February 2, 2019

How not to help politics

Sam Smith - There are various ways we don’t help politics, one of which has come to the forefront with the Ralph Northam controversy. The conflict, which has become more complex with the question of whether the KKK photo in his yearbook was chosen by him or by those editing the book, raises a more general issue that seldom gets discussed: politics, a highly imperfect craft, is about change and you can’t make progress just with those who have been right their entire life.
A classic example was Lyndon Johnson. Here is how Barack Obama described it in a talk in 2014:
Like any of us, he was not a perfect man. His experiences in rural Texas may have stretched his moral imagination, but he was ambitious, very ambitious, a young man in a hurry to plot his own escape from poverty and to chart his own political career. And in the Jim Crow South, that meant not challenging convention. During his first 20 years in Congress, he opposed every civil rights bill that came up for a vote, once calling the push for federal legislation “a farce and a sham.” He was chosen as a vice presidential nominee in part because of his affinity with, and ability to deliver, that Southern white vote. And at the beginning of the Kennedy administration, he shared with President Kennedy a caution towards racial controversy.

But marchers kept marching. Four little girls were killed in a church. Bloody Sunday happened. The winds of change blew. And when the time came, when LBJ stood in the Oval Office -- I picture him standing there, taking up the entire doorframe, looking out over the South Lawn in a quiet moment -- and asked himself what the true purpose of his office was for, what was the endpoint of his ambitions, he would reach back in his own memory and he’d remember his own experience with want.

And he knew that he had a unique capacity, as the most powerful white politician from the South, to not merely challenge the convention that had crushed the dreams of so many, but to ultimately dismantle for good the structures of legal segregation. He’s the only guy who could do it -- and he knew there would be a cost, famously saying the Democratic Party may “have lost the South for a generation.”

That’s what his presidency was for. That’s where he meets his moment. And possessed with an iron will, possessed with those skills that he had honed so many years in Congress, pushed and supported by a movement of those willing to sacrifice everything for their own liberation, President Johnson fought for and argued and horse traded and bullied and persuaded until ultimately he signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

And he didn’t stop there -- even though his advisors again told him to wait, again told him let the dust settle, let the country absorb this momentous decision. He shook them off. “The meat in the coconut,” as President Johnson would put it, was the Voting Rights Act, so he fought for and passed that as well. Immigration reform came shortly after. And then, a Fair Housing Act. And then, a health care law that opponents described as “socialized medicine” that would curtail America’s freedom, but ultimately freed millions of seniors from the fear that illness could rob them of dignity and security in their golden years, which we now know today as Medicare.
If someone had discovered the number of civil rights bills he had once opposed, would it have been wise to demand his resignation from the White House? I think not.

The truth is, except for slavery and succession, the Civil War in many ways continues to this day and it is in place like Virginia that one finds strong echoes. For example Northam won the governorship by beating Ed Gillespie who, as Slate notes, “ran ads designed to provoke fear of Hispanic immigrants and defended Confederate monuments.”

Northam, on the other hand, supported abortion rights and Planned Parenthood spent $3 million to back his campaign.

According to Wikipedia, “in June 2017 Northam stated that the statues in the state Capitol that the General Assembly has jurisdiction over "should be taken down and moved into museums.” … He has said that there should be more public memorials to historical Virginia civil rights leaders such as Barbara Rose Johns, Oliver Hill, and Samuel Wilbert Tucker.

He is opposed to the death penalty.

He has proposed a minimum wage of $15

He has also called for phasing out the grocery tax on low-income people and ending business taxes in struggling rural areas.

He has proposed free community college education in high demand fields provided the students commit to a year of paid public service.

He accepts the science on climate change.

He supports a ban on assault weapons

He cast a tie-breaking vote in the state Senate against a bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia

He favors decriminalizing marijuana.

And according to US Today, Northam, after the [Charlottesville] rally, denounced the "ugly" event and praised the city and its residents for promoting a place that values "openness, diversity and inclusion."

This is not the man as characterized in his 20s by the current controversy.

I have covered politics for 60 years and I can tell you this: if you find a guy who’s gotten better with time, don’t dump him for it.

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