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The Lessons of Carter…

“I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” – former President Jimmy Carter on his campaign to wipe out the parasitic disease that has historically afflicted millions in Africa.   

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It took Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer to show me what is so sorely missing from American politics – humility and class; lack of self-pity and abundance of humor.

Mention Carter at a dinner party or a ball game and you’ll almost certainly get some spirited conversation going. The comment will likely range from “the worst modern president” to “a smart guy just not up to the job” to the “best ex-president we’ve ever had” to “history will treat him pretty well.”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The news conference last week where Carter calmly, factually, stoically and with humor and grace discussed his cancer, its treatment and his long life was a sterling reminder for me of what a fundamentally decent and quintessential “American” man he is and has always been. Who in the current field attempting to grab the brass ring of the presidency has even a fraction of Carter’s self-awareness and humility?

When asked if he had any regrets, Carter said he wished he might have been smart enough to have sent another helicopter on the hostage rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Had that mission succeeded – a crash in the desert doomed the chance – Carter would have had his Bin Laden moment and might well have won re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. A less secure, less comfortable-in-their-own-skin public person would just have said in response to that question – “Regrets? I have no regrets…”

During the run-up to the remarkable election of 1976, I interviewed both Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Fresh out of college, I was working at a small radio station in eastern Iowa when Mrs. Carter came to town. In her own quiet and persistent way Rosalyn was pursuing the breakthrough “Iowa strategy” that allowed a little known Georgia governor to launch a successful presidential campaign. Carter was the first to understand that Iowa’s quirky caucus system could be a launching pad for a little-known candidate. I don’t remember what I asked the spouse of the candidate in the fall of 1975, but I do remember her poise and kindness. She had all day, or so it seemed, for a bumbling young radio reporter.

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

By early 1976, I had moved to television and to Idaho, and Carter made a stop in Boise while campaigning for votes in that state’s caucus. I distinctly remember elbowing into a hot, sticky and very crowded meeting room at the old Holiday Inn near the Boise airport to watch Carter meet the press. After answering the obligatory questions from the traveling press corps – I particularly remember a hectoring Sam Donaldson of ABC – Carter took time to do one-on-one interviews with we locals. I think I asked a probing question about whether the candidate thought he could win Idaho’s caucus vote and, of course, he said he could. He didn’t. Favorite son Senator Frank Church entered the race and won Idaho.

Still my memory of Carter all these years later – and of also of President Gerald Ford, who I also interviewed in 1976 – is that of a low-key, thoughtful, decent men in control of their egos and motivated, as we hope all candidates are, by the right reasons.

Carter’s quiet and controlled personality was once mocked by many who saw the Georgia peanut farmer as out-classed by the Georgetown set, but they had it wrong. Carter possessed real American values. He regularly taught Sunday school, – he still does – built homes for Habitat for Humanity and carried his own suit bag off Air Force One. The same quiet, understated, but effective approach has marked the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which has focused on health issues in Africa and the advancement of peace through democratic institutions around the world.

Carter in Nigeria

Carter in Nigeria

Carter’s post-presidential good work earned him a Nobel Prize and with nary a hint of scandal about money or purposes.

Carter’s after White House life stands in stark contrast to the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Carter has let his good work speak for itself, while the Clinton’s work is subsumed amid the flaunting of their big money connections and holidays in the Hamptons. Humble it isn’t and Carter could teach them a thing or two if they where humble enough to listen.

Faced with one last and inevitably losing fight, Jimmy Carter has again struck a grace note, as his one-time speechwriter James Fallows has observed. “The 1970s are so dis-esteemed,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “and Carter has been so vilified (in counterpoint to the elevation of Reagan), and the entire era is now so long in the past, that many people may wonder how Carter could have become president in the first place.”

The key to answering that question, Fallows said, and I agree, is contained in Carter’s approach to his own discussion of his perilous health and his exemplary life. If you haven’t seen the clip you should. This is the way real people talk minus the calculation and self-centeredness of political life.

The common narrative around Carter’s presidency is that he failed, but history, which rarely treats one-term presidents well, will record that the power of his will brought Israel and Egypt to peace at Camp David and his Baptist sense of right and wrong helped power the controversial decision to relinquish to the Panamanians the canal we once stole fair and square. Completion of the Alaska conservation legislation – during a lame duck session of Congress no less – will forever rank as one of the greatest conservation accomplishments by any administration. Carter’s focus on human rights in foreign affairs, again much mocked during his tenure, still demands, as it should, a central place in American policy.

Carter with Egypt's Sadat and Israel's Begin

Carter with Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin

But here is the real measure of Carter: his quiet, thoughtful approach to public life during his presidency and after is a genuine model for how to behave in the public arena. He would never have won a shouting match with a Christie or a name-calling contest with a Trump. Today we identify political leaders by their cult of secrecy and sense of entitlement, their self-absorption or that all-too-familiar strut of self-assurance without the burden of accomplishment. Carter was – and is – different.

America suffers a civility and humility deficit. It’s reflected in our politics and our popular culture. There is a coarseness, a meanness, an emptiness that sucks the air out of what is really important. The insufferable Ted Cruz, for example, a man with more self-regard than public accomplishment, waited hardly a day after Carter’s cancer announcement before taking to the stump to lambast the former president’s record. Nice touch.

Carter said he’s at ease with whatever comes, his faith intact, thankful for friends and for his vast and important experiences. We all reach this point eventually, staring our own mortality full in the face and most, I suspect, would hope to exhibit Jimmy Carter’s sense of peace about a life of purpose, meaning and service. 

For one, brief moment last week Jimmy Carter reminded us what a well-composed public life can look like. It’s not about bluster and bling, not about the nasty and fleeting. It is about decency, composure, respect, modesty and, yes, good humor. God knows we need some more of all that and a 90-year old man with brain cancer reminds us that he has done his part to try and help make all of us a little better. We should all be so lucky. 


So Goes Indiana…

Indiana Religious Freedom Law OppositionSomewhere, maybe, there is a political operative for one of the Republican presidential candidates who is sitting at a desk, hunched over a computer smiling at the viral news that the Grand Old Party has taken a another hard right turn into the war zone of culture, but some how I doubt it.

The #indiana has, at least for a few more days, reshaped and shuffled the pre-primary primary season for the Republican Party and I’m betting no one from Jeb Bush to Ted Cruz was really looking to be defined by the actions of the Indiana state legislature. But, you try to go to the White House with the issues you have, as Donald Rumsfeld might say.

Indiana, home to great basketball, fast motor racing and St. Elmo’s Steakhouse (one of the greatest I’ve ever visited), has discovered the power of social media this week. When Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a “religious freedom” law into effect a few days ago he set off a national debate vastly beyond anything the Hoosier state has seen in a long, long time. The time that 30t-mushnick-300x3001former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight threw a chair hardly registers compared to the shock of Pence and Indiana Republicans touching a new third rail of American politics – discrimination couched as expressions of religious belief.

But first, let’s consider the politics. According to the Gallup polling organization, the level of acceptance of homosexuality in the country is at an all-time high – more than 60 percent – and even higher among younger Americans. Support for same sex marriage has crossed the same threshold of acceptance. According to Pew Research, opposition to same sex marriage stood at 65 percent in 1996, but by last year public opinion had shifted dramatically with 54 percent of Americans now approving of the idea.

It is not necessary to be an MIT math whiz to see that the world has changed and the pace of change is only likely to accelerate as younger Americans, vastly more accepting of all types of diversity, assert themselves in the economy and politics. The modern Republican Party is on the wrong side of this divide.

Second, in the wake of the still unfolding Indiana firestorm, Republicans find themselves in the almost always uncomfortable political position of debating the technical, legal aspects of a law. When a politician is forced, as Pence was, to say that a law he signed is not a license to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans and then forced to explain legally how that is possible, you have the political equivalent of explaining how a watch is made when the public just wants to know what time it is.

Whether it has been completely fair or not, the Indiana legislation has been forever defined as at a minimum, opening the door to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Republican candidates have been reduced to explaining what the law doesn’t do rather than what it was reported to accomplish. So far they have mostly botched the task.

The backlash, both politically and otherwise, has been intense. One of the best Tweets I’ve seen was from the Indianapolis Motor CBcAf8RUQAEEr0q.jpg-largeSpeedway, home of the legendary 500 mile race. The Speedway’s famous sign simply spelled out: “We Welcome Everyone.”

A lengthening parade of some of the biggest business brands in the country – Nike, Walmart, Apple, Twitter, Yelp, Levi Strauss, Eli Lilly and Accenture, among others – have publicly opposed the Indiana law. The NCAA has essentially said it will not allow future big-time college athletic events in Indiana. (When the NCAA looks good in comparison, #indiana, you have a problem). All this, too, creates political fallout, as Bush will undoubtedly find when he goes calling for campaign cash in Silicon Valley this week. More importantly, business is signaling that discrimination is bad for, well, business.

So, if the politics of discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans – or even the appearance of discrimination – doesn’t make political sense, and with many of the usual business allies of the Republican Party in revolt against an Indiana-type law, why do it? [Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchison apparently asked that question when presented with a similar proposal in his state. Hutchison, after first indicating he would, now says he’ll not sign the legislation.]

I think Amy Davidson, writing in The New Yorker, has the answer to the why question.

“The Indiana law is the product of a G.O.P. search for a respectable way to oppose same-sex marriage and to rally the base around it. There are two problems with this plan, however. First, not everyone in the party, even in its most conservative precincts, wants to make gay marriage an issue, even a stealth one—or opposes gay marriage to begin with. As the unhappy reaction in Indiana shows, plenty of Republicans find the anti-marriage position embarrassing, as do some business interests that are normally aligned with the party. Second, the law is not an empty rhetorical device but one that has been made strangely powerful, in ways that haven’t yet been fully tested, by the Supreme Court decision last year in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That ruling allowed the Christian owners of a chain of craft stores to use the federal version of the RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to ignore parts of the Affordable Care Act. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, argued strongly that the majority was turning that RFRA into a protean tool for all sorts of evasions.” She was correct.

In short, the efforts in Indiana and Arkansas involve crafting laws sufficiently vague and open to wide interpretation expecting that the new statutes can serve as a vehicle to get a case in front of a judge who might rule in a way that creates an eventual avenue to the Supreme Court. The Indiana law is not so much about making public policy that can be debated and clearly understood, as it is about teeing up a legal argument that leaves the dirty work of defining the line between religion and discrimination to five conservative justices. Any bets on how that comes down?

Indiana’s governor, in denying the discriminatory intent of the law in his state, said the new statute, “only provides a mechanism Penceto address claims, not a license for private parties to deny services.” Or perhaps more correctly, as Davidson writes, the Indiana law provides “a mechanism to discriminate, rather than a license. What it certainly will do is give some people more confidence to discriminate. But is that what Indiana really wants? And is that what the G.O.P.’s 2016 candidates should be looking for?”

Interestingly, in a debate that mirrors the on-going debate in Idaho (and elsewhere) over creating specific state-level prohibitions against discrimination directed toward gays and lesbians, the perfect fix for the Indiana dilemma is merely for the legislature to create such protections in law. So far that remedy, a specific statement of public policy opposed to discrimination, hasn’t been a serious part of the discussion in Indiana. Of course, Idaho continues to dance around that clear choice, as well. As this debate continues to unfold, Idaho policy makers might want to listen closely. It is not completely farfetched to think that Idaho could become Indiana.

But here is the ultimate political, indeed moral, bottom line: If you are reduced to arguing that something you have done in the name of “freedom” isn’t really designed to create an ability for some people to deny freedom – that’s what discrimination is – against some other people, while couching it all in the smoke of “restoring religion” you are likely on the wrong side of a very dubious argument, not to mention history.


Third Act for a Bomb Thrower

He was one of the most polarizing political figures of the last half-century in Idaho, a union and gay rights basher who was part of the Tea Party before we called it that and before the Republican Party came to be too dominated by, well, guys like Gary Glenn.

GlennLong-time observers of Idaho’s politics – and now Michigan politics – will recognize his name and his tactics, including the brash one-liner, the scorched earth approach to every issue, the politics that reduce your opponent to a beast determined to ruin the culture. Those who long for a politics where opponents aren’t routinely demonized will not be surprised that Glenn, the one-time Idaho bomb thrower, is these days lobbing his grenades as a duly elected state representative in Michigan. You can be forgiven for thinking Idaho’s gain has become Michigan’s loss.

Wearing his religion on his sleeve, Glenn is in the forefront of efforts to deny marriage rights to gay couples in Michigan. Glenn’s American Family Association Michigan chapter – he’s the president – is widely described by human rights organizations as a “hate group.” As a legislator, Glenn is still advocating low taxes – or perhaps no taxes – and opposing a Republican governor’s plan to invest in Michigan infrastructure. And, of course, Glenn has ridden his “right-to-work” hobbyhorse for thirty years, all the way to Midland, Michigan, while preaching “freedom” for everyone but those unfortunate souls who happen to disagree with him.

At a state university in Saginaw, Michigan recently two dozen students showed up to protest an appearance by the former Idaho firebrand. According to the local newspaper the students, taking exception to Glenn’s harsh anti-gay rhetoric, chanted, “Hey, ho, Gary Glenn has got to go” and “2, 4, 6, 8, Gary Glenn is full of hate.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights group Saginawthat once had a hand in driving the Aryan Nations out of Idaho, reports on its website that Glenn offered these helpful comments about gays in 2001: “As with smoking, homosexual behavior’s ‘second hand’ effects threaten public health….Thus, individuals who choose to engage in homosexual behavior threaten not only their own lives, but the lives of the general population.” Some things never change.

The Hired Gun…

If you want to mark a date on the calendar when Idaho politics truly began to change for the worse you could start with the day in 1985, when the Idaho legislature, after a bruising political battle, passed anti-labor “right-to-work” legislation over the veto on then-Governor John V. Evans. When unions succeeded in getting the issue on the ballot in 1986 the resulting campaign was particularly ugly. Glenn, a fresh-faced newcomer to Idaho – some called him not incorrectly a “carpetbagger” – orchestrated that nasty battle utilizing the kind of over-the-top tactics of intimidation and exaggeration – union “thugs” where threatening western civilization – that have become the norm in politics.

Before Glenn and the National Right-to-Work Committee targeted Idaho with bundles of outside money and deployed the politics of “if you’re not for us, you are against us,” Idaho was an organized labor backwater. In modern times the state had little history of labor unrest, but the unionized miners, timber workers and electricians tended to support Democrats who advocated for better schools and better paying jobs. Labor’s foot soldiers and campaign money never – at least not since the early 1950’s – gave Democrats a majority in the Idaho Legislature, but they did help keep the party competitive and helped elect guys like Evans, Frank Church and my old boss Cecil Andrus.

There are endless debates about the economic impacts of right-to-work on wages, job creation and the quality of employment opportunities and you can find studies and experts to support almost any point of view, but it’s beyond denial that the passage of the law in Idaho dealt a big blow to the Democratic Party. This was, one suspects, a big factor in Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s recent push to make that once labor friendly state the latest to put the state between union members and management.

It is also clear that Idaho’s ranking in one important economic category – personal income – is hardly an advertisement for the wonders of anti-labor public policy. According to Department of Labor statistics, “Idaho ranked dead last in 2013 with individual median income at $27,932 — likely aided by the fact it was at the bottom of all the states for the median income for women, $21,908. The Idaho median income for men was $33,623 — good for 48th place.”

If you like one-party government populated by a crop of legislators who now pass resolutions calling for the “impeachment” of federal judges who rule “incorrectly” on same sex marriage, oppose a Hindu prayer to open a legislative session, continue to defund education and deny basic human rights protections to the LGBT community then Gary Glenn deserves honorary Idaho citizenship. The do-almost-nothing Idaho legislature (remember, it wasn’t always so), is a monument to the lack of a political middle in the state and that too has roots in the long ago battles that Glenn and like minded allies stoked for maximum partisan mileage.

As an historical footnote, I remember some Idaho Republican legislators in the 1980’s who were dubious about right-to-work potatoes_0asking why it was OK to mandate that every Idaho hop or potato farmer pay an assessment to support a state-mandated commodity commission, but the principle of every union member paying dues to support has bargaining organization was “coercion” and “a denial of freedom.” One man’s freedom is another’s “compulsory” union dues or, if you prefer, mandatory, state-sanctioned assessments on pea and lentil growers. I’m still waiting for the Idaho “freedom” movement to outlaw mandatory assessments on farmers, which exist, of course, in order to market products and advocate political causes for a special interest group. Journeymen plumbers are obviously in a different class. Talk about a closed shop.

Right-to-work legislation has never about “freedom,” as Glenn peddled the concept, but rather represented a cynical two-pronged strategy to weaken collective bargaining and erode support for Idaho Democrats. It worked like gangbusters and had the additional benefitunion of depressing wages.

After steamrolling the right-to-work effort in Idaho, Glenn was hired as the political operative for the state’s cattle ranchers and tried, with some success, to use that platform to create his own path to political power. The cattle lobby was a “voluntary” organization were members paid “dues,” but you won’t find many cowboys who don’t volunteer and ante up. More freedom, I guess.

Cece Andrus famously refused Glenn admission to the governor’s office in those days and did not, as Glenn’s partisans incorrectly claimed, “throw him out” of the big office on the second floor of the Idaho Statehouse. Andrus, with no use for completely partisan hired guns like Glenn, loved to say that he most certain did not “throw” Glenn out, which would have been impossible since the hired gun never got his brand new Tony Lamas across the door jamb.

Glenn next brought his polarizing brand of partisanship to the Ada County Commission and spent two contentious terms mostly preening for television cameras and fighting with other elected officials. Before long he lost a Republican primary for Congress and decamped for Michigan and, one might hope, obscurity. But not so fast. In 2012 Glenn unsuccessfully sought the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Michigan, but that run merely served to open his third act and he captured a seat in the state legislature in 2014. You have to give the guy credit; he is a political survivor.

The Third Act…

I believe Glenn when he says, as he did in an Idaho Statesman piece marking the 25th anniversary of right-to-work coming to Idaho, that he is a “true believer” in his brand of ultra-conservative politics, the kind of politics that gains him regular attention from civil liberties groups who monitor the hateful drivel of Glenn and other divisive personalities like Glenn Beck and the radio preacher Bryan Fisher, two more professional agitators with Idaho antecedents.

Glenn is a true believer, but also a first-class opportunist, one of those people in politics who live to divide and chide. He’s made a living pumping out his anti-gay, anti-union, anti-tax mumbo jumbo, but beyond being against people not like him you have to wonder what he has to show for a lifetime of agitation?

Gary Glenn reminds me all these years later of the great question Lyndon Johnson asked of another fear and hate monger, George Wallace, during the darkest days of the voting rights struggle in 1965. “George,” LBJ said to the blustering Alabama governor, “what do you want left after you when you die? Do you want a Great…Big…Marble monument that reads ‘George Wallace – He Built?’…or do you want a scrawny pine board laying across that harsh, caliche soil, that reads, ‘George Wallace – He Hated?’”

Glenn left a questionable and negative mark on Idaho and now builds a dubious mark, as successful opportunists tend to do, in a new venue where, one suspects, all his nasty history is little understood. Still, his long “career” begs the question of just what has he built and what has his disdain for those who think differently really accomplished? He has certainly succeeded in keeping himself in the public eye and, ironically for someone who has so consistently preached the anti-government gospel, Glenn has once again landed on the public payroll, a perfect place from which to lament all the evils of government. As the same time, and in the name of “liberty” and “freedom” he has long championed causes that deny rights to others, while helping breed the absurd levels of animosity that are at the center of what passes for politics these days.

Michigan must be proud. Hate has a new lease on life. Mr. Glenn has opened his third act.


Heart and Soul

rs_560x415-140224091818-1024.roccos-chicago-pizzeria-arizona-legislators-022414The political and social fault lines in the modern Republican Party have been showing again for the last several days in Arizona. The Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed a piece of legislation this week that was widely seen as opening a path of overt discrimination against gays. The veto came after days of increasingly negative attention focused on Arizona; attention that included corporate worries about the legislation’s impact on business and threats to cancel next year’s Super Bowl game in suburban Phoenix.

Brewer, an often erratic politician who once championed most causes of the far right of her party, took her time in doing it, but she ultimately saved the state’s Republicans from themselves. The hot button bill, pushed by conservative religious interests and passed by the Arizona legislature with only GOP votes, underscores once again the fractured nature and fundamentally minority bent of a Republican Party that vowed to renew itself after losing the White House again in 2012.

Gov. Brewer, who seems to be term-limited from running again in the fall, but still hasn’t said whether she would contest such an interpretation, underwent a full court press from the “establishment” wing of the GOP who called on her to ax the handiwork of Republican legislators. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Jeff Flake both urged a veto. Apple, American Airlines, the state Hispanic chamber of commerce and a pizza shop in Tuscon that vowed to protest by refusing to serve Arizona legislators swarmed the governor. In the end it might have been the National Football League, plagued with its own image problems, that helped the governor decide to do the right thing; the right thing politically, economically, morally and for football fans.

The Republican Party’s national dilemma with issues like Arizona’s gay bashing legislation – and similar legislation in several other states with strong GOP majorities  – is neatly summed up in a comment from Mark McKinnon, the ad guy who made TV spots from George W. Bush in both of his successful elections.

“In this country, the arc of human rights always bends forward, never backwards,” McKinnon, a co-founder of the centrist group No Labels told Politico recently. “So these kinds of incidents are always backward steps for the Republican Party because they remind voters they are stuck in the past.”

Voters are being reminded of that reality in lots of places. In Oregon, some of the state’s most conservative Republicans are blasting the fellow GOP organizers of the 50 year old Dorchester Conference; denouncing them as “liberals” intent on advancing a pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-religion agenda.

“In light of the unveiled agenda to promote and celebrate liberal causes like abortion-on-demand, pet campaign projects like ‘republicanizing’ same-sex marriage and the attack on people of faith and their religious liberties many of us do not feel that our participation in this year’s Dorchester Conference is welcomed,” one of the offended right wingers told The Oregonian.

In Idaho a conservative former Republican governor, Phil Batt, went straight at his party and Gov. Butch Otter over the state legislature’s failure to even consider legislation to add fundamental human rights protections for the state’s gay, lesbian and transgender population. Batt, with his own gay grandson in mind, wrote in an op-ed: “I would like to have somebody explain to me who is going to be harmed by adding the words to our civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination in housing and job opportunities for homosexuals. Oh, I forgot, that might hurt the feelings of the gay bashers.”

It seems like a life-time ago that national Republicans, reeling from the re-election of the President Obama, commissioned an assessment of what the party needed to do to re-group in order to effectively contest a national election again. Like many such high-level reports, this one generated about a day and a half of news coverage and went on the shelf never to be read again. The GOP report outlined the demographic challenges the party faces and why the divisive debate in Arizona that quickly went national is so very damaging to party’s long-term prospects. Here are a couple of relevant paragraphs from the GOP’s Growth and Opportunity Book that was produced just over a year ago.

“Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us.”

And this: “Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. States in which our presidential candidates used to win, such as New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Florida, are increasingly voting Democratic. We are losing in too many places.”

In the face of this incontrovertible evidence Republicans have rolled out legislation like SB 1062 in state after state further alienating not only gay and lesbian voters, but likely most younger and independent voters. The GOP refusal at the federal level to even go through the motions of working on immigration reform seems certain to drive more and more Hispanic voters – the fastest growing demographic in the nation – away from Republicans candidates. At some not-too-distant point the political math, even in John McCain’s Arizona, becomes impossible for the GOP.

It is true that in our political history the fortunes of political parties regularly ebb and flow. The Whigs worked themselves out of existence in the 1850’s unable to find a set of positions that might bridge regional and ideological barriers and sustain them a national party. Immediately before and for years after the Civil War Democrats became largely a regional party that failed to command a national majority and elect a president in the years from 1856 until 1884. Teddy Roosevelt split the GOP in 1912 helping elect only the second Democratic president since the Civil War and his distant cousin Franklin, with the help of a Great Depression, created an enduring Democratic coalition – farmers, big cities ethnics, organized labor and the South – that lasted for two generations until moral and political battles over civil rights finally ceded the South to Republicans, a hand-off that now leaves that region as the only dependable base of the Republican Party.

In almost every case in our history when a party stumbles, as national Republicans stumble now, a unifying figure has emerged – FDR for Democrats in 1932 or Ronald Reagan in 1980 for the GOP – to offer a message that smooths over the ideological fissures. In the meantime, and lacking a unifying messenger, national Republican battles played out over the most polarizing issues – witness Arizona – will hamstring the party from moving forward.

Conservative commentator Myra Adams recently detailed ten reasons why the GOP is floundering as a national party. Adams remembered that the much maligned Millard Fillmore – he was president from 1849 to 1853 – was the last Whig Party president and she speculated that George W. Bush might well be the last Republican president. Her reason number nine for the current state of the national GOP was most telling. The party, she wrote, “is growing increasingly white, old, Southern, and male, which alienates majorities of younger voters, Hispanics, African Americans, gays, teachers, young professionals, atheists, unmarried women, and even suburban married women.”

In the end, the issues for Republicans are more serious even than the demographics. The party failure to re-cast itself by looking forward with attitudes and issues that address an America in the 21st Century is, to say the least, a risky gambit. Yet, the kind of a makeover that is needed seems increasingly unlikely, at least in the near term, when the loudest voices speaking for Republicans are constantly playing to a narrower and narrower group of true believers, while denying – as the 87-years young Phil Batt suggests – that the cultural and political world is passing them by.

Increasingly outside forces and insurgents like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rather than sober-minded realists dominate the party’s message. The Koch brothers, aiming to keep beating the anti Obamacare drum, have hijacked the GOP message for the coming mid-term elections. Look for the totality of the GOP message this year to be about the evils of the health care law (and the “socialist” president) even as a new Kaiser Health poll shows Americans are increasingly comfortable with the much-debated law. Kaiser’s survey shows that fully 56% of those surveyed favor keeping the law as is or keeping it and making improvements. Only the GOP base is clamoring for something different and even those numbers are shrinking.

Another overly influential outside voice, the Heritage Foundation, was still trying to explain why the Arizona legislation was “good public policy” after Brewer’s veto. And the guy with the loudest (and meanest) GOP megaphone, Rush Limbaugh, always eager to double down on a lost cause, said Brewer was “bullied” into her veto position in order to “advance the gay agenda.” All that plays well tactically with the “increasingly white, old, Southern, and male” base of the GOP, but leaves much of the rest of the 21st Century United States very cold indeed.

Lacking the re-boot that many Republicans wisely advocated after the last national election the party, as Mark Mckinnon says, will continue to be stuck in the past. The really bad news for national Republicans is that elections are always about the future.

Remarkable, But Shouldn’t Be…

140209211519-michael-sam-top11-single-image-cutIt is a given that our culture is obsessed with football. A Super Bowl game that quickly became non-competitive recently drew 111 million fans. Top level college football programs averaged more than 45,000 fans per game last season. In football crazed communities from Boise to Tuscaloosa the college game is an occasion for tailgate parties that often begin the night before the kickoff. National “letter of intent” day when high school stars commit to college programs gets way more media coverage than the Syrian civil war.

You might say football is in a way a metaphor for American culture. We love the ritual and root for our favorites, while quietly wondering about the lasting impact of sanctioned violence on young brains. We exalt the elite coaches and their seven figure salaries all the while secretly knowing that college should be more about the classroom than the locker room. Perhaps the football-as-life metaphor never fit more snugly than yesterday when a University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, a likely high National Football League draft pick, let the world know what his teammates had known all season long.

Michael Sam, a strapping 6 foot 2 inch, 260 pounder, the best defensive player in the best football conference in the country, is gay. His knowing Missouri Tiger teammates selected him as their most valuable player after a season in which they had come to know the real Michael Sam. I can’t help but juxtapose that kind of courage and sensitivity against the head-in-the-sand bias and insensitivity of too many politicians from Boise to Sochi.

Michael Sam’s announcement almost seemed timed for maximum impact on our culture, and to his credit his timing also served to put his standing in a future NFL draft in some peril.

As the New York Times noted, “Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.” The guy who was credited with 11.5 sacks during Missouri’s 12-2 season instantly became a symbol of how quickly public attitudes are changing regarding matters of sexual orientation and, at the same time, Michael Sam set himself up – potentially – for the kind of abuse pathfinders often encounter.

The University of Missouri has something to teach the larger society about all this. “We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents #Mizzou,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. The coach’s classy responses came in reaction to Sam’s interviews with ESPN and the New York Times announcing he’s news.

Professional sports, perhaps particularly the NFL, have long been the athletic equivalent of the Idaho Legislature when it comes to recognize the fundamental human rights of our fellow citizens. Yet, as Jackie Robinson demonstrated in another civil rights context more than half a century ago, sports can also help the larger culture confront fundamental issues. Sportswriter Juliet Macur correctly says the slow, stone-by-stone dismantling of a professional sports wall of discrimination toward gays can now, thanks to Michael Sam’s courage, fall as though pushed by a bulldozer wearing Number 52.

“Same-sex marriage laws have been passed in many states,” Macur writes, “with more to come. Gay rights have been a major issue at the Olympics in Russia, where the government last summer passed a law that prohibits the transmission of ‘gay propaganda’ to children, prompting many groups and some athletes to speak out.

“Even Pope Francis has, in his own way, recently expressed support for gays, shocking conservatives when he said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ He said people ‘should not be marginalized’ because of their sexual orientation and ‘must be integrated into society.'”

Billie Jean King, who President Obama wisely asked to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics (and in the process stuck a thumb in the homophobic Valdimir Putin’s eye), tells CBS that it “really it gets down to humankind. … We just happen to be gay. … We need to really shift where it’s a non issue. When it’s a non issue, it will mean we’ve arrived. It won’t happen in my lifetime but it’s definitely a civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Here’s hoping Missouri’s Michael Sam has a great NFL career, but even if that doesn’t happen this articulate, intelligent young man will have displayed the kind of personal courage that some folks in public life would do well to try and emulate. Or, put another way: if Sam had enough courage to sit for an interview with the New York Times and ESPN and discuss the most personal aspects of who he is, perhaps its not asking too much that state legislators in Boise and other state capitols finally summon enough personal and political courage to really deal seriously with the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.

We should long for the day when it isn’t.


The World is Watching

1391446725-new_add_the_wordsIdaho is making national news again and again for all the wrong reasons.

A quick Google search this morning turns up more than 130 stories on the 44 protesters arrested Monday in the Idaho State Capitol in Boise. Typical was the story in USA Today, a paper/digital publication with the top circulation numbers in the country, that featured the headline: “Dozens of gay rights activists arrested in Idaho.”

While the issue of same sex marriage has turned into the new civil rights steamroller across the country with state after state abandoning old notions and embracing equality the Idaho Legislature has again refused to even debate the issue of bringing the state’s human rights law into the 20th, not to mention the 21st, century.

As if anyone needed proof of how quickly the moral and legal ground is shifting under Idaho’s extra-conservative lawmakers, Politico reports today that same-sex marriage advocates are establishing a national “war room” to coordinate the incredibly diverse political battles on marriage equality that stretch now from Oregon to Virginia.

Politico’s Maggie Haberman writes: “Adding a bipartisan dimension to the effort at a time when a number of establishment Republicans are moving to back gay marriage, the war room will be led by SKDKnickerbocker’s Olivia Alair on the Democratic-leaning side, and Brian Jones, the former Republican National Committee official and Mitt Romney adviser, of Black Rock Group.”

But, as Idaho human rights advocates have stressed for years, an even more fundamental issue exists in Idaho – will gay and transgender Idahoans be afforded the same protections under the law that the rest of us already have? It is really an issue of basic fairness and equity; should Idaho law include workplace, housing, public accommodation, transportation, and education rights for its citizens without regard to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity?”

For the moment in Idaho, as in Utah and Virginia among other states, we can set aside the same-sex marriage issue that admittedly remains a hot button issue for many conservatives. Lawsuits challenging state bans on same-sex marriage, including a case in Idaho, will eventually sort out those issues. Yet, normally clear-headed legislators like Senate President Brent Hill in Idaho have elected to dodge the fundamental human rights issue yet again because they say the marriage issue must be resolved first. That is as disingenuous a position as it is short sighted.

All across this big and diverse country the idea, at long last, that all our brothers and sisters deserve the same treatment under the law – not more protection or different protection, just the same – has started to roll down, as Dr. King might have said, like a mighty river. Idaho risks much by being seen as having been hauled kicking and screaming into this new and better day.

Having been around the Idaho Legislature for more than 35 years, I have more than a little sympathy for legislators of both parties who must have struggled mightily on Monday over how to deal with a few dozen protesters who were determined to make a point and risk arrest in the process. Idaho is not unfamiliar with passionate protest even in the Statehouse or on its grounds. And, while not all of us would have chosen to protest in the manner of as those did who were eventually taken from the State Senate chambers by Idaho State Police yesterday, these fellow citizens do share some history with other Americans who chose much the same path of civil disobedience.  That history reaches back to a drug store lunch counter in Greenboro, North Carolina in 1960 and a factory floor in Flint, Michigan in 1937.

Idaho has too often had a dodgy history on matters of human rights. Locals in Kootenai County and elsewhere were often quicker to react to neo-Nazi hate groups in the 1980’s than were state officials. A saintly Catholic bishop once had to shame lawmakers into providing portable restroom facilities for Hispanic farm workers. The state was a very tardy adopter of the Martin Luther King Holiday and some still seem to barely embrace the importance of such a day. The current protest over basic human rights issues, and make no mistake this is such an issue, has a long and resonant history in America. The Idaho Legislature had best brace itself. There will be other days like Monday as citizens petition their government to right a wrong.

Fifty-four years ago last Saturday four young African American college students took seats at a lunch counter in a Woolworth drug store where the prevailing law and sentiment told them they could not sit. Those protests ended a few months later with a decision to desegregate that lunch counter and a student civil rights movement was born. Once in a while the smallest gesture sparks a revolution. A move to the right side of history is a curious thing. Once it is done we will wonder why it took us so long.

[Photo credit: Boise Weekly]



Chief Justice John Roberts cousin will be sitting in a seat reserved for family members when the United States Supreme Court hears arguments on the California same sex marriage case tomorrow. Jean Podrasky is 48, a resident of San Francisco and has been in a committed relationship for four years. She hopes to get married. It may well take the vote of her cousin, the Chief Justice, to allow Jean to marry her partner Grace Fasano because Ms. Podrasky is lesbian.

As to whether her being gay might impact cousin John’s reading of the complicated California ban on same sex marriage, Podrasky told the Los Angeles Times that she couldn’t predict, but then added the inevitable, “Everybody knows somebody” who is gay, “It probably impacts everybody.” Indeed.

Whether the Supreme Court takes civil and human rights a step forward this week in two separate cases – the California case on Tuesday and a hearing on the Constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on Wednesday – seems almost beside the point. The country has changed, indeed continues to change, and before long the law will catch up with public opinion on the acceptance of gay marriage. The latest public opinion research shows the dramatic change in attitudes about what was, less than two decades ago, a litmus test issue for many politicians. Fully 58% of Americans, and a much higher percentage of younger Americans, support gay marriage, while about one-third still oppose.

As Frank Bruni wrote recently in the New York Times, more and more Americans have come to the conclusion that finally granting full civil rights to gay Americans is not a zero sum game. One side need not lose, while the other wins. “The legalization of same-sex marriage takes nothing from anyone,” Bruni wrote, “other than the illusion, which is all it is and ever was, that healthy, nurturing relationships are reserved for people of opposite sexes.”

All this is not to say that the Supreme Court’s action on the cases at issue this week doesn’t matter. It does. But even if the Court delays the inevitable for a while longer the politics, at least in most places, has moved on. How else to explain politicians from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on the left to Sen. Rob Portman on the right publicly charting the evolution of the issue. The Portman case is one of the most interesting and also most human. The conservative Ohio Republican, a man vetted by Mitt Romney for the vice presidency, came to his new position on same sex marriage after his college age son acknowledged his own sexual orientation. Portman, in the language of politics, came to possess “new information” about just how a contentious issue can work in real life. His comments about his son and wanting to support him is the language of any father who loves his kid and wants to see him happy.

Portman has said that he told the Romney campaign the full story about his son during the vice presidential vetting and he thinks the issue was not decisive in his not being picked. Well, there are no coincidences in politics, so take Portman at his word or be more cynical – and realistic – and imagine how that issue might have played with the GOP base last fall. Portman is already being threatened with a primary challenge in Ohio from the same crowd that once fought to the last lunch counter against civil rights in another era.

The sooner Republicans follow the darling of the neo-cons Dick Cheney and get on the right side of politics and history on this issue the sooner the grand old party can find its way back to national presidential relevance. Democrats who still worry about changing their views on gay marriage should listen to Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a skillful politician in a conservative state, who has acknowledge the inevitable. “I have come to the conclusion that our government should not limit the right to marry based on who you love,” McCaskill said over the weekend.

Still one has to wonder whether a state like Idaho where the legislature can’t bring itself to even hold a hearing on legislation to add the words “sexual orientation” and “gender equality” to the state’s human rights law will again be pulled kicking and screaming into another new era of civil rights protection. Idaho was among the last to adopt Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. birthday as a state holiday and only did so after pressure from human rights activists and threats of boycotts in other states made such a small and symbolic move inevitable and necessary.

There is rich irony in the fact that ultra-conservative Idaho now finds itself more or less in the same boat on gay marriage as Socialist France, where public opposition to same sex-marriage and adoption legislation is encountering fierce resistance from the political and religious right. Holdouts make strange bedfellows. Even the new Pope, while serving as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, a Catholic country where same sex marriage is legal, is reported to have quietly favored civil unions for gay Argentines as an alternative to full civil rights.

Leave it to a young American to put it all in perspective. Yale undergrad Will Portman has written eloquently in the school’s newspaper about his own struggles with his sexual identity and the possible impacts on his dad the Senator. Here’s part of what he said: “I support marriage for same-sex couples because I believe that everybody should be treated the same way and have the same shot at happiness. Over the course of our country’s history the full rights of citizenship have gradually been extended to a broader and broader group of people, something that’s made our society stronger, not weaker. Gay rights may be the civil rights cause of the moment, but the movement fits into a larger historical narrative.

“I’m proud of my dad, not necessarily because of where he is now on marriage equality (although I’m pretty psyched about that), but because he’s been thoughtful and open-minded in how he’s approached the issue, and because he’s shown that he’s willing to take a political risk in order to take a principled stand. He was a good man before he changed his position, and he’s a good man now, just as there are good people on either side of this issue today.”

I still recall with pride those Idaho state legislators who had the courage to take a political risk to support tough human rights legislation back in the 1980’s when the state’s reputation as a haven for white supremacists presented a genuine threat to Idaho’s reputation. With the perfect vision that comes with hindsight it’s now clear those decisions (and votes) were no-brainers. Some day, perhaps even sooner than many think, votes on granting full civil and human rights to gay Americans will be viewed in the same way. Makes you wonder how long some folks will cling to the “illusion” that people who love and care for each other and happen to be gay don’t deserve the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of us. Here’s hoping Idaho isn’t again among the last to take a step that is both inevitable and morally correct. Being a hold out with, of all people the French, many be really uncomfortable.


A Moment in Time

The Wrong Side of History

Politicians are defined by their actions, but also by what they fail to do. I’m guessing that at least some of the Idaho State Senators who voted quickly and decisively last Friday to reject – without comment or testimony – a proposal to add anti-discrimination language to state law concerning gay, lesbian and transgender Idahoans are going to come to regret their votes. They failed to act on a basic question of civil rights and those who spoke with reporters afterward had trouble explaining why.

Almost certainly it came down to politics and a concern that a vote to expand anti-discrimination protection for those “not like us” would be difficult to explain to some voters. There have always been such votes – from slavery to civil rights – and sometimes those votes put people on the wrong side of history.

The arc of history indeed may, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, bend toward justice, but it often takes time and those who resist the march toward greater justice often find themselves explaining why they resisted.

When Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 in an attempt to prevent the enrollment of two black students at the University of Alabama he probably couldn’t envision that one day an African-American running back, Trent Richardson, would score the only touchdown in the Crimson Tide’s national title winning game. Gov. Wallace was on the wrong side of history more than 40 years ago and his enduring political legacy, the race baiting and the cultivation of the worst instincts of his constituents, still echoes down from those profoundly wrong moments in the schoolhouse door.

Barry Goldwater’s often exemplary political career still carries the stain of his rejection of civil rights legislation in the 1960’s.

Georgia Sen. Richard Russell was an icon of the Senate, so much so that one of the Senate office buildings in Washington carries his name. But it’s Russell’s dead end opposition to civil rights legislation from the 1930’s to the 1960’s and his bizarre explanation to Lyndon Johnson that couldn’t serve on the Warren Commission investigating John Kennedy’s assassination because he “didn’t like that man” Chief Justice Earl Warren that largely define his legacy today. Russell spent his long and, in many ways, distinguished career in the Senate, playing to the worst characteristics of his constituents on race and civil rights and he ended up on the wrong side of history.

The reverse can also be true – politicians are often rewarded for bucking prevailing sentiment, particularly when civil rights are involved.

Closer to home, few remember who opposed then-Idaho State Sen. Phil Batt’s efforts to create the Idaho Human Rights Commission, but the Commission and its anti-discrimination work remain a hallmark of Batt’s distinguished political career. The Commission, by the way, endorsed the legislation that died last week in the state senate.

Idaho was among the last states in 1990 to adopt a Martin Luther King holiday, but now the January commemoration of King’s birth and the cause of civil rights is an established ritual at the Idaho Statehouse. Young people, in particular, seem to relish the chance to celebrate King and his ideas. Few remember who voted, time and again, to defeat the King holiday idea, but those folks  know who they are and on what side of the history line they stand.

The arc of history does bend toward justice – slowly – but bend it does.

Toward the end of his life the old segregationist George Wallace, four times governor of Alabama and nearly assassinated as a presidential candidate, sought redemption, in a way, for his political sins. He spent hours on the phone calling his old political enemies, including Congressman John Lewis who was severely beaten by an Alabama state trooper during a civil rights march. Wallace found that he needed to confess that he’d been wrong with his use of race to appeal to his constituents and gain political power. He realized that being on the wrong side was wrong.

Filmmaker Paul Stekler made a great film about Wallace and came to regard him as an amazing character. “He begins gifted at politics, an idealist in some ways,” Stekler told freelance writer Maggie Riechers. “He works all his life to become governor and just when it is within his grasp, he’s prevented from winning. He then makes a conscious decision to give up his ideals and embraces racism, which gives him political success and power, more than he ever believed possible. Then at the height of his success, he is struck down. At the end of his life he goes back to his roots.”

The wrong side of history must be an uncomfortable place to be, particularly when you can’t really explain why you’re there. Dr. King said it well: “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”


Oil and Water

Very Strange Bedfellows

I don’t normally pay a great deal of attention to the political opinions of Hollywood personalities. So I confess I missed the initial news reports that the actress Daryl Hannah, perhaps best known for playing the mermaid in Ron Howard’s movie Splash, was arrested a few days back for protesting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

The lovely Ms. Hannah, talented too, for all I know, isn’t the real story here, however. The politics of jobs is at work. in this international pipeline.

The pipeline project is designed to carry oil recovered from the Alberta tar sands to refineries in Oklahoma and Texas and the pipeline, its purpose and route, has been increasingly in the news lately. The U.S. State Department recently released an environmental impact statement that said, in essence, the project could be completed without major environmental problems. Needless to say, not everyone, including Ms. Hannah, agrees.

Most major environmental groups have expressed disappointment that the Obama Administration seems on the verge of approving the pipeline. The President’s mostly natural allies in the environmental movement are also torqued that the administration recently and abruptly dropped new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules related to smog. These two events, separate and linked at the same time, really constitute Exhibit A that the political imperative to grow the economy and create jobs, particularly during a period of prolonged economic turmoil, eventually trump most every other consideration.

My old boss former Idaho Gov. and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus, no slouch when it comes to possessing an environmental ethic, used to say: “First, you must making a living and then you must have a living that is worthwhile.” That is just another way of saying that without a job you don’t have much time or ability to enjoy the great outdoors, clean air and water. Needless to say not everyone in public life agrees about the political priority of jobs first. For some being “pure” on the environment is simply a higher calling that transcends all else, including finding some way to jump start a stumbling economy.

Put former Vice President Al Gore in this category. Gore recently, and perhaps entirely predictably,  came out in opposition to the Canada to the Gulf pipeline. The motivations of the Republican Governor of Nebraska Dave Heineman, who says he also opposes the pipeline because of its route through Nebraksa, appear more interesting. Republicans don’t normally oppose pipelines.

Daryl Hannah may look better getting arrested, but Republican Heineman and Democrat Gore as an anti-pipeline dance team may have a lot more impact on this increasingly complex and contentious environmental issue.

Development of Canada’s oil sands resource has long be contentious. Gore, never bashful about hyperpole, calls it the dirtest energy on the planet. Heineman says his opposition is based on the pipeline’s threat to the huge Ogallala aquifer that lies deep below Nebraska and several other states. The route through Nebraska’s special Sand Hills country, where my grandfather homesteaded more than a hundred years ago, is also problematic according to Gov. Heineman.

In Idaho and Montana recently the long public debate and substantial opposition to huge shipments of oilfield gear from the Port of Lewiston to the Canadian fields has been much less about the articulated reasons of shipment opponents – safety, disruption of traffic, etc – than about the mostly unspoken reasons, a strategic desire by environmental groups to prevent, or at least delay, further tar sands development.

As is most often the case, the debate over the pipeline from the Great North is waged with soundbites from all sides that simplify the discussion to the point of distortion.  There is plenty of substance here on all sides, but we never hear much that isn’t the rhetorical equivilent to Daryl Hannah getting arrested in front of the White House.

For example, how many Americans know that we already import more oil from Canada than any other country, in fact, nearly twice as much as we import from Saudi Arabia and four times as much as we ship in from Iraq. What happens without the pipeline? What happens with it? Good luck getting those answers.

The pipeline debate, the fight over the smog rules and the future of nuclear power, just to name three energy issues of the moment, are all symptoms of a failure of national political leadership to confront the fundamentals of how we use energy and where it comes from.

Many on the left of our politics can hardly fathom a serious debate about how we actually might alter the nation’s energy consumption and mix of resources because they know – heck everyone knows – that it can’t be done overnight or without real pain and dislocation. These folks are increasingly locked into a short-term, tactical mindset that creates a environmental emergency about this pipeline or that power plant. Vast expansion of wind energy production in the American West is now seeing the predictable pushback from many of these folks. Real debate and establishment of priorities goes begging with such short-term thinking.

At the same time, the hard right of our political flank pays a premium to someone like Texas Gov. Rick Perry who rejects the notion, now the overwhelming consensus of the world’s scientic community, that climate charge is a real and urgent fact. Or, closer to home, the short-sighted bemoan the public subsidies “lavished” on public transportation, while completely ignoring that the American system of air service is built on truly vast public subsides for airports, facilities, personnel and equipment.

It’s increasingly hard to have a sensible discussion about public priorities in the United States because we can’t often agree on a common set of facts and assumptions. Is a pipeline from Canada to the Gulf an environmental disaster in the making or a critical piece of infrastructure that keeps the oil following from a nearby neighbor that we haven’t recently had a war with?

Is the delay of $90 billion in smog rules a cave in to the dirty air crowd or a prudent, temporary move that my help the economy get back on its feet?  Jobs versus the environment is a long-term reality of American political life – just not a very constructive debate.

I have this naive notion that the American public is really capable of grappling with the complexity and nuance of these kinds of issues. It’s just been so long since anyone talked to us about complexity and trade-offs that we are out of practice.

Maybe Daryl Hannah can explain.

A Tipping Point

Law Firms, Gay Marriage and Civil Rights

I once heard Sherman Alexie, a gifted writer who also happens to be Native American, have some fun at the expense of those who maintain that there is something inherently evil about homosexuality. To drive home his point that homosexuality is as old as humankind, that gays live and work with us everywhere and that the creative class – writers, composers, actors, etc. – are disproportionately represented in the gay community, Alexie challenged his audience to go home and look at the titles in their bookcase.

Chances are you’ll  find on that book shelf, Alexie good naturedly said, writers who are “gay, gay, gay, Hemingway, gay, gay…”

I thought about Alexie’s humor recently as I read accounts about the big, white shoe law firm of King and Spalding dropping out as legal counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives, which intends to defend, now that the Obama Administration won’t, the so called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

King and Spalding’s then-partner Paul Clement, a former Solicitor General in the Bush Administration, had signed on to handle the DOMA case for the House of Representatives for a fee of $500,000. But apparently Clement either hadn’t vetted the representation carefully enough or the leaders of the big firm decided the high-profile gay rights case represented too much controversy. For whatever reason, the firm backed out. Gay rights groups immediately claimed creditfor getting the firm to abandon the controvesial case, editorials and politicians blasted the firm for caving in to such pressure and the firm has refused to say much beyond a terse statement from the managing partner to the effect that the representation hadn’t been adequately reviewed by the firm. Meanwhile, Clement resigned in protest and took the DOMA case with him to another firm.

At least two things are going on here. One potentially involves a fundamental principle of legal representation, the other may signal a tipping point in the long-running public debate over same sex marriage. First, the legal issue.

If King and Spalding, a 125-year old, international law firm with 800 lawyers, that represents, according to its website, clients as diverse as Coca Cola and Goldman Sachs, withdrew from the DOMA case under pressure then it deserves all the flack it’s taking. If, as seems more likely for a firm that has had partners like Sam Nunn and Griffin Bell, the firm had a breakdown in assessing a potential client (and assessing how, for example, the law firm’s commitment to diversity might be impacted by taking the case) then they get a black eye for process and public relations rather than for displaying questionable legal ethics. It’s worth noting, just to make this a bit more complicated, that two of King and Spalding’s partners are representing Guantanamo detaineeson a pro bono basis.

Everyone, it is said, from the suspected murderer to the white collar criminal, deserves legal representation. However – since I’m not a lawyer I can say this – not every lawyer has an obligation to every potential client. In fact, I’ve heard lawyer friends say it, and I’ve said it in the public affairs business, “everyone is entitled to good representation, but not everyone is entitled to my representation.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece last Friday, a Minnesota law professor made a compelling case that law firms have led society’s way in creating equal opportunities for gays and minorities. Dale Carpenter wrote, “Gay-rights supporters have transformed the law and the legal profession, opening the doors of law firms, law schools and courts to people who were once casually and cruelly shut out because of their sexual orientation.” This process has been slow, but steady not unlike the larger civil rights movement that since the 1960’s has transformed the attitudes in the professions – the law particularly – regarding opportunity and equality.

This controversy also may represent a larger societial tipping point. As Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak writes in the Times, we may be near a point where the nation’s thought-leading “elites” – including big-time law firms, the corporate community and the media – are “racing ahead of popular opinion and shutting down” what many still believe to be a worthwhile debate.” When firms like King and Spalding spend real time, money and effort on diversity in hiring and promoting, its hard not to conclude that broad public opinion is going to follow – and pretty quickly. And that is exactly what seems to be happening.

The Pew Center for the People and Press recently reported that its surveys indicate that public support for same sex marriage continues to grow with virtually the same percentage of Americans now supporting as opposing. This trend of growing support has been evident for some time, Pew notes, while the partisan divide over the issue remains deep.

“As has been the case since 1996, there is a wide partisan division on the question of same-sex marriage. Currently 57% of Democrats favor making it legal, while only 23% of Republicans agree. Independents (at 51% in favor) are more similar to Democrats than to Republicans, in part because 46% of Republican-leaning independents are supportive of same-sex marriage, along with 58% of independents who lean Democratic.”

Ten countries, including Canada and Argentina, now recognize same sex marriage and 15 other countries, including many nations that form our military coalitions in the Middle East, recognize civil unions. It’s hard not to conclude that the course on this issue is set and, whether intended or not, that King and Spalding’s decision not to represent the Congress in the Defense of Marriage Act case could further move the debate in the direction it is already clearly heading.

There seems to be a certain historical pattern to such issues. Opponents of same sex marriage, politicians and religious leaders, invoke spiritual teachings and cultural norms as the basis of their opposition. You often hear that same sex marriage will “weaken the institution of marriage.”

In a fascinating piece in the Times Magazine recently, the author of a new book on Ann Durham, President Obama’s Kansas-born white mother, notes that when Ann married Obama’s Kenyan father she did so at a time when “nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage.” It wasn’t all that long ago – 1967  in the case Loving v. Virginia – that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed state prohibitions against interracial marriage. Incidentally, many of the same arguments advanced today against same sex marriage were used then to oppose interracial marriage.

Not surprisingly, Obama – like more and more Americans – admits that his views on same sex marriage “are evolving.” If you talk to younger Americans you’ll find little toleration for discrimination based on race or gender. They’re way beyond such things and generally can’t understand what all the controversy is about.

In his unanimous opinion in the 1967 Loving case, Chief Justice Earl Warren, the former Republican governor of California and 1948 running mate of Thomas Dewey, concluded with these words: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Warren repeatedly referred in his short opinion to “basic civil rights,” guaranteed under the Constitution. The Court, Warren said, has “consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

It is undoubtedly some distance in the future, but it’s not difficult to imagine a Supreme Court justice writing the same sentence Earl Warren wrote in 1967  substituting the word “sex” for “race” and “gender” for “racial.” 

The simplest of all explanations – the logical principle of Occam’s Razor– is almost always correct. Perhaps the big, prestigious law firm of King and Spalding simply didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

But let’s give Sherman Alexie the last word on this subject. To those who say that gay marriage is a threat to the heterosexual, one-man, one-woman institution of marriage, Alexie says, not true. “Gay marriage does not threaten my marriage.  Beautiful, easy women with no boundaries threaten my marriage.  I don’t need anyone else’s help.”