It’s a mistake to be nostalgic for some golden age in politics when everyone was nice to each other. Such a time never existed.
Still, this is a particularly rotten moment to be an elected official, and especially a member of Congress, a body whose ratings are lower than even those of journalists. If you run for office these days, all of your mistakes (and some you never made) are broadcast widely in some horrible TV spot.
So this Thanksgiving, let’s all express gratitude to our fellow Americans who dare to run for the House and Senate. By way of offering mine, I want to thank a few good people we’re losing to retirement or electoral defeat.
Progressives will miss Reps. George Miller and Henry Waxman, both California Democrats. I wrote about Miller when he announced his retirement at the beginning of the year, singling him out as a fearless liberal who’d fight the Republicans at every step but also work with them happily if something useful could get done.
Waxman is one of the smartest members of Congress, and you never wanted to be at the wrong end of a Henry Waxman hearing. My colleague Harold Meyerson listed just some of the things Waxman bills accomplished: They made our air cleaner and our drinking water safer, put nutritional labeling on food, got medical care to people with AIDS and increased safety standards for food. Former senator Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) called Waxman “tougher than a boiled owl,” probably not something you want to think about at your Thanksgiving table.
Miller and Waxman (like the late Ted Kennedy) spent their careers championing universal health care. So did Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). It’s fitting that all of them got to help Obamacare pass.
During budget skirmishes, politicians found it easy to stand up for Medicare, but Rockefeller stood up for Medicaid, which isn’t as popular. He also tried to get a public option into the Affordable Care Act. Harkin is a wonderfully outspoken populist, and I particularly admire the message he sent when he ended his 1992 presidential campaign. A lifelong battler for the disabled and the brother of a deaf man, Harkin made his announcement at Gallaudet University, which is geared to deaf and hearing-impaired students — and started his speech in sign language. How many presidential candidates have made such a personal moment about people other than themselves?
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) is one of the nicest people in Congress — that’s how they seem to make them in the Midwest — and is best known for the detailed tax reform proposal he offered this year.
But I also owe Camp an apology. He has devoted a lot of energy to adoption and foster care reform. I wrote about a successful bipartisan bill in that area back in 1997 and mentioned the roles of Rockefeller and the late John Chafee (R-R.I.). Camp should have received credit, too, and being Catholic, I knew I’d feel guilty until I got that fact in print.
Candor demands that I note I was rooting for my friend and former Georgetown dean Judy Feder when she twice ran against Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). I honor her public service, too, and still think she belongs in Congress. But I respect Wolf, who is retiring, for the exceptional work he has done on behalf of religious liberty around the world, and he was very early among politicians in seeing danger in the spread of gambling throughout the country.
A quick thanks to Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), for trying to remember his roots in the progressive Republicanism of the old Ripon Society; to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), for her personal witness against the horrors of gun violence; to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), for being brave and prophetic on the Iraq war in 2002; and to Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), for casting a courageous vote for background checks.
Thanks also to editors who saved me from many stupid blunders in columns such as this, particularly my friend James Hill, whose retirement means I will miss enormously enlightening, twice-a-week conversations.
These folks, and others I wish I could mention, no doubt identify with Teddy Roosevelt’s tribute to the person in the arena “whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
“If he fails,” TR told us, “at least [he] fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
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