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Minnesota Senator Wellstone Perishes in Plane Crash

Aired October 25, 2002 - 13:40   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Our reporters all over the place are working this story. CNN's political correspondent Candy Crowley is joining us now.
Candy, what are you hearing, and what can you report?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you know, what we had heard was that Senator Wellstone, who had a debate tonight in Duluth with his opponent, was possibly headed for a funeral or was involved in a funeral today up in the upper part of Minnesota, we're told maybe of a union official. We can confirm, of course, what John has been reporting, that the plane that was supposed to be carrying him was in fact -- had the same numbers on it as the plane he was supposed to be in. But as far confirmation that he was actually in that plane, we can't go farther than the manifest right now.

BLITZER: Talk a little bit about Senator Wellstone. You know the man quite well. You've covered him over all of these years, as all of us have. Give us a little flavor of what his legislative record, his style in the U.S. Senate is all about.

CROWLEY: I think, you know, I can tell you that since 1990, if you look at votes in the Senate that are 98-2 or 99-1, that the one or one of the two would have been Senator Wellstone. He is one of the most purest liberals in the Senate. You'll remember that he was one of, we think -- the only one of the senators who were up for re- election this year that voted against what the president wanted on Iraq. It was a vote that was thought to have helped him, actually, in his home state. So he is an undiluted liberal and has been. He has always said, look, I'm the guy that fights for the little man. It's what made him so popular and what essentially is a populist state.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, fill in the blanks a little bit more on Senator Wellstone for us, as far as the whole current situation, his decision to go ahead and vote against the president on this Iraq resolution. It's a tough issue up in Minnesota.

BILL SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It is. And incumbent Democrats running for re-election felt really compelled, and all of them did vote for giving the president authorization to use force. But Senator Wellstone in 2001, after the last presidential election wrote a book entitled "The Conscience of a Liberal, Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda." He feels very strongly that he's a man of principle. He takes stands on principle, as Candy just said, often alone. He was the only Democrat who voted against the Democratic version of the estate tax repeal. He was one of the few senators to vote against national missile defense, against permanent normal trade relations with China. He often is out there alone, voting his conscience. And he appears to have done that this year, just this month earlier on the Iraq resolution.

BLITZER: And I just want our viewers to be up to date and very precise on this point. A small plane has crashed in northern Minnesota near Eveleth, Minnesota, and eight people are aboard. We have heard from our senior White House correspondent John King, quoting Transportation Department sources, administration officials, saying that there have been fatalities in this twin engine turbo prop crash. The plane was chartered -- the plane was chartered by Senator Wellstone, the Democratic senator from Minnesota seeking re-election -- and that his name was indeed on the manifest. But we do not know whether in fact that manifest was accurate, whether in fact Senator Wellstone was indeed aboard the plane. We're continuing to check that out as thoroughly as we possibly can.

Senator Paul Wellstone, seeking re-election, criss-crossing the state, has been in this small plane. But we don't know whether he was actually aboard the plane as it crashed shortly after takeoff in Eveleth, Minnesota.

Jeff Greenfield, this is a potentially very sad moment. We don't know whether Senator Wellstone was on board, but there have been several other politicians over the years who have been campaigning and whose planes did go down. I remember Senator John Tower of Texas, you probably remember that, Governor Carnahan more recently in Missouri. John Heinz of Pennsylvania -- there's an unfortunate history as far as politicians campaigning and going down in planes.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: In fact, just the other day, after leaving Senator Wellstone, I went to Missouri, where Senator Jean Carnahan is a senator because two years ago, almost about a week and two years ago, Governor Mel Carnahan her husband, who was in a very tough Senate race against Senator John Ashcroft, he and his son and a campaign aide were killed in a plane crash on a night of terrible weather, just before the last presidential debate. She agreed to stand in his stead, he got more votes, Mel Carnahan, than did Ashcroft, and the governor appointed Jean Carnahan who's now in a tight race. I was just thinking about that.

I should also point out that when I was in Minnesota on Tuesday, it was snowing. Probably one of the -- it's kind of early for most states, but Minnesota, as you know, is that kind of weather. The weather forecast for Duluth, Minnesota, where Senator Wellstone was heading -- was to head for a debate, was snow. I have no indication of whether that has anything to do with this plane crash.

But the other thing I wanted to mention apropos of Bill Schneider is that the attack on Senator Wellstone by his opponent has been based this year not on his liberalism but on his alleged lack of effectiveness, because there are people in Minnesota who find Wellstone attractive because he stands up for something even if they don't agree with him. So during this debate Norm Coleman was constantly pointing to Wellstone's lack of effectiveness and what are you doing for Minnesota business. And Senator Wellstone had come with a prop, a steering wheel made by a company that had honored him for what he did, and pulled it out with a big grin in the middle of the debate to say I'm very honored to have had this sign of my effectiveness.

There's a kind of puckish sense of humor that Wellstone has always carried into his political campaigns, like the famous ads he did in 1990 where he's talking at breakneck speed, saying I don't have any money, so I have to talk fast. A kind of playfulness that I think helped mitigate the liberalism for people who didn't agree -- who don't agree -- I keep doing this, and I'm sorry -- who don't agree with him politically.

But you're quite right. You know, Ted Kennedy, who I think was in Minnesota to campaign for Wellstone almost died in a plane crash in 1964. We tend to forget that. Hale Boggs, the former majority leader of the House, died in a plane crash campaigning in Alaska. In Missouri, Jerry Litten, many years ago, who'd won the nomination for governor was flying to his victory party in a private plane died in a plane crash.

BLITZER: All right. Jeff Greenfield, I just want to break in. Unfortunately, CNN has now confirmed the worst, what we had anticipated, that Senator Wellstone was indeed aboard that small plane and is now confirmed to have died.

Senator Paul Wellstone, by my account 58 years old, seeking re- election, traveling to northern Minnesota tonight for -- we were told for a debate that he's engaged with his Republican opponent, Norm Coleman. All of our worst fears, all of our worst suspicions now confirmed. Senator Paul Wellstone, the Democratic liberal senator from Minnesota has now died in this plane crash, together, we're told, with seven other people aboard that small King Air turbo prop plane, crashed shortly after taking off from a small town in Minnesota, northern Minnesota, called Eveleth, Minnesota.

We're also now being told that also among the fatalities aboard that small plane, one of his daughters, who was traveling with him.

Senator Paul Wellstone, well known, well liked, even if people disagreed with his generally liberal philosophy, his generally liberal traditions. Everyone who knew him, everyone always liked him. He radiated a room as he walked in with his bubbly personality, short, to the point, outspoken. Whenever I interviewed him, he was always excited, always passionate, always committed to his respective causes.

Judy Woodruff I think is traveling in New Hampshire today. She's joining us now live. You interviewed Senator Wellstone many times, Judy, tell us what's going through your mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, Wolf, I think all of us who know the senator, no matter whether we're reporters or whatever the political persuasion, all of us are in mourning for his family. As you said, Wolf, you just confirmed, one of his children was with him, his daughter. He and his wife had three children and a number of grandchildren.

You know, I just heard Jeff Greenfield talking about how, you know, there have been so many other politicians over the years who we've lost in plane crashes. The eerie parallel with what happened to Governor Mel Carnahan in Missouri just not even two years ago when he was killed in a crash with one of his sons. Of course, his widow went on to serve in the United States Senate, she's right now in a very tough race herself.

But Jeff mentioned, you know, Hale Boggs, who was the house Democratic leader several decades ago, John Heinz, who was then the senator from Pennsylvania. These political figures, in many instances, they're out there campaigning, they're traveling around, they're in these small planes. And whether it's bad weather or whatever, we've just seen too many cases like this.

I know originally there was some question about Senator Ted Kennedy, because he had been campaigning with Paul Wellstone. He was not on this plane with the senator, but the two had been campaigning together. We're told by Kennedy's staff that he's on a commercial flight back to Washington. But we know that Senator Kennedy must be devastated because of the own -- tragedies in his own family, but of course because he was close to Senator Wellstone himself.

Wolf, I would just point out that Paul Wellstone not only had fought political battles, he fought some personal battles. He had multiple sclerosis himself. He had a brother who was mentally ill. And he fought in the Senate, was known as a long-time advocate for parity of treatment for those with mental health problems. He worked very closely with a Republican, Senator Pete Domenici on that.

So, so many facets of this man's life and a day of real tragedy.

BLITZER: Judy, stand by, because we're going to be covering this story for some time, this very sad story, Senator Paul Wellstone confirmed to have died aboard that plane crash. It's my sad duty to have to report to you and to all of our viewers now that also aboard the plane were the senator's wife, Sheila, the senator's daughter, Marsha, three staff members, two pilots, eight people, all dead, all confirmed dead as this plane crashed in northern Minnesota.

Jonathan Karl, our Congressional correspondent, is covering this story as well, checking, getting details.

Jon, tell us what you've found out.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I've been speaking to Democratic sources who say that they can confirm that there were the eight dead on this plane, including, of course, as you have said, the senator and his wife and his daughter. Also, three of Senator Wellstone's staffers and the two pilots of the plane.

I mean, I've been talking to Democrats very close to Wellstone, so has my producer, Dana Bash (ph), and I can tell you, people are almost unable to speak. They're crushed with the sadness of this. Again, the eerie memory, the eerie back to what happened to Mel Carnahan at almost exactly the same time during the election cycle in 2000. You know, many of them lived through that. Wellstone was the kind of guy who had extremely loyal people around him, somebody, you know, He's a former college professor, Carlton College out in Minnesota, and somebody who was seen as a principled politician, a liberal who stood by his principles, even when those principles were not politically expedient.

You know, most recently I had an interview with him about his vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, And I also remember being in the Senate chamber with him back in 1991 when he gave his first speech of his Senate career, which was a speech against the Iraq resolution back then. Both were potentially politically dangerous to him, but he felt that he had to go that way to abide by his principles, and these Democrats that I've been talking to are just dumbfounded by what has happened and really speechless about what has happened. But they have been told that yes, he was on the plane, his wife, his daughter, three staffers, two pilots, and that they are all dead.

BLITZER: It's a sad day, not only for everyone in Minnesota, it's a sad day for all of us around the country, indeed around the world, who got to know Senator Wellstone, a very sad moment that we have to report. Senator Paul Wellstone aboard a small plane that crashed. Apparently, there was some freezing rain, we're told, in northern Minnesota as this plane went down.


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