Thursday, October 25, 2012

My Flight with Paul Wellstone (1944-2002)

This morning I read that it was the 10th anniversary of the death of Minnesota Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone in a tragic plane crash that also took the life of his wife and one of his children, as well as members of his staff and the plane's pilot.  You normally won't find me discussing anything remotely to do with politics on this blog, but I'll make an exception in his case.  I met him on an airline flight from Washington, DC to the West Coast in January 2001.  I had come to DC for a couple of days looking for work.  I was not successful in this endeavor and was returning to Los Angeles with my tail between my legs.  I noticed the gentleman sitting next to me in Coach looked familiar, but I couldn't place him at first.  Finally, I realized that I was sitting next to Senator Wellstone. 

I said Hello to him and was surprised to find that he was friendly and accessible.  He didn't seem to mind that I interrupted him reviewing the documents he brought on the flight to read, and actually seemed to welcome the company.  Now that I've worked in Washington, DC for several years, I can legitimately state that Wellstone's demeanor was as far from "DC" as you could imagine.  He was not fancy or ostentatious in his attire at all.  I recall he wore a plain dress shirt and tie and slacks that looked like it came off the rack in the department store.  It wasn't nearly as elegant or refined as the suits that is de rigueur for lawyers, lobbyists and elected officials in this town.  There is nothing wrong with dressing well--I like to dress in nice clothes for work everyday--but it was clear he wasn't trying to impress people with his appearance. 

What I remember the most was his kindness and sincerity and genuine modesty.  He did not seem like someone who was impressed with himself.  Now that I know more about his career in the Senate, all of these qualities helped epitomize what it truly means to be a public servant.  He asked what I was doing in Washington, DC.  I told him I was looking for work, but unsuccessful at it.  To my surprise, he asked if there was anything he could do to help me.  At the time, I considered myself much more conservative than I do now (I'm more of a moderate these days) and I remember saying "I'm not sure I'm the person you would want to help, because I think I'm on the other end of the political spectrum from you."  That didn't seem to deter him, because he still offered to help regardless of my political leanings at the time.  Senator Wellstone did not seem to be a judgmental person at all.  I remember he asked where I was from.  I told him I was from Los Angeles.  To my surprise, he talked about how he enjoyed his visits to Southern California through the years.  As someone who normally has people from the Mid-West or East Coast tell me how much they hate my hometown, I was pleased to see that the Senator didn't let popular opinion dictate his reactions to things.

When I learned of Senator Wellstone's death, I was actually on my way to visit DC again to check out law schools, which eventually led me to move the nation's capital and build a life and career here.  He had left a positive impression on me and so his death hit me hard.  He always seemed like someone who was real:  his sincerity and lack of pretense made him come across vulnerable and human.  Even though I only spent several hours with him on that flight, it was enough for me to come away feeling he was a genuinely good person. 

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