Keynote Address to Hot Springs Village Democratic Club
February 8, 2008, Coronado Center
Are there any Democrats in the house?
Doesn't it feel good to be in a room filled with Democrats, filled with people who care about other people and not just themselves?
Like you, I'm sorry Steve Barnes couldn’t be here today. Given his position in the legitimate media, he would have given us a genuinely "fair and balanced" view of the current political scene. I'll try to be fair, but I won’t exactly be balanced.
When Ann Richards came to California, years ago, to support Loretta Sanchez in her first run for Congress, Ann said something I should repeat now. She said: "I'm advised there are a few Republicans in this crowd, so if I hit a few tender spots, you all are just going to have to deal with it." I should give the same warning today.
Like you, I try to be a responsible citizen and and a responsible voter, so I make it my business to vote--regardless of race, creed, color, or gender--for the most qualified Democrat running. It wasn't always like this for me, however.
I grew up in Vermont (to the extent that I can be said to have grown up) at a time when the Green Mountain state was solidly Republican. As a child, I remember hearing about the small town with only one Democrat. After every election, the selectmen would gather to sort and count the ballots. The sorting would go something like this: Republican, Republican...Democrat. At that point, they would all smile, start a new pile, and murmur, "Charlie." and the sorting would continue: Republican, Republican, Republican... Then, one election, something shocking happened.
The sorting of ballots started normal enough: Republican, Republican... Democrat ("Charlie"), Republican, Republican, Republican...Democrat. The selectmen were all stopped in their tracks when the second Democratic ballot showed up. After a pause for reflection, the head selectman picked up the two ballots and began tearing them up, sputtering, "Son of a bitch voted twice."
That was the Vermont I grew up in. My grandfather was solidly Republican. As much as I loved him, however, I was delighted at my college graduation to point to our graduation speaker and say, “He’s going to be the next president of the United States, Gramps.” He just muttered something I didn't understand. I was honored to cast my first vote for John F. Kennedy.
Well, as you know Vermont has changed a lot. I first met Howard Dean when he was governor and again when he was getting ready to run for president.
Patrick Leahy is an institution. In 1998, he was re-elected with 78% of the vote, probably helped by the endorsement of his Republican opponent, Fred Tuttle. In 2004, the Republicans picked a candidate who pledged not to endorse his opponent, and Leahy only got 72% of the vote.
Bernie Sanders was the socialist mayor of Burlington before becoming an independent Congressman and now an Independent Senator.
Most of my political socialization took place in Hawaii, however, where I lived and taught for 12 years. What I appreciated most was the openness of the system. People could participate and could make a difference. Despite initially feeling that Hawaiian politics would be inbred and hard for a newcomer to break into, I found just the opposite to be the case.
I was able to help organize a grassroots group to block a development planned for one-third the size of Waikiki. On the one side was Kaiser Industries, Aetna Insurance, and many in the political establishment. On the other side was just some folks. The folks prevailed.
I managed a campaign for City Council aimed at blocking the return of the machine candidate, who had formerly been Council Chair. While the other candidates were running ads in the newspapers and on the radio and TV, we were at our best putting people on the streets. On election day, we had a line of sign-waving supporters a quarter of a mile long on the main commute artery. We were successful in blocking the return of the machine candidate--which is a nice way of saying we lost. However, the winner immediately asked to meet with us and began championing our issues.
One of my favorite memories of Hawaiian politics was the opening day of the legislature. There were flowers and leis everywhere, traditional Hawaiian ceremonies and music were performed. After the opening session was complete, all the offices were open to the public with food and aloha. You could break bread and mingle with people you knew you'd fight the rest of the year, but on that one day, everything was very civil.
I moved to California in 1980 and, strangely, I found it difficult to participate actively in California politics. Maybe I was doing something wrong. All that changed, however, when I began working with Loretta Sanchez on her first and subsequent campaigns. (I worked to a lesser degree with her sister, Linda. They are the only sister act in the history of the US Congress.)
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, as you may recall, first earned her office by taking out "B-1 Bob" Dornan, one of the most reprehensible members of Congress. President Bill Clinton came to Orange County to support her. When the dust settled, "B-1 Bob" was able to resume his former career in talk radio.
Loretta is a great lady, who voted against the war in Iraq and has been a continuing critic of it. She will become more familiar to you in the years ahead. I used to think Loretta would be the first woman president and first minority president, but one way or the other, she's going to have to settle for being second.
Last June, I moved to the Village to ask our new Democratic Club president to marry me -- and she said yes.
Now, I am an Arkansan.
On the one hand, Arkansas seems a lot like Vermont so I feel good about that. And, politically, I am finding it very much like Hawaii. At first, I expected things to be tightly knit and resistant to outsiders, and I must tell you I have felt so welcomed by every Democrat I've met that I feel like I've come home. (At least I assume all the nice people are Democrats.)
Like my experience of Hawaiian politics, I see clearly once again how individuals and small groups can make a powerful difference.
Like many in this room, I lived through the Cold War, beginning to end, and now the new beginning, evidently. And while I get really aroused by just about every presidential election, I truly believe this is the most important one in my lifetime.
Seven years ago, a young man from Hope, Arkansas, left the leadership of a nation that was economically vital. Our social institutions were being rebuilt after the Reagan-Bush years of neglect. President Clinton had fought off challenges to world peace in ways that united coalitions of nations around the world. Americans were widely respected as the special people I believe we are.
In seven short years, all that has been trashed. On September 12, 2001, there were candle-lit memorial services around the world, in virtually every country on the globe, mourning the dramatic losses suffered by the American people the day before. President Bush quickly put a stop to any feeling of love and support for Americans. He blustered and blundered the world into wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. He has exhibited the same level of "integrity" that marked his "military service" during the war in Vietnam.
At home, we are nine trillion dollars in debt, and we can't afford to tend to the basics of our national infrastructure. Rather we give tax cuts to the wealthiest among us, turning a deaf ear to those most in need. Ordinary Americans are losing their jobs, their homes, and their dignity. Children will have to go without health care. But at least Exxon, Halliburton, and Blackwater are well taken care of.
During the 2000 presidential debates, George Bush chided Al Gore for not being strong enough on the environment. Gore said he would support the Kyoto Protocol, but Bush said that wasn't enough. He, Bush, would go farther in the protection of Mother Earth. Once elected, of course, he pulled America out of Kyoto and denied there was any problem. He has treated the planet like a sewer.
It will take generations of Americans to regain the respect our people once had in the world community. It will take generations to rebuild our economy. And I pray there is time left to solve the environmental problems that have been so aggravated by this administration.
The question is: which will be the first generation to begin that work? Will the restoration of America and the planet begin on January 20, 2009 -- or four years later -- or four years after that?
You can guess what will happen if the Republicans win. John McCain has already approved a hundred year military occupation of Iraq--whether they agree or not--and he can't wait to "bomb, bomb, bomb -- bomb, bomb Iran."
George Romney said yesterday that he was pulling out of the presidential race because electing Senator Clinton or Senator Obama would be "a surrender to terror." I suggest to you that many, many Americans were led to surrender to terror in the wake of 9/11. They were kept in a state of terror for the years that followed, and they surrendered to terror again in November 2004.
The American people began standing up to the Bush-Cheney terror machine in November 2006, however, and the tide is still strong in that direction. We simply cannot afford another Bush-Cheney reign of terror whether it is renamed McCain or Huckabee, or something else.
One day, my young grandchildren will ask me what I did during the 2008 campaigns, and I want to tell them a proud, happy story: one in which I made a difference and one that ended in victory.
As Fred Sanford would have said, "This is the big one." It is impossible to measure all that is at stake in this election. The people in this room can transform the Village and help make Saline and Garland Counties solidly Blue. And those Counties will shine in a solidly Blue state and in a nation with solid Democratic majorities in the Senate and in the House and in the other House--the big White one.