The Washington Post

A valentine for Komen

Nancy Brinker, founder and chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Just a few weeks earlier, I went to the funeral of a dear friend who had also battled breast cancer for years.

Despite all that’s been said recently — some of it by me — about the size and power of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the disease that killed them and so many others isn’t suddenly any less of a threat.

And I am unwilling to join the Greek chorus that’s now demonizing Komen and its founder, Nancy Brinker.

Yes, I’m on record as noting that the recent controversy over funding for Planned Parenthood had political undertones. That much is now self-evident, thanks to the charity’s reversal of its funding decision and the murmurings of top staff.

But if I thought it was naive to believe the charity’s initial claims that the Planned Parenthood decision was apolitical, I find it equally absurd to suggest, as Brinker’s many critics now claim, that the decision was completely political. Or that this one moment defines Komen and its founder.

Nancy Brinker is not and never was a closet Republican. She was a GOP donor for decades and worked the Dallas philanthropic circuit assiduously on Komen’s behalf when she lived here.

In fact, in 1997 Brinker was honored at Dallas Planned Parenthood’s annual luncheon with a humanitarian award. Back in the day, you could be a Republican and still be friendly with Planned Parenthood.

Maybe that fence-walking history is why President Obama honored Brinker with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, even after she served as Hungarian ambassador under his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.

It seems silly to suggest, as some have, that a partisan spirit suddenly possessed her after a 30-year history of building up the Komen organization.

Far more likely, it seems to me, is the possibility that Brinker has long tried to mollify both sides in the abortion debate.

Maybe Brinker herself, like so many American women, doesn’t fully embrace either side of the abortion war. Maybe she wanted to get Komen off the battlefield and mistakenly believed that bowing to pressure from abortion foes would take the heat off.

After all, many ordinary Americans still hew to the middle ground, telling pollsters they believe abortion should be permitted in some circumstances but maybe not others.

In today’s super-charged partisan era, however, fence-straddling is no longer an option for those in the public eye. Even a charity has no safe place to sit.

The Komen episode is a cautionary tale about far more than the power of social media. It’s a reminder that much of the public discourse is driven by people at the extremes. What Komen found after it reversed its decision on Planned Parenthood is that it couldn’t reclaim the putative high ground of being above the abortion fray.

Komen’s in the trenches now, where it never wanted to be, in an unforgiving, what-have-you-done-lately world.

Lori Stahl is a Dallas-based journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriStahl.



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