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In our age of blow-dried political gutlessness wrapped in an empty suit (I envision the Invisible Man wearing new threads and a toupe), Paul Wellstone was unique, maybe even the First Wonder of the Modern World – the man who consulted his conscience first, second and third whenever somebody asked for his vote. And what if his conscience was in conflict with his constituents? Why, he’d vote his conscience anyway.

Don’t believe it? Just look at his recent vote on invading Iraq. In spite of being in a tight, maybe even a losing race in Minnesota, where a vote in favor of war might have won him the election and deprived his Republican challenger a big issue, Wellstone didn’t care. “If it is against my conscience, it’s against the law,” a wise man once said. Paul Wellstone was wise as well as brave. He voted against the war.

As far as I’m concerned, every vote he ever cast was one I would have cast myself. Gun control, opposing the death penalty, supporting a woman’s right to choose, opposition to the so-called welfare “reform,” trimming defense in order to shift resources to people – Wellstone was my man.

No surprises there – this column ain’t called “LIBERAL AND PROUD” for nothing. What may come as a surprise, however, were the number of right-wing pundits, editorialists and other conservatives who were genuinely sad when they received the news of Paul Wellstone’s death. Sure, they all prefaced their comments with, “I may not have agreed with Paul Wellstone on many things, but …

The line-up of righties expressing these sentiments included such neo-conservative bulls as Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard and the hoary editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. You know if those guys say they admired Paul Wellstone, it must have been love.

You know why? Because despite obvious political differences, Paul Wellstone, through raw courage, exemplified one of the virtues touted by the right since the Constitution was signed – rugged individualism. But guess what? He was something else, too. When the speeches were over and the votes were cast, Wellstone was, well, a gentleman. Known and praised for his emphasis on Senate comity – the personal relationships that allow that august body to function – it is ironic that Wellstone, the most ideological of lefties in the Senate, was among its most decent and friendly servants.

Here’s why the foregoing obituary is necessary: Given the kind of man Paul Wellstone was – an acknowledged pillar of integrity – he would have likely been sickened by last night’s masquerade in Minnesota, disguised as a memorial service. Initially, I only saw part of the funeral service, and thought it would have been something that the late senator would have wanted. But what transpired later made many of those present uncomfortable. As conservative Minnesota Democrat Colin Peterson said, the event “was uncomfortable for us Norwegian Lutherans, but that is the Wellstone culture.” While I support that “culture,” and even a catharsis for his supporters, I cannot condone the booing of national political figures at a funeral.

Republican Sen. Trent Lott and Sen. Phil Gramm were actually booed by many of the so-called “mourners” at this service. These were men that Wellstone vigorously disagreed with, but was just as vigorously committed to working with in the interests of the country. Just as bad, Wellstone’s opponent Norm Coleman was also booed – a gesture that would never have even occurred to Paul Wellstone in a million years. That behavior was completely unacceptable, and I say that from experience – I have been booed at speaking engagements by Democrats for appearing on Fox News Channel.

The event was not scripted by organizers, and comments were not reviewed. Eulogizers were encouraged to speak from the heart about the senator. But the effect was the same regardless. Minnesota’s governor, the independent Jesse Ventura, a man who has no stake in either party’s little spats, actually walked out of the service, so offended was he at this eulogy-cum-political convention. Wellstone friend and Campaign Treasurer Rick Kahn went much too far in singling out Republican congressmen in attendance and asking them to campaign to put a Democrat in Wellstone’s seat.

For those who don’t like my moralizing, here’s a swift kick of Realpolitik – this truly was a blunder. That’s because this kind of behavior, so contrary to the spirit of Wellstone, has reportedly left a good many Minnesotans with a very bad taste in their mouths. And Walter Mondale, Wellstone’s ultra-qualified replacement on the ballot, now starts off with a wholly undeserved negative, i.e., something not of his own doing. The organizers of this event are to the Democratic Party what those dumbbell consular officials who approved the 9-11 hijacker’s visas were to this country – not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer.

And by the way: I’m no renegade Democrat on this one. No less a personage than Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone’s Campaign Manager, has already expressed “regret” over the fact that something sacred was transformed into something profane. “It probably would have been best not to get into the election,” he admitted.

I was proud to know Paul Wellstone. Those liberals and conservatives who knew him all agree that the man and his memory deserved better.

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