I wasn't one of Paul Wellstone's many friends. As a journalist, I had to keep my distance. But it wasn't in Wellstone's nature to keep his distance from anyone.
I didn't know him well, but I felt as though I did, because every time I met him he spoke to me as if we were friends. It was only after he died that I began to suspect the truth: He was that way with everybody.
Everybody has a Wellstone story. Here's one of mine.
One fall day in 2000 I took my kids to a big event in downtown Minneapolis. I think they were 8 and 11 years old at the time. Sen. Wellstone was there, working his way through the crowd, and he recognized me from my job at the newspaper. When I introduced my son and daughter to him, he pulled their heads close to his, as though they were in a football huddle. I leaned in too, but he shooed me away. "This is not for you," he said. "This is for them."
So I stood at a respectful distance while a United States senator had a private conversation with my children. When it was finished, I asked my daughter, what was that all about? She looked embarrassed. Wellstone had told them their dad was a good man who did important work.
I don't know why he said that. Wellstone couldn't have known that I was going through a divorce at the time and feeling like a failure in a variety of ways, especially as a father. He just showed up with an act of kindness when I happened to need it.
I saw that side of him again a couple of years later, after my father died. Wellstone called and left a lengthy message on my voice mail. He'd seen the obit in the newspaper. His own father had died not long before, he said, and he understood what that loss was like. It was a tough one, and he was thinking of me.
Six weeks later he was dead, too, killed in a plane crash on his way to somebody else's father's funeral. In the outpouring of grief that followed, people talked the way they always do when they have a close connection to someone who has died. They describe their history with that person. And it seemed that everybody had a history with the Wellstones. I wanted to tell people about the time Wellstone met my kids, or about his call after my dad died. But there was no need. Everybody had a story like that.
Yes, people talked about his tireless opposition to the Iraq war and his singular advocacy on mental health issues. But they also talked about the time the Wellstones visited their school or their shelter. They talked about acts of kindness more than acts of politics.
After he died, they kept his green lawn signs in their yards and windows for weeks and then months, the way people used to wear black armbands to show they were in mourning. The lawn signs made the grief appear political, and some of it was. But I think a lot of it was personal.