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The Lantern Bearer (Revisited)


John Bonnes

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Since this week was the 20th anniversary of Senator Paul Wellstone's death, I thought I might run one of my favorite columns, which I wrote to eulogize him.  I got quite a bit of feedback on it, and it mostly left me depressed, since many missed the point of the column.  Many readers who were critical of the column couldn't see beyond his politics, and even more sadly, neither could many of his supporters who praised it.  For me, the magic of Wellstone wasn't what he fought for, it was how he fought.  He made the impossible, possible and he inspired a generation to challenge their assumptions about the world and about themselves.  That's the lantern that he brought to my life.


The Lantern Bearer
10/29/2002

A Lantern Bearer's light went out this weekend.  

And the world grew darker.

We react to the infinite realities the world holds in a straightforward way.  We simplify it by choosing, consciously or not, which reality we care to embrace.  But whichever illusion we choose can also constrain us and too often turns into a shadow that we dare not challenge.

How do people react to you when you leave a room?  Do they laugh at you?  Some might.  Of course, some might admire you.  And some won't like you and some will and some won't give you a second thought, one way or the other.  Which illusion do you subscribe to?  And how does that shadow world modify what you say or do before you leave the room?  Illusions like that are everywhere.  And are so all-encompassing as to be invisible, like water to a fish.  

And then comes a Lantern Bearer, who holds up their light to the shadows and walks through them and takes us along.  They remind us that we created these shadows, and that we can dispel them.  We just have to pick up our lanterns, hold them out in front of us, and walk bravely forward.

Think your idea can never work?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think that which you care about cannot be achieved?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think you are alone in your passion?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  The world has room for you, your energy, and your passion.  Indeed, it desperately needs it.


A Lantern Bearer's light went out this weekend.  

And the world grew darker.  

Paul Wellstone's death left sizeable holes in our world in many ways.  An election, uncompleted.  A Senate, undecided.  A movement, leaderless.  A family, parentless.  

But the largest hole might be spiritual.  For a slice of my generation, he wasn't just someone who championed their political philosophy, but someone who reminded them of the joy and strength that flows from acting in a fundamentally moral way.  

"I lost my Kennedy." one friend told his wife this weekend.

His believers flocked to the Twins Cities and followed him to Washington.  They participated in a system that they otherwise might have disdained. And they watched him challenge the shadows.

Think an outsider can't change the system?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think voting your conscience will alienate you from the decision makers?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think a good man can't hold onto his convictions when clothed with the trappings of power?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

And then the believers started picking up their own lanterns.  


A Lantern Bearer's light went out this weekend.  And it happened the way it always seems to with lantern bearers.  Suddenly.  Tragically. Too damn early.  

And, of course, the world grew darker.

When a bright light is suddenly taken away, isn't that always when things are darkest?  But that, too, is an illusion. Time passes, the eyes adjust, and one starts seeing the other sources of light.

Because this Lantern Bearer's light has spread throughout this generation.  Some lantern bearers are trying to change how politics works.  Some are ushering underprivileged kids into college.  And if you look around, you'll find hundreds more have raised their own lanterns, found their own path, and chased their own shadows.   

Is it still too dark?  Sure.  So maybe it's time you picked up your lantern.

Think your voice won't be heard?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think you're powerless?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.  

Think YOU can't make a difference?  That's just a shadow - hold up your light and walk through it.

A Lantern Bearer's light went out this weekend.  

And a thousand more Lantern Bearers strode forward.

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I did not live in Minnesota when Wellstone died but so many around me continue to mourn his loss to this day. I do not understand that sentiment, as I've never been near any politician that evoked true positive emotion from me, but my wife literally has a Wellstone sign to this day so he obviously had a true lasting impact on the state and it saddens me ex post facto that I wasn't able to witness his influence myself.

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I voted for him back when I didn't necessarily agree with him, because I knew what he was going to say on almost every topic and I knew he would say it.  Now the kowtowing to the party line leaves almost no room for personal principles, no issue is allowed to be more important than the Monday morning agenda from Party Central. Anyone remember fiscally conservative Democrats? Anti-abortion Republicans? Pro-life Dems? Gay Republicans?  They used to have cool names like Blue Dog Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans and now they're just shushed and sent back to study their notes. The extremists in both parties have created a free fire zone across the middle that's wiped out moderates of all stripes, to the detriment of the country. That's where we need to see some lanterns these days.

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3 hours ago, Cris E said:

The extremists in both parties have created a free fire zone across the middle that's wiped out moderates of all stripes, to the detriment of the country. That's where we need to see some lanterns these days.

I have to disagree with you on this point, well, here in New Hampshire at least. Most of the people I encounter are probably moderates on most issues. I think it seems the extremists rule the day because they get the headlines. News today is really just entertainment and propaganda and extremism sells. I feel like a dying breed as a fiscal conservative since we now have a fiat currency and print as much money as we want and spend even more. May the lantern bearers of truth,  justice and the American Way burn bright.

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Here's my best Paul Wellstone story:

Back in the early '90s I was working in Washington for a conservative Republican senator. Flying back to the Twin Cities for a week up at the lake during August recess, sitting next to me at the back of an NWA flight was Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-ND). As it turned out, Sen. Wellstone was up in first class.

Sen. Burdick, who would die the next year at age 84, was having a difficult time of it - he couldn't get his jacket off, he couldn't peel the cover off of his yogurt container, frankly, he couldn't really even speak understandably. Though, he was certainly genial, and obviously grateful for the help I was able to give him,

I'm pretty sure that I was the only person around me who knew this gentleman was a sitting United States Senator, and regardless of party (my, how things have changed), as a Senate staffer I kind of felt responsible for helping get him through this. 

Arriving at MSP, we all got off the flight. I was helping Sen. Burdick down the aisle when we reached Sen. Wellstone. They greeted each other warmly, and as we made it up the ramp to the gate there were several people there to meet Sen Wellstone - I don't recall if they were staff or family - but they began to move with him off to their destination. However, Sen. Burdick wasn't done. He still had to fly from Minneapolis to Fargo or Grand Forks, and he had literally no idea how to make that happen. Imagine your elderly grandfather, all alone. Having been put on a plane in Washington, and then was on his own from there.

Sen. Wellstone looked at Sen. Burdick and then at me with eyebrows raised. I explained who I was, and told him I could figure this out for Sen. Burdick. But Sen. Wellstone smiled, shook my hand and thanked me, and then told his party to wait while he took Sen. Burdick by the arm and personally escorted him to his next flight.

This may not sound like much to you. But in the 10 years I was on the Hill, I never saw another senator (or congressman) put himself at the utter service of somebody else like that. It was a remarkably humble and human gesture, and one I will always remember. 

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My Paul Wellstone story happened at the State Fair. We liked to take our kids around to meet politicians, to shake hands and say hello.  We saw Senator Wellstone was there and got in line to meet him. We arrived a little early and only had about third of a block line of people to wait for.  The line grew long behind us.  We got up to him pretty quickly and he cordially greeted us.  I had a question for him about the BWCA and the conflict then with motors and motorized portages.  Then something amazing happened.  He started explaining at length the background, the current problem, and his position.  This took several minutes.  As the line grew far longer, his aides were trying to hurry him but he didn’t listen.  He stopped only when he had completed his explanation.  It was a fun and memorable experience for my whole family.  

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On 11/2/2022 at 4:19 AM, dcswede said:

Here's my best Paul Wellstone story:

Back in the early '90s I was working in Washington for a conservative Republican senator. Flying back to the Twin Cities for a week up at the lake during August recess, sitting next to me at the back of an NWA flight was Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-ND). As it turned out, Sen. Wellstone was up in first class.

Sen. Burdick, who would die the next year at age 84, was having a difficult time of it - he couldn't get his jacket off, he couldn't peel the cover off of his yogurt container, frankly, he couldn't really even speak understandably. Though, he was certainly genial, and obviously grateful for the help I was able to give him,

I'm pretty sure that I was the only person around me who knew this gentleman was a sitting United States Senator, and regardless of party (my, how things have changed), as a Senate staffer I kind of felt responsible for helping get him through this. 

Arriving at MSP, we all got off the flight. I was helping Sen. Burdick down the aisle when we reached Sen. Wellstone. They greeted each other warmly, and as we made it up the ramp to the gate there were several people there to meet Sen Wellstone - I don't recall if they were staff or family - but they began to move with him off to their destination. However, Sen. Burdick wasn't done. He still had to fly from Minneapolis to Fargo or Grand Forks, and he had literally no idea how to make that happen. Imagine your elderly grandfather, all alone. Having been put on a plane in Washington, and then was on his own from there.

Sen. Wellstone looked at Sen. Burdick and then at me with eyebrows raised. I explained who I was, and told him I could figure this out for Sen. Burdick. But Sen. Wellstone smiled, shook my hand and thanked me, and then told his party to wait while he took Sen. Burdick by the arm and personally escorted him to his next flight.

This may not sound like much to you. But in the 10 years I was on the Hill, I never saw another senator (or congressman) put himself at the utter service of somebody else like that. It was a remarkably humble and human gesture, and one I will always remember. 

God bless you Sir for helping a fellow in need.

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On 10/29/2022 at 9:24 PM, Brock Beauchamp said:

I did not live in Minnesota when Wellstone died but so many around me continue to mourn his loss to this day. I do not understand that sentiment, as I've never been near any politician that evoked true positive emotion from me, but my wife literally has a Wellstone sign to this day so he obviously had a true lasting impact on the state and it saddens me ex post facto that I wasn't able to witness his influence myself.

One of the reasons his memory still shines so brightly for many, especially in MN is because of the nature of that first senate campaign which was strongly supported by young people, many of whom were getting involved in politics for the first time. The Wellstones didn't just inspire those people to help with his campaign, they inspired them to public service beyond it, and so many of those people who "rode the green bus" continued to work in politics and government afterwards. That has an almost generational impact, and when that life is cut tragically short in magnifies the impact of memory.

I was working in DC at the time for the Pentagon, and was in a meeting when their plane went down. When I got back to my desk, I had 2 voicemails, 6 emails, and a post-it on my monitor from my boss asking me to come see him so he could break the news gently.

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