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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Candor & Politics: Now Accepting Nominations for the LaFollette Award

As the Democratic primary winds down, the question arises: Will some candidate win the uncoveted LaFollette Award this year?

The LaFollette Award is given (by yours truly) to the candidate who most distinguishes himself or herself by conscientious indifference to public opinion in the service of truth as he or she sees it. The title of the award is inspired by Mencken's famous encomium in praise of LaFollette during WWI:

The older I grow the less I esteem mere ideas. In politics, particularly, they are transient and unimportant…. There are only men who have character and men who lack it. LaFollette has it. There is no shaking or alarming him. He is devoid of caution, policy, timidity, baseness—all immemorial qualities of the politician. He is tremendous when he is right, and he is even more tremendous when he is wrong. LaFollette not only voted as a Senator, against American participation in the war; he also refused flatly to change his views when he failed to prevent it. What followed is well remembered. While the uproar lasted he was practically barred from the Senate Chamber. His colleagues, eager to escape contamination, avoided him; he was reviled from end to end of the country; all the popularity and influence he had built up by years of struggle vanished almost completely.…But LaFollette stuck. The stink-bombs burst around him, but still he stuck. The work of his whole life went to pieces, but still he stuck. Weak friends deserted him and old enemies prepared to finish him, but still he stuck. There is no record that he hedged an inch. No accusation, however outrageous, daunted him. No threat of disaster, personal or political, wabbled him for an instant. From beginning to end of those brave and intelligent days he held fast to his convictions, simply, tenaciously, and like a man.

Past honorable mentions include Paul Tsongas (him of the “I’m no Santa Claus” fame). Past winners include Bush I (for accepting the inevitability of tax increases), Ford (for pardoning Nixon), and Truman (for firing MacArthur). This year, there seems to be a bumper crop of aspirants – well, two – who want to use their “straight-talking” reputations to build up brand recognition with voters.

But will either clinch the deal by saying something risky that they obviously believe? (Denouncing the gas tax holiday garners, at most, a tepid honorable mention). Will Obama actually admit that NAFTA neither cost nor created a lot of jobs? Or that eliminating outsourcing would probably also eliminate the Indian middle class and risk economic collapse of unstable economies? Will McCain admit that tax breaks in an era of runaway deficits are silly and demagogic? Will either admit that slogans on Iraq regarding withdrawal time are essentially meaningless, because the situation there is too volatile to predict more than a week in advance? In short, will either address the voters as mature adults rather than as drunken fans at a tailgate who cannot understand sentences too long for a tee shirt?

Any such unforeseen candor will win the LaFollette award immediately – not to mention, in all likelihood, more time in in the Senate. Stay tuned.

Posted by Rick Hills on May 14, 2008 at 09:30 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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I don't know much about the Farm Bill, but from what I have heard, I don't think it was a good or principled stand. For instance, making our sugar policy yet crazier? Excellent. However, Obama promised in August of 2007 in Iowa to support the bill, so I will say the only available defense is that he is being "tremendous when he is wrong." It is a shame though. If panderzilla Clinton was out of it completely, I wonder if Obama would feel comfortable reversing field and joining McCain.

In any event, I don't care for it, but I think it is such a minor issue in the scheme of things compared to Obama's principled stand on other issues, that I can completely overlook it. McCain's about face on torture, however, removed the danger that I would ever vote for him.

Posted by: Bart | May 21, 2008 7:51:15 AM

So I'd be curious if Bart would concede that Obama's support of the Farm Bill was less principled than McCain's opposition. (And I speak as someone who regards both as exceptionally honorable politicians, by the way, having no dog in this particular fight).

Posted by: Rick Hills | May 20, 2008 9:08:41 PM

There is a difference between supporting principles and supporting people. John McCain betrayed his principles by supporting George W. Bush. Barack Obama stuck to his by first defending and then denouncing Wright. Obama's defense was premised on an inclusive society. When it became clear that Wright rejected the very premise of an inclusive society, Obama rejected him.

Posted by: Bart Motes | May 20, 2008 8:56:33 PM

Bart, you're right: there's "no inconsistency" in kicking a colleague to the curb, so to speak, only after that colleague loses his or her mind. But this award -- the subject of this post -- isn't about merely being "consistent." It's about maintaining a personal conviction despite everything and everyone around "going to pieces" because of that conviction.

Thus, like him or love him, to say, as you have, that "[t]he description of LaFollette there seems a perfect description of Barack Obama" widely misses the mark. As you've acknowledged, the very fact that he "kicks people to the curb" *at all* rather than "still sticking" with him or her, disproves your very thesis.

Posted by: Homer | May 15, 2008 12:00:06 PM

Actually, Homer, Obama gave a nuanced defense of Wright at first in his brilliant, passionate speech on race. When Wright lost his mind and decided to become a media jackal, Obama rightly kicked him to the curb. There's no inconsistency there. You defend your friend when they get blind drunk. You don't if they get blind drunk in the middle of an important meeting and cost your client her rights.

Posted by: Bart | May 14, 2008 6:05:19 PM

"The description of LaFollette there seems a perfect description of Barack Obama too. Sure, he hasn't been cast out by his colleagues, quite the opposite, but he has maintained calm and poise in the face of tremendous pressures as 'stink-bombs [Reverend Wright] burst around him.'"

Yes, Obama's a shoo-in! No matter what public opinion said regarding Rev. Wright, Obama "still stuck" by him! "There is no record that he hedged an inch" about his affiliation with Wight! What a Profile in Courage!

Posted by: Homer | May 14, 2008 5:29:43 PM

I see. Thanks, Bart. I took the phrase "even more tremendous when he is wrong" to be a double-inverted side-swipe. But now I see that it is meant in earnest -- as a sort of "when men were men and stuck to their guns" bravado.

In that case, it's no wonder that Professor Hills remarks that his award is uncoveted. If it's "tremendous" stubbornness and a pig-headed refusal to yield that you prize, rather than ideas, I should think our President would be the presumptive winner.

Posted by: anon | May 14, 2008 2:52:02 PM

anon, where's the ambiguity? Mencken is describing a public life in peril and saying that LaFollette chose the path of most resistance and integrity in navigating it. The description of LaFollette there seems a perfect description of Barack Obama too. Sure, he hasn't been cast out by his colleagues, quite the opposite, but he has maintained calm and poise in the face of tremendous pressures as "stink-bombs [Reverend Wright] burst around him."

The only act of political courage worth mentioning over the past eight years is opposing the Iraq War. I would nominate Lincoln Chafee, Ron Paul and Chuck Hagel in that category as well as Barack Obama, and a small but principled cadre of Democrats. Lindsey Graham and John McCain deserve plaudits for opposing torture, although McCain seems to be backsliding in order to appeal to the crocodile brain of Republican voters. Carl Levin and Patrick Leahy have been consistently courageous in opposing the Bush administration's more outrageous infringements on civil liberties. I give Scalia some propers in this regard too. But I think its a weak field.

Obama has indicated that he believes that his daughters don't deserve affirmative action, which if taken to its logical conclusion would mean a shift from race based to economic based affirmative action. I think that would be a courageous stand to take. He has also talked openly about raising taxes on capital gains, which hurts a lot of his core constituency of affluent cool folk.

If Clinton had chosen to say, like Mudcat Saunders said that John Edwards did to him, I don't know if people are voting for us because Obama is black, but, if so, they should know we don't want their vote for that reason, then she would have earned the prize. Another thing for her to muse on in retirement.

Posted by: Bart | May 14, 2008 2:23:58 PM

Are you certain that "praise" is quite the right way to describe what Mencken is doing here? I know that at one time Mencken supported LaFollette (as much as Mencken could support anyone), but this seems rather the reverse to me...?

Posted by: anon | May 14, 2008 11:04:00 AM

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