Paul Wellstone was the only progressive in the U.S. Senate. Mother Jones magazine once described him as, "The first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. senate." He was also the last. Since defeating incumbent Republican Rudy Boschowitz 12 years ago in a grassroots upset, Wellstone emerged as the strongest, most persistent, most articulate and most vocal Senate opponent of the Bush administration.
In a senate that is one heartbeat away from Republican control, Wellstone was more than just another Democrat. He was often the lone voice standing firm against the status-quo policies of both the Democrats and the Republicans. As such, he earned the special ire of the Bush administration and the Republican Party, who made Wellstone's defeat that party's number one priority this year.
Various White House figures made numerous recent campaign stops in Minnesota to stump for the ailing campaign of Wellstone's Republican opponent, Norm Coleman. Despite being outspent and outgunned, however, polls show that Wellstone's popularity surged after he voted to oppose the Senate resolution authorizing George Bush to wage war in Iraq. He was pulling ahead of Coleman and moving toward a victory that would both be an embarrassment to the Bush administration and to Democratic Quislings such as Hillary Clinton who voted to support "the president."
Then he died.
Wellstone now joins the ranks of other American politicians who died in small plane crashes. Another recent victim was Missouri's former Democratic governor, Mel Carnahan, who lost his life in 2000, three weeks before Election Day, during his Senatorial race against John Ashcroft. Carnahan went on to become the first dead man to win a Senatorial race, humiliating and defeating the unpopular Ashcroft posthumously. Ashcroft, despite his unpopularity, went on to be appointed Attorney General by George W. Bush. Investigators determined that Carnahan's plane went down due to "poor visibility."
Carnahan was the second Missouri politician to die in a small plane crash. The first was Democratic Representative Jerry Litton, whose plane crashed the night he won the Democratic nomination for senate in 1976. His Republican opponent ultimately captured the seat from his successor in November.
While an article in the New York Times on Saturday pointed out the danger politicians face due to their heavy air travel schedules, the death of a senator or member of Congress is still relatively rare, with only one other sitting U.S. Senator, liberal Republican John Heinz, dying in a plane crash since World War II. Heinz, who entered office as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, later emerged as a strong proponent of health care, social services, public transportation and the environment. He also urged reconciliation with Cuba. He died when the landing gear on his small plane failed to function, and a helicopter dispatched to survey the problem crashed into his plane.
One former senator, John Tower, also died in a small plane crash. Tower was best known as the chair of the Tower Commission, which investigated the Reagan/Bush era Iran/Contra scandal.
Another member of a prominent government commission who died in a small plane crash was former Democratic representative and House Majority Leader Hale Boggs. Boggs was best known as one of the seven members of the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The commission found that Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone when he killed the president. Boggs, it turns out, had "strong doubts" that Oswald acted alone, but went along with the commission findings. Later, in 1971 and 1972, he went public with his doubts. He was presumed dead after the small plane carrying him and Democratic Representative Nicholas Begich disappeared in 1972.
Texas Democratic Representative Mickey Leland also died in a plane crash. In his case, the six-term member of Congress and outspoken advocate of sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa, died while traveling in Ethiopia. Another American politician to die overseas in a plane crash was the Clinton administration's Commerce Secretary, Ronald Brown, whose plane went down in the Balkans.
Anyone familiar with my work knows that I'm certainly not a conspiracy theorist. But to be honest, I know I wasn't alone in my initial reaction at this week's horrible and tragic news: that being my surprise that Wellstone had lived this long. Perhaps it's just my anger and frustration at losing one of the few reputable politicians in Washington, but I also felt shame. Shame for not writing in my column, months ago, that I felt that Paul Wellstone's life, more so than any other politician in Washington, was in danger. I felt that such speculation was unprofessional and would ultimately undermine my credibility. In the end, my own self-interest triumphed, and I never put my concerns into print. Neither did any other mainstream journalist, though I know of many who shared my concern.
When I heard Wellstone's plane went down, I immediately thought of Panamanian General Omar Torrijos, who in 1981 thumbed his nose at the Reagan/Bush administration and threatened to destroy the Panama Canal in the event of a U.S. invasion. Torrijos died shortly thereafter when the instruments in his plane failed to function upon takeoff. Panamanians speculated that the U.S. was involved in the death of the popular dictator, who was replaced by a U.S. intelligence operative, Manuel Noreiga, who previously worked with George Bush Senior.
There is no indication today that Wellstone's death was the result of foul play. What we do know, however, is that Wellstone emerged as the most visible obstacle standing in the way of a draconian political agenda by an unelected government. And now he is conveniently gone. For our government to maintain its credibility at this time, we need an open and accountable independent investigation involving international participation into the death of Paul Wellstone. Hopefully we will find out, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that this was indeed an untimely accident. For the sake of our country, we need to know this.
Dr. Michael I. Niman teaches journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College.
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