Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Style vs. Substance

I bet you missed one of those little things that give us a window into the workings of the political system as it unfolded last week. You could call it the underside of having a job which depends on majority approval.
Newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison, Democrat from Minnesota, is an African American convert to Islam from his college days. This is no secret to those who elected him, but Mr. Ellison made a little news when he announced that he would use a copy of the Qur'an at his ceremonial swearing in his new office (Note: the REAL swearing in takes place on the House floor and does not involve ANY scriptures). This produced a few mutterings from the Right side of the media (the ubiquitous Fox News), but not much more.
Then Congressman Virgil Goode (rhymes with "rude"), Republican of Virginia, entered the arena, uninvited, to offer his own unique take on the matter. In a message to constituents, Congressman Goode frowned on the Ellison matter and warned that there would be more Muslim members of Congress unless it adapted his anti-immigrant legislative proposals. More pointedly, when it was noted that Ellison's family goes back in this country over 200 years and that he's certainly not an immigrant, Goode insisted that no apology was due from him because he didn't follow the Qur'an, as if someone had suddenly fingered him as a closet mullah.
Here's why this is interesting, and my thanks for those of you who've gotten this far. To most of us, Goode sounds like Sheriff Andy Taylor's evil twin. But you also have to ask whom Goode's message was intended for, and why. I admit I've never been there, but I could guess that central and southern Virginia (Goode's district) wouldn't be confused with Manhattan when it comes to diversity. Goode, who has a law degree and has served most of his career in the state legislature, no doubt is smarter than he sounds. He has also been officially a Republican less than five years, and this little outbust, I would guess, is his way of solidifying the "Bubba" vote. So for every member of Congress who dreds working with this rube, there are two who wish they had done something similar in order to keep someone angry. The only flaw in the plan may have been in timing it too far ahead of the next election, but by that time the Congressman's staff could think of a dozen new ways of making Goode into the hero they'd like to have on the ballot. Stlyle, you see, has the power to trump substance if played correctly. That's a lesson that office holders forget at their peril. You could even argue that Ellison comes out a winner here as well, but I risk losing readers if I take up that prospect.

I've never tried obituaries in this space before, but this week merits two. Gerald Ford died yesterday at 93. His presidency ended almost 30 years ago, and so most folks could be excused for not remembering the details of the story. Ford took office upon Nixon's resignation, as mentioned in the blog recently. That was a dark time. Ford had to act in a way that would restore faith in the President, and so his actions were more cautious than bold. His pardon of Nixon was, he believed, the correct decision, though it cost him votes. He was the only president never to be elected as either president OR vice president, but he earned our respect by leaving the White House better than he found it, even though Cheney and Rumsfeld were both around that long ago.

You couldn't imagine someone less like Gerald Ford than James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. The guy was not really political, and his own life was too hot to make him any kind of candidate endorser. Even so, it was Brown who came up with, "Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud!" at just the right time, and for the right reason. His musical influence is pervasive, and his persona is unforgettable. Warts and all, he became part of the best that America offers the world, with style and substance..


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