasure to put it into practice for you!” Last year, I spoke at the twenty-fifth reunion of this class of 1974 that saved me. There was and still is a lot of love.

My students have had such a formative impact on my life and work. When Jeff Blodgett was a student in my class on community organizing in 1981, he was the only student I remember who was interested in electoral politics as a way to effect social change. The rest of the class believed that organizing people for power and direct action, as in the labor movement of the 1930s and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, was the only way to succeed. They viewed running for office as a waste of time. I sided with the other students against him!

Over the years, I came around to Jeff’s point of view, and nine years later he became the manager of my 1990 campaign. He again managed my 1996 campaign. It is a strange feeling to have your political life depend on former students!

My twenty years in Minnesota were a combination of teaching, writing, speaking, and community organizing. I traveled the state widely and was involved in most of the farm, labor, antipoverty, environmental, peace, and economic justice struggles. This rich experience gave me an appreciation of three critical ingredients for effective political activism: good ideas and policy, so that your activism has direction; grassroots organizing, so that there is a constituency to fight for the change; and electoral politics, since it is one of the ways people feel most comfortable deciding about power in our country. If I could will into existence another social movement like the labor or civil-rights movement, I would do so in a second. Indeed, my intuition tells me that the next social movement will be around the right of people to organize, bargain collectively, and earn a decent standard of living so that they can give their children the care and opportunities they need and deserve.

But we act with political purpose. We do not create the winds and the tides, the conditions that give rise to great social movements. So it is important to achieve power in other ways. And in a representative democracy, it matters whom we elect to office and hold accountable for public policy. Those who eschew electoral politics marginalize themselves.

I ran for the Senate because I wanted to use this position of power to make a difference. I wanted to go to Washington to fight for the people and causes I believed in. I wanted to travel Minnesota and the country to help empower people, to nurture and support organizing and citizen politics, to engage, energize, excite, and galvanize citizens to make our country better. This was my dream.

What finally put me over the edge was my experience with students. Quite often, I was invited to speak at high schools, and each time I asked students to take out a piece of paper and write down the first words that came to mind when I mentioned the word politics to them. Their comments were devastating: “fake,” “phony,” “corrupt,” “promises never kept,” “big money,” et cetera. Rarely was there a positive comment.

Copyright 2001 by Senator Paul Wellstone

Meet the Author

Senator Paul Wellstone grew up in Arlington, Virginia, and attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He was a professor of political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, for twenty-one years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. He and his wife, Sheila Ison, have three children and six grandchildren.

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