Friday, March 28, 2008

A conquering filibusterer and one of the last muscular Democrats: Howard Metzenbaum, R.I.P.

It’s easy to forget that the Midwest is not the entirely uniformly Red state block that the media and all the redistricting consistently indicate. Lost in the internecine battle between Clinton and Obama was the passing of one of the most courageous Liberals ever to strike out of Cleveland. -No Dennis Kucinich is still very much alive; I’m referring to Howard Metzenbaum, who passed away March 12, 2008 at 90.

He may be only remembered by younger voters for the words: "You've got to get off your butts and go out there and vote!" yelled at the top of his octogenarian lungs at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in support of Al Gore. Yes, they called him a crazy old man, but he’d been even wilder still during most of his on again off again –on again- 19 year career in United States government. His career and legacy carry many lessons for politicians on either side of the aisle, for voters, and for all Americans who care about this country and what it’s supposed to stand for.

Howard Metzenbaum was a pioneer of sorts on issues protecting the American worker, the American consumer, and the environment. He was from Ohio. He won over voters in the cities, but also in rural outlying counties, reaching out across ethnicities, religious creeds and the economic classes to champion what he believed were common human concerns. In his two terms in the House and Senate, he crafted one of the nation's first laws to protect consumers making credit purchases, long before Ralph Nader made his mark on the Washington steps.

But Metzenbaum’s career is also marked by a particular primary defeat that should be taught in schools. It was a political mistake that heralded a then new era in the way politicians marketed themselves to the voting public, and initiated a new campaign dynamic in which any single statement made by political candidates could henceforth be de-contextualized and used by their opponents to shift debates from discussions of policy and instead turn all discourse into a kind of defense. Today it’s an integral part of the “go negative early” strategy that campaign managers sometimes employ; a list of compromising quotes, misstatements etc. are compiled on the opponent and then they are “pamphleted” and “push polled” to the public, and the media, the most comprehensive distribution channel known, does the rest. The result is that the opponent spends most of his/her time defending and/or correcting a statement and not getting his/her message out (Read: the promotion of the “Obama and Reverend Wright” issue of the past weeks by the Clinton campaign). Metzenbaum’s defeat at the hands of John Glenn is one of the first such initiatives in the beginning of the modern televised media era. It happened more or less like this:

Howard Metzenbaum was running against John Glenn, and in an attempt to compare the importance of his own business experience with John Glenn's near non-existent business experience, Howard Metzenbaum uttered the fatefully malleable statement that his opponent had "never worked for a living."

Not exactly a smart thing to say in America against an opponent who; had extensive military credentials, was a former astronaut, and a household name. John Glenn told him to go to a veterans' hospital "look those men with mangled bodies in the eyes and tell them they didn't hold a job.” That was brutal. Before Howard Metzenbaum could point out the fact that he didn’t say “veterans never worked for a living”, that he actually said John Glenn “never worked for a living”, John Glenn delivered the death blow to Metzenbaum’s campaign, he said: “You go with me to any Gold Star mother and you look her in the eye and tell her that her son did not hold a job." That reply came to be known as the "Gold Star Mothers" speech in the press. The public’s fascination with it never allowed Metzenbaum to recover and he lost.

Tell me it doesn’t sound familiar, and I’ll remind you of recent campaign debacles and calculated media implosions: “swiftboat” (I always like to point out none of the swift boat veterans actually served with John Kerry in Vietnam, or even met him); there’s also Al Gore’s claiming he invented the Internet, and my personal favorite, John Kerry’s alleged insult to American forces deployed in Iraq on October 2006: "You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." Now, as an actual decorated veteran who saw enemy fire first hand, it is unlikely John Kerry thinks active soldiers are stupid and uneducated, but he was never able to stem the tide of all the media parroting of his initial statement. His fellow Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, rushed to get their shots in, taking him down like he was the fat kid in “Lord of the Flies”. All of this has its roots in “Gold Star Mothers”.

Metzenbaum eventually recovered. He even ran successful campaigns for other Democrats. He returned to the Senate, still a dedicated defender of the consumers and workers of America and of the Constitution. The special interests groups in Washington grew to fear him as he made a mission of blocking bills he didn't think served the people. Later in his career, he successfully blocked laws mandating school prayer during the Reagan Administration. He fiercely used the filibuster to delay confirmation of controversial Republican Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. He also opposed abortion limits. By far one of the most courageous stands I remember Howard Metzenbaum ever took, by virtue of its sheer unpopularity with his immediate constituents and the rest of the country; was his opposition of Orin Hatch’s efforts to outlaw “flag burning” as a form of protest and free expression (Flag burning is actually the military’s prescribed method of disposing of weathered or damaged flags so presumably that was still okay by Mr. Hatch). He offered one of the most well reasoned and eloquent arguments ever brought to the senate floor explaining that it is the Constitution and Republic that the flag represents that must be protected, not its material symbol. He rightly reasoned that legislating and coercing how people may respond to the symbol of liberty and democracy, either by mandating a compulsory pledge or by outlawing its theatrical destruction in protest, was in fact its true destruction…

All this from a Midwesterner born in Cleveland on June 4, 1917, exactly one month before Steve Rogers, AKA Captain America, -by the way that’s one month before the fourth of July, folks.
Now that’s American. Don't let the rightwing fear mongers and neocons tell you otherwise.

1 comment:

Michael Hew said...

I don't think that he'll get a better send off anywhere. Very nice job.