I can’t believe I’m writing this:

Today, Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), maybe the last fire-breathing liberal in the Senate, died in a plane crash, along with his wife and children.

If you spend any time paying attention to politics, you know that the cardinal rule of the professional politician is a simple one: avoid controversy at all costs. Stay a few steps behind the crowd. Don’t tell people things they don’t want to hear.

Paul Wellstone made a career out of breaking that rule. He had convictions that ran deep, and he was never afraid to let them guide his votes, even when those convictions ran counter to the mainstream of public opinion. This year, he did it again — he was one of the few Senators to vote against the resolution giving the President authority to launch a war against Iraq. That wasn’t a popular position; 60% of Minnesotans polled at the time of the vote expressed support for Bush’s war. But Wellstone never voiced doubts about which way his vote should go; he knew what his heart was telling him, and he followed it. Men like that are rare in Washington’s circles of power, and now there is one fewer to stand up to the wheeler-dealer cynicism of our political culture.

Paul Wellstone occupied a unique place in American political life. He will truly be missed. He was irreplaceable.