There is nothing quite so impressive as an open mind. Having, like most people, a mind that’s not nearly as open as I like to think it is – and what may be an even deeper than normal aversion to admitting I am wrong – I naturally think I’m right about everything and that it’s others who need to open their minds. (You know who you are.)
But I do try. And certainly on things like the well-intentioned but disastrous welfare system, we Democrats have learned a lesson or two over the years. I was so relieved when the leadership of the Democratic Party shifted so noticeably to the right a dozen years ago. We are still bleeding hearts – or at least I hope we are – but we are no longer jerking knees. Indeed, irony of ironies, it is the Democrats who have become the fiscal conservatives, balancing the budget and calling for the surplus to be used to build reserves for Social Security. (Don’t for a minute think the long-term surplus disappeared because of the War on Terrorism, which costs little more than $1 billion a month. It disappeared primarily because we enacted a massive tax cut for the top 1% of taxpayers. Which was extraordinarily generous of the voters, and we in the top 1% truly appreciate it.)
But it’s not just the Democratic leadership that shifted to the right – placing it pretty much in the moderate, progressive center – but also the Republican leadership. It, too, has shifted to the right – placing it pretty much on the right edge.
I was offered up a fundraising prospect by a friend the other day who warned me that, while Larry was a man of means, he was a Republican – ‘so good luck!’ (Newcomers to this column: I am a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee.)
When I reached Larry, he told me that he no longer thought of himself as a Republican, he thought of himself as an Independent.
I reported this back to my friend, who was ‘pleased that Larry has shifted a bit to the left.’
‘No,’ I explained, ‘Larry hasn’t shifted to the left. He has stood still. The political landscape has shifted to the right.’
Now, you may find a left-wing columnist or commentator who has recently seen the light and proclaimed himself a convert to the vision of Tom Delay and Trent Lott. I can’t think of one. If you do, send me their names, which I pledge to report.
But I can think of at least two right-wingers who have swung the other way.
One is Arianna Huffington, former Newt Gingrich acolyte, whose column last week tells an interesting story. (See below.) And one is David Brock, whose forthcoming book, Blinded By the Right, I read this weekend.
(David was the conservative journalist known for, among other things, pillorying Anita Hill so that Justice Clarence Thomas could be confirmed.)
AmeriCorps And Dick Armey’s Friendly Fire
By Arianna Huffington
Talk about friendly fire. That was House Majority Leader Dick Armey pronouncing the president “so wrong” on his plan to greatly expand federal funding for AmeriCorps — the national service program Armey called “obnoxious.” Poring over Armey’s tirade, I could only shake my head knowingly and think: Been there. Done that. And Armey is as dead wrong as I was.
I, too, had once scoffed at the notion of offering financial support to volunteers — after all, isn’t “paid volunteer” an oxymoron? In fact, on Oct. 17, 1995, I testified against AmeriCorps in Congress, convinced that young people should learn to volunteer out of the noble impulses of their hearts, not because they are getting a few dollars in return.
“Helping those in need is a moral imperative,” I testified back then. “It is our responsibility — our obligation — and in a completely different realm from getting loans to go to school or money to live on. The people I most admire in this world are volunteering their time everyday without the benefit of any fancy, bureaucratically run programs.”
I believed that then and I believe it now. What’s different is that I’ve come to realize what a vital role programs like AmeriCorps can play in supporting the charitable efforts of those working in the trenches.
My conversion began seconds after I finished my testimony. Harris Wofford, the former senator from Pennsylvania who was then running AmeriCorps, came rushing up to me. I was expecting him to read me the riot act, but, instead, he asked me to lunch. I was taken aback, but intrigued — and off we went for some grilled chicken, a green salad, and a side order of crow.
I must admit I’m a sucker for passion, and Wofford — who had been instrumental in setting up the Peace Corps and had worked closely with Robert Kennedy — had more passion than an entire season of “Sex in the City.” And now he was bringing it all to bear on AmeriCorps’ mission of fostering national service by training 50,000 Americans a year to, among other things, tutor at-risk kids, build homes, help seniors, clean up trails and rivers, and assist the victims of natural disasters. “My dream,” Wofford explained, “is to make service of a substantial kind a common expectation of young people.”
It was a masterful seduction. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the moment when we first locked eyes and he said to me: “Together we can crack the atom of civic power.” Prompted by him, I was soon witnessing firsthand how, far from undermining the spirit of giving, as I had feared, AmeriCorps members actually acted as magnets drawing in other volunteers. Indeed, Wofford estimates that “every AmeriCorps member generates and makes possible the work of about 12 occasional volunteers.”
As it turned out, the list of erstwhile AmeriCorps foes converted by Wofford is long and impressive, and includes many lawmakers not noted for flapping in the wind of legislative fashion, like Sens. John McCain, Dan Coats, and Rick Santorum, and Rep. John Kasich. In fact, McCain and Santorum — who once mocked AmeriCorps as a place “for hippie kids to stand around a campfire holding hands and singing ‘Kum Ba Ya’ at taxpayer expense” — each ended up introducing legislation to expand the program.
I called Wofford to ask him how he had let Armey slip through his net. “When Gingrich became speaker,” he told me, “abolishing AmeriCorps was at the top of his agenda. Every year since then, a bill has been introduced to abolish AmeriCorps. And Armey has always supported it.”
“On the other hand,” he continued, “look at Kasich. He was adamantly opposed to AmeriCorps until he started researching a book on leadership and compassion, and discovered that the program he admired most, the Harlem Peacemakers, would not have been possible without the participation of fifty AmeriCorps members.”
Still deeply committed to mobilizing the country’s young people, Wofford has just taken over as chairman of America’s Promise — a post first held by Colin Powell. In a fitting twist, he replaces new Republican National Committee chair Marc Racicot, who, as Governor of Montana, was instrumental in getting all but one of the nation’s top governors to sign a letter to Congress urging it to renew AmeriCorp’s funding.
Of course, charm and enthusiasm can only get you so far. In the end, it was confrontation with reality that transformed the thinking of so many influential Republicans. While, in theory, the private sector can rise to the occasion and provide the time and money needed to solve social problems, in the real world — of which conservatives pride themselves on being the only true denizens — it simply doesn’t. I discovered the hard way how much easier it is to raise money or recruit volunteers for the opera or a fashionable museum than for a homeless shelter or an inner city after-school program.
It is sad but true that the task of overcoming our social problems is too monumental to be accomplished without the raw power of government appropriations and all the incentives we can muster to urge Americans — especially young ones — to make service part of their lives.
There are, of course, those who insist on elevating ideology above proven results. You would think that, post-Sept. 11, Dick Armey would be champing at the bit to tap into the new spirit of altruism and patriotism. Perhaps a lunch with Harris Wofford, John McCain, Rick Santorum and John Kasich would tip the balance. I’ll bring the humble pie. We’ve all admitted we were wrong. Why won’t you, Mr. Armey?
[Click here to subscribe to Arianna Huffington’s column.]
And then you have David Brock and his book, due out next month. David was a much more rabid conservative operative than Arianna.
This is a terrible book [Brock begins]. It is about lies told and reputations ruined. It is about what the conservative movement did, and what I did, as we plotted in the shadows, disregarded the law, and abused power to win even greater power.
I came to Washington in 1986 as a conservative rebel from Berkeley, and from that moment through the latter part of the 1990’s, as the leading right-wing scandal reporter, I was a witness to, and a participant in, all of the scandals that gripped the capital city – Iran-Contra, the failed nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the Thomas-Hill hearings, Troopergate, Paula Jones, Whitewater, and the secret scheming that led to the impeachment of President Clinton. The conservative culture I thrived in was characterized by corrosive partisanship, visceral hatreds, and unfathomable hypocrisy.
Turns out there’s something of a vast right-wing conspiracy after all.
This isn’t to deny or excuse hanky panky with an intern in the Oval Office, let alone finger-wagging obfuscation. Nor is it to suggest that all conservative ideas are without merit or that Democrats have every answer.
But those who will dismiss Brock’s book rather than read it – as most conservatives will – are kidding themselves. No one would write such a self-flagellating book if it weren’t essentially true.
Quote of the Day
In 1800, 75% of [an American's] working man's expenditures went for food alone. By 1850, that had dropped to 50%. Today it is a little more than 11%.~The Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1996
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