Monday, October 28, 2002

As I read the eulogies to the late Senator Paul Wellstone, I notice an odd absence: there seems to be precious little of what one would normally define as, well, praise. Here's a typical one, from Mickey Kaus: "He wasn't a poser, a trimmer, a schemer, a dissembler, a self-aggrandizing egomaniac or a vicious infighter." Joshua Micah Marshall: "Most successful pols are steely operators. Not a few act serious, without at all being serious, but are rather jokes and whores. Or if they're first-rate men or women they've long since gotten gated-off behind walls of flacks, caution and self-protection. Paul Wellstone just wasn't like that." And these are liberals (albeit somewhat centrist ones).

Now, part of the problem is that Wellstone didn't leave a spectacular legacy of public-sphere accomplishments. The encomia from several leftist allies of his at Mother Jones, for example, attest mainly to his personal warmth and his various quixotic political stances, apparently lacking a concrete achievement to celebrate. That's not intended as a criticism; being mourned as a beloved husband and father, dear friend to many, and general exemplar of integrity to all is in itself the kind of high honor to which anyone ought to aspire. It's just that one might expect members of the most exclusive club in the world to be associated with a somewhat lengthier list of specific acts of heroism, leadership, or generosity, especially if they are being widely and publicly mourned as outstanding men.

An obvious explanation for all the accolades is implied in Marshall's observation: Wellstone's decency was in itself a rare, and hence outstanding, accomplishment for a politician. But there must be more to the story--after all, politics is hardly the only profession known to attract a disproportionate share of creeps. Yet we don't see, say, CEOs of large corporations, Hollywood celebrities or rock stars receiving fulsome posthumous praise, despite a lack of notable achievements, simply for having been known to friends and family as sweet, fuzzily huggable all-around princes. Why, then, does a merely non-reptilian politician inspire such enthusiasm?

I think the answer lies in the popular mythology of (small-d) democratic politics--the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" ideal of a politician-as-ordinary-person humbly representing his fellow citizens in the halls of the powerful. CEOs and showbiz types are expected to be vain and ruthless more or less as a job requirement; but the slimeball politician, despite his ubiquity, is somehow seen as a disturbance in the natural order of things.

Perhaps this illusion is a necessary one, in order to prevent voters from losing faith in democracy altogether. (Then again, few abandon either capitalism or pop culture upon discovering its heroes' warts.) But even among those willing to recognize that the late Sen. Wellstone's principled personability and his political ineffectuality might have been related, it seems that not one of them is ready to concede that politics is no more about principle than is tycoonhood or stardom, and that it, no less than commerce or entertainment, is a vehicle by which the morally empty can still (under the right regime of constraints) play a useful role that benefits society. Instead, everyone hopes, searches, naively, desperately, for that absurd chimera: the brilliantly effective politician who's as honest, straightforward and principled as the late Paul Wellstone.

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