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The moderate Republican roots of the Knee Defender, the gadget that disrupted a United Airlines flight

Ira Goldman with his invention, the Knee Defender, at Washington’s Reagan National Airport, in 2003. (Susan Walsh/AP)

It is firm in its insistence upon an air passenger’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of leg room.

But it opens the door to compromise.

These are the politics of the Knee Defender, the small bracket-like device that prevents passengers from reclining on airplanes — a $22 gadget that caused a fracas on a United Airlines flight earlier this week.

Its inventor: Ira H. Goldman, former aide to former governor and U.S. Senator Pete Wilson, a moderate Republican from California.

Like former president George H.W. Bush, once a supporter of abortion rights, or Colin Powell defending affirmative action, Goldman seems almost reluctant about his creation.

Nobody wants to buy this product, nobody wants to carry it around with them and deploy it for giggles,” he told CBS. “They do it because they’ve encountered problems, and they want to resolve it as best they can.”

Though the United flight had to be diverted after a woman dumped water on the passenger behind her when he refused to remove the Knee Defender that prevented her from reclining, Goldman said his invention is not about containment, but soft power.

The Knee Defender says right on it: ‘Be courteous. Do not hog space. Listen to the flight crew,'” Goldman told USA Today. “Apparently that is not what happened here.”

Ira Goldman's invention, the Knee Defender,is shown at Washington's Reagan National Airport, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2003. Goldman invented the device, a beeper-sized block of plastic that lets airline passengers prevent the seat in front of them from reclining. Aviation officials worry about the disagreements that will be generated at 30,000 feet (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) A close-up of the Knee Defender. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Indeed, according to IB Times, the Knee Defender comes with a courtesy card that can be shared with anyone who objects to the device. Check out this willingness to cross the aisle: “I realize that this may be an inconvenience. If so, I hope you will complain to the airline. Maybe working together we can convince the airlines to provide enough space between rows so that people can recline their seats without banging into other passengers.”

That doesn’t sound much like “Live free or die” or ““I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my colddead hands.”

In California two decades ago, Goldman staked out similar spots in the middle of the road as part of Wilson’s administration — an administration excoriated by the left for its support for California’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187, but one that signed on to what was then the biggest tax increase in state history, as Mother Jones pointed out.

In 1991 — a year before Bill Clinton was elected president — Goldman liked NAFTA. “Simply put, a North American Free Trade Agreement presents this state with a major economic opportunity,” he said, pointing out California’s robust trade with Mexico. “Economic growth in California is dependent on export expansion.”

In 1992, he spoke against deregulation of the beer industry that “threatens greatly the ability of the state of California to protect the environmental, health and economic needs of its citizens.”

In 1994, as co-chair of Wilson’s  Information Technology Council, he surmised that government and the tech sector could work together. “The purpose of the council is to define the problems faced by today’s businesses, government and education and see how technology can solve them,” he said.

And in a 2003 interview with The Washington Post about the Knee Defender, Goldman even distanced himself from the profit motive.

I’m making money, but I think this is addressing a specific need,” Goldman said.

For locals only: Public records show that Goldman is a longtime resident of Mt. Pleasant, a gentrified Washington borough known for its economic and racial diversity — and for its disappearing affordable housing.

Justin Wm. Moyer is a reporter for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter: @justinwmmoyer.

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