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History will judge Nelson as effective, independent voice
Majority leader Sen. Harry Reid had fun with retiring Sen. Ben Nelson's famous mane that some have mistaken for a toupee.
"I mean, that is a mop of real hair ... he'll pull it for you anytime, just to show you that it's real," Reid said at a tribute dinner at the famed Charlie Palmer steakhouse.
But Reid and other members of Congress, Democrats and Republican alike, would do well to emulate a more important trait of Nelson, the McCook native departing the Senate after two terms in Washington.
As the nation slides toward the "fiscal cliff," a safety rope, if it comes, will most likely be thrown by someone like Nelson, who won't be around to help navigate the route back to level ground.
Nelson's position -- right of most Democrats and a little left of most, but not all, Republicans -- moved the country forward at crucial times despite the threat of creating enemies at both extremes.
One of the first examples was his membership in the "Gang of 14," a bipartisan group that worked together to break a stalemate on President Bush's judicial nominations and filibusters.
The most famous was his key vote for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act -- since embraced even by the president himself as "Obamacare." That vote won many enemies among Nebraska voters, and also cost him the long-time support of Nebraska Right to Life because the final legislature didn't include funding restrictions favored by the pro-life group.
But opponents on the right too easily overlooked many times when Democrat Nelson could easily have been mistaken for a conservative Republican. He stood with President Bush against the early withdrawal of troops from Iraq and helped establish "benchmarks," to be met before that was done.
Nelson played a vital role in passing the 2001 tax cut, the third-largest in American history at $1.3 trillion, while freeing up more funds for special education, agriculture and defense. He was also the only Democrat to sign Grover Norquist's Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to raise taxes.
As governor, Nelson cut spending from the previous administration -- Republican Kay Orr's -- by 64 percent when it was scheduled to rise by 13 percent, and cut taxes for 400,000 middle-income Nebraskans.
While advocating for low-income families through the Kids Connection health-care system, Nelson also pushed for welfare reform before it was taken to the national stage by President Clinton.
During the campaign and as governor, Nelson opposed locating a low-level nuclear waste dump in Nebraska, which wound up costing the state $145 million in a settlement.
"Congress needs to change its math," Nelson said in his farewell speech on the floor of the Senate. "By that, I mean members of Congress should be more concerned about addition and multiplication and less involved in division and subtraction that seems to overtake this institution at times."
He said he plans to tackle items on his "bucket list," including climbing Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro and visiting Machu Picchu, an ancient Inca site in Peru.
Nelson has always found inspiration in the career of George W. Norris, even moving his boyhood home to a spot down the block from the late senator's home across from Norris Park in McCook.
Like Norris, Nelson's role as an independent, effective representative of his constituents will be recognized more and more as history is written in years to come.