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CNN Commentators Discuss Death of Senator Paul Wellstone

Aired October 25, 2002 - 14:11   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: CNN's Candy Crowley has been watching and listening and gathering her thoughts on Senator Wellstone as well -- Candy.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of the things that's been brought up time and time again over the course of Senator Wellstone's run for re-election this time has been that promise that you spoke of that Republicans made hay of. He said I'm only going to run for two terms. And one of the questions we put to him when we were up there was well, was it that you think that being a senator was a lot more fun than you thought it would be? And I wanted to share his answer with you.


SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE (D), MINNESOTA: To be able to help people, oh that -- I love that. I still believe in public service. Now, I've learned a lot. You know, I've learned a lot. I mean, I'll have to, when I go back to teaching, I'll have to give a refinanced to students for the two weeks that I taught about the legislative process in the American politics class. But I do believe in public service. And right now there are some really important battles and some really important fights that are going to go on that are going to have a lot to do with the quality or lack of quality of lives of people in Minnesota and the country. And certainly I'm engaged in that.


CROWLEY: And now for those who think that there might not be a personal side to public life, this is a shot of Senator Wellstone's office after his staffers have been told of this tragedy. They lost not just their boss and their senator, they lost as well some fellow staffers who were on that plane, three of them, along with the senator's wife. An incredibly hard time, as anyone who has been through a death of someone they're close to, can tell you. There is this disbelief that you're seeing now in the office. And a lot of real sadness.

I also wanted to point out, Wolf, one thing that's been touched on, and that is the fact that this does happen 11 days prior to a campaign that Senator Wellstone was working on very hard in a very tough election. The way we do read Minnesota law at this point is that the party chairman, the Democratic Party chairman in Minnesota, along with the secretary of the party there, can within four days of an election put a replacement in if there has been a death, which as we know in this case, there has been. But right now, most of the thoughts in Minnesota, certainly in that office, and certainly with us are just the sad personal loss of a man, his wife, his daughter, three of his staffers, and, of course, the pilot on that plane.

Senator Wellstone, again, locked in a very, very tough fight, very game. He had a lot of this picture that you're seeing now -- it was just from a couple of weeks ago -- a lot of union support for Paul Wellstone. He was seen as the man who stood up for the little guy. He had a lot of foot soldiers within the union.

In some ways, it was an interesting combination because here is this son of Russian immigrants, Jewish, very small, intellectual guy, and we just saw union leader after union leader, these big husky guys, all hug him and said, This is my guy, this is who talks for me. Very well loved among union members. He stood up for them a lot. And it was they he was counting on to bring out some of the foot soldiers that he needed to win this next election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Candy, before you became our senior political correspondent, you were our congressional correspondent. You covered the Senate for many years. And as much of a liberal as Senator Wellstone was, he often did get together with some of the more conservative members of the Senate in co-sponsoring legislation. I'm reminded in the year 2000, for example, he joined forces with Senator Sam Brownback, the Republican of Kansas, in co-sponsoring legislation, bipartisan legislation, obviously, that would prevent the international sex trafficking of women and girls, establishing the first ever penalties for those who would enslave and traffic in persons. I think it's fair to assume that even the most conservative Republican members of the U.S. Senate are deeply saddened with the word that Senator Wellstone has passed away.

CROWLEY: Absolutely. Because this is beyond politics here. This was a nice guy. And they all thought that. I mean, he was a congenial -- in a place where there's only 100 of you, it helps if you're congenial. Judy also mentioned that he had teamed up with Senator Pete Domenici, a conservative Republican, on the issue of mental health. And it's one of the things that off camera, when we weren't having an interview, Senator Wellstone just went off on and said, I really want to get this mental health bill, this parity bill, I really think we're close to it. And this was in the midst of his campaign a week ago. He said, I want to get back and I want to push that, because I think we're really close, and it's so important. So whether you were talking to him on camera or off, this was a man who was very into his job.

BLITZER: Candy, stand by.

Jeff Greenfield, I want to bring him back.

Jeff, you were just in Minnesota. He had his own health problems, as our viewers, many of our viewers, especially those who watched "INSIDE POLITICS" on a daily basis, will recall. Talk to us a little bit about that. JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN ANALYST: Let me first give you some news, Wolf. The Minnesota Secretary of State's Office has told us that they will shortly -- I don't know what the time element is -- be holding a news conference to spell out precisely what happens now in Minnesota. Candy alluded to the Minnesota law. Very quickly, you'll remember 12 years ago when the Republican candidate for governor stepped aside a week before the election, under the law, the loser of the primary was put on the ballot, Arne Carlson, and he won. They subsequently changed the law, and the Secretary of State's Office will be spelling out what happens.

As I said before, that may sound cold-blooded, but the fact is it is 11 days before an election which could determine control of the Senate. So in the midst of the personal grief that everyone I think feels for this, there are some very hard questions to be answered.

As to your question about the senator's health, it did not affect his campaign style. He walked with an occasional limp, but in terms of his energy level, multiple sclerosis can sometimes sap your energy level. There were no signs of any impact as far as that is concerned. There was no hesitancy, no loss of eyesight, none of the things that can happen in that terrible disease.

So he was in shape to run the last 11 days of this campaign. As we've heard, the polls were beginning to give him some good news. He had a modest lead after running behind early on. And I do not think that -- I mean, I suppose this is another one of those wretched ironies: People might have been looking to Paul Wellstone and saying, Well, how's his health?; his health was fine, and this dreadful intervention of fate, which, as Judy Woodruff said, so often seems to come up and strike our political leaders in the midst of a campaign, has simply struck again.


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