The eulogies flowing in the wake of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s untimely death last week have been remarkable–not only for what’s been said, but because of the messengers. Our own Senator Jesse Helms called him a “friend.” Pete Domenici, the tough Republican from New Mexico, couldn’t talk through his tears after hearing of the deadly plane crash.

Looking for comforting words myself last Friday, I was surprised to find them in a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan, an arch-conservative and Reagan’s old speechwriter: “[Wellstone’s] liberalism wasn’t a jacket he put on in the morning to fool the rubes and powers–he meant it. He seemed to be a politician who was not a cynic, who was not poll driven, who was not in it just for the enjoyments of power. He operated from belief. It’s good to have men and women of belief in Congress. It’s tragic to lose one.”

Paul Wellstone always held a special place in his heart for North Carolina’s Triangle, having spent his college years at UNC-Chapel Hill, starting with his undergrad, when he was a star wrestler (how many lefties have that on their resume?), through his Ph.D. In recent years, he made a point of stopping by when he could, usually to lend support to an important local cause like the fight for campaign finance reform.

Recalling Wellstone’s crusading fire is important–especially because it reminds us what a truly passionate progressive looks like. In remembering Wellstone’s courage and convictions, my mind soon began making comparisons to our own state senator–and the man being heralded as the Great Presidential Hope for Democrats in 2004–John Edwards.

For example, it recently surfaced that Senator Edwards’ (unofficial) presidential campaign apparatus felt compelled to hire a “rural liaison” to show he was in touch with country folks. Wellstone didn’t have to do that; people in the hinterland knew where he stood after he got arrested for sitting-in at a bank that was foreclosing on family farms.

Edwards, evidently in a move to look “tough” and presidential, jumped to be first in line to embrace President Bush’s ill-conceived war on Iraq in mid-September–then, sensing the public’s hesitancy, back-pedaled and criticized Bush’s foreign policy. No such grand-standing and second-guessing for Wellstone–he stood in principled opposition to serving up American and Iraqi lives for oil in 1991, and again in 2002.

And even when Wellstone was wrong–and he slipped a few times–he usually had the guts to ‘fess up and admit he had compromised. If only our junior senator could say the same. When Edwards voted to endorse the nuclear industry’s Yucca Mountain dump boondoggle (after vacillating and expressing “concern”), he claimed to be unaware that transporting 77,000 tons of high-level radioactive waste on exposed train lines could be dangerous (even though local watchdog group N.C. WARN met with his staff to discuss these very risks).

The comparisons could continue–contrived populism and Clinton-like poll-gawking versus heart-first barnstorming and politics by principle; a silicon smile and ever-averting eyes on one hand, a self-effacing but “what you see is what you get” demeanor on the other. The point is that a lot of us didn’t realize how unusual Paul Wellstone was, and took him for granted.

I hope we find and elect another Paul Wellstone–someone who has fire in her, or his, heart, who speaks truth to power, who is, as Noonan described, “motivated by belief and the desire to make our country better.”

It could happen, even in North Carolina.

(Chris Kromm is director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham)