Based on some of the reactions I received to last week’s Rant, it may be worse out there than even I expected.
I led with Mike Nofgren’s quotations, and I choose to believe that those folks who took swift and decisive action to banish me from their planet didn’t bother to read what lay beyond. They didn’t get far enough into it to challenge the hasty assumption that here was another liberal”/”socialist”/”atheist”/”empathetic” [check as many pointless labels as apply] Democrat, dogging randomly on Republicans.
See, the point was that the entire working environment in the Congress has become so paralyzed by zealots in the thrall of their own rigid ideologies that the one factor that is essential to effective governance–compromise–has been suffocated, causing highly trained and experienced staff on both sides to throw up their hands in disgust and walk away, at a time when their skills are desperately needed. What I wanted to say was that, based on my own experience, it was not always thus, and that politics and governance are not only not conflicting concepts, they are also wholly interdependent.
Politics, defined as arguing for the plausible and agreeing upon the possible, is as much a part of us upper primates as basic problem-solving. Practiced at its highest, it is the art, as Paul Gaugin observed, of slicing the cake so everyone believes he got the largest piece. Thirty years of slander in the 24-hour news cycle has reduced it, and those who aspire to practice it, to its current perception as a contemptible carbunkle on the ass of progress. (I stole that from Peter Ustinov’s character in Topkapi.) Now, the apparent highest qualification to run for elective office is to have little to no prior governing experience and a snarling contempt for all “politicians,” but especially “career” politicians and the processes in which they dirty themselves. It’s been a time-tested and honored principle for 35 years to run against Washington to get elected to go there and participate; it’s beyond irony. The logical result: refuse to negotiate and compromise; otherwise, you might be branded a politician.
Suffer me my favorite analogy to illustrate how noxious this notion is. Very early on in my career, I had the privilege of working with Representative Barbara Jordan, a Texas Democrat. (If you don’t know who she is, here’s all you need to really know; if you need more, check this out. She had many conservative friends among her colleagues, most of whom hungered to sound like her.) In the throes of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment deliberations, I happened to be standing nearby as she was questions by the ubiquitous gaggle of reporters. One asked her: “Do you consider yourself a politician?” Without hesitation, she said, “No.” After some consternation, the followup question: “Why not?” She fixed her interrogator with that absorbing gaze of hers. “I’m a professional politician; there’s a difference, you see. Everyone’s a politician.”
Today’s case example comes from an old friend. Chris Hooper and I got to know each other well in my home (“Red”) state of Idaho in 1979. I’d come home from Hollywood-on-the-Potomac to represent hospitals and physicians before the Legislature, and he’d been elected to serve in the House the year before. His peers in the Republican majority chose him to chair the Health and Welfare Committee, where he remained for 10 years. (A little background: as you’ll read below, he considers himself a true conservative, while by indigenous standards I was a liberal Democrat. At that time, anywhere else I would have been considered to be a moderate Republican who also believed labor unions, private and public, had as least as much a right to exist as corporate management.)
Chris and I did a lot of business together over four years before I checked out for D.C. again. I remember that we accomplished a lot, mostly because most all of us understood that honoring the rules, principles, and integrity of the process in which we were engaged—the art of the deal—trumped any individual’s or faction’s beliefs. His training (insurance and the law), intellect, and sense of humor made life wry and interesting most all the time and, at its lowest, tolerable. My two favorite examples (that likely occurred during working hours, since I can remember them):
Anyone who’s represented Medical Doctors knows that some subspecialists in medicine are more insecure than others, a reflection of their perception of their position in the godly pecking order. Dermatology is one of those. I don’t know if it’s still true, but Idaho had a pretty progressive rule: in order to even introduce a bill, one had to convince a majority of the members of the policy committee to which it would be referred. In the Third House, it was considered unwise, and sometimes unchivalrous, to oppose introduction unless absolutely necessary. (“There, but for the grace of God, go I.”) Well, some among my plucky skin-keepers decided a minor cosmetologists’ bill didn’t deserve to live, so I reluctantly squired their ringleader to the Capitol to testify in opposition. After 10 minutes of listening to my man’s dark assessment of this latest threat to patient safety and seeing his peers rolling their eyes, Chris gave me that look. He leaned forward, and the following exchange occurred, in exaggerated stage whisper:
“Tim—where did you find this turkey?”
“Mr. Chairman: he volunteered.”
When we weren’t at war with plaintiffs’ attorneys, it fell to us to sponsor legislation to improve the delivery of health care services in mostly mundane ways. One exception was when fertility departments and clinics encountered a problem. Idaho was and is not a populous state, so it was not unusual to look outside its borders to find desirable sperm donors. (Insert your own “hick” joke here.) Their contributions would be collected there, frozen, and packed for transport to the requesting hospital or clinic. On too many occasions, enforcement of existing and often conflicting shipping requirements for biologicals resulted in delay and, well, decay. The afternoon I presented our bill, I settled into an environment where the potential for hazing was not only anticipated but appreciated by those on the other side of the dais. Chairman Hooper started things off—“Mr. Hart, would you say this is a seminal piece of legislation?”—and all Hell broke loose; everyone took a turn. Toward the end, a northern Idaho Democratic member (schoolteacher, as I recall) passed a note to Chris. He read it and convulsed to the point that he almost fell over backward in his chair. Right after the bill went out, I rushed the chair and demanded to see the scrip. It read: “Dear Chris: Just as I always suspected—‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ Lou.”
I learned a valuable lesson that day: It’s almost impossible to vote “No” when you’re laughing. Over the years, the opportunities to invoke this principle have been fewer and farther between, another symptom of the larger problem.
Chris left the Idaho Legislature in 1988, for reasons to which he’ll allude. He moved to Reno, where he joined a law firm and spent another decade immersed in legislative and regulatory issues for clients. On August 19, 2003, his son, Rick, a 1985 U.C. Santa Cruz grad and a multilingual, seasoned Middle East expert who was serving as the special assistant to the UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, was killed in al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, one of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s earliest post-occupation crimes. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq had headquartered there just five days earlier.) One of his professors, with whom he stayed in contact, remembered Rick this way: “For a person who learned Arabic as a UCSC student, spent years in the West Bank and Gaza, and ended his career as one of the UN’s chief experts on Arab affairs, Hooper died doing what he loved: He was trying to make a difference in the Middle East.”
At that point, Chris decided to retire to a mountaintop in the Stanley Basin, one of the crown jewels of God’s creation in his adopted state. (Ironically, he’s a Californian by birth; I spent all my formative years in Boise and will likely die here.)
He read what I wrote last week and sent me the following letter he’d penned just before the 2008 elections. (See my Xenodu for what I wrote at that time.)
Idaho Mountain Express
P.O. Box 1013
Ketchum, Idaho 83340
“Re: It (was) my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.
“My working class parents were Republicans. My mother worked as a retail clerk in a pharmacy so that my brother and I could attend Stanford. Some of my relatives referred to Roosevelt as “that man.”
“I stuffed envelopes for Ike in 1952 and 1956. In my first election in which I could vote, I was a precinct committeeman for Goldwater in a downtown Oakland, California, precinct.
“I was fortunate to be elected to the Idaho House of Representatives in 1978, as a Republican, and served for ten years. My philosophy was simple and, according to my roots, Republican: 1) decisions should be made at the most local level possible; 2) spend the tax money wisely; 3) balance the budget; 4) if a bill were not enforceable, do not vote for it. I did not want the government telling the family what decisions the family must make.
“I thought that I was a ‘conservative.’ After all, keeping the government out of our lives and balancing the budget were conservative values. But things changed. The Republican party, including in Idaho, began to be taken over by what I called, and still call, the “authoritarians.” In Idaho, they opposed local option tax authority because ‘they’ knew best, and ‘they’ did not trust the people to make the ‘right’ decisions. The authoritarians want to get into those most intimate of family decisions, and they want to control what we say and what we do. Any who disagree are ‘cowards’ or ‘unpatriotic.’ My Republican party would not destroy the Bill of Rights.
Internationally, my ‘conservative’ Republican party did not attack a country until it attacked us, and if that happened, we would respond ferociously. Remember Ike’s warning of the ‘military industrial complex’ and the ‘Powell Doctrine.’ My Republican party would not be proud of a budget deficit of ‘only’ 250 billion dollars, not counting the Iraq war expenses that are ‘off budget.’
“In short, my Republican party left me. I did not leave it. I do not know what to do. The Democrats do not have great alternatives. I wish that we had a third party that believed in fiscal responsibility and promoted individual liberty. Unfortunately we do not, and I am too old to promote such a party. I do know that I cannot support those who blindly support our current administration. I am not yet sure whether I can vote for all Democrats. I do not know what to do but I do know that my Republican party abandoned me. I feel a great loss.
“Very truly yours,
I know other of my friends who harbor these feelings. They–and anyone else who has not merely professed but demonstrated a love for this country–deserve to be heard, listened to, and respected again.
Bill Mulllins is a high-school classmate of mine and a retired biologist. He’s obviously also a Western States nature photographer with an extensive portfolio of images and list of publication credits. In need of jaw-slacking beauty? Click here.