Yes Virginia, there really was a time when political giants walked among us. In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy brilliantly illuminated the White House. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield gracefully orchestrated a Senate encompassing the varied talents of Warren Magnuson, Everett Dirksen, William Fulbright, Mark Hatfield, Henry Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Frank Church and others. At this same time, and shortly thereafter, Nelson Rockerfeller, Cecil Andrus, Dan Evans and Tom McCall exercised dynamic leadership as the Chief Executives of their respective states.
The West has been historically blessed with a plethora of skilled and visionary leaders. In addition to the aforementioned, one can comfortably add the names of Wayne Morse, Edith Green, Tom Foley, Julia Butler Hansen and Al Swift. I do not suggest that this is a complete list of the region's political giants, but it does serve to highlight the depth and pedigree of this treasured legacy. Any objective observer would be hard pressed to suggest even a fraction of this number, as comparable personages, among the legions of today's politicians.
Their contributions in making our nation and region more just, stable and compassionate, are legendary. Let us review just a few examples, and they are, quite literally, the mere tips of monumental icebergs. Montana's Mike Mansfield shepherded the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Peace Corps, Medicare, the Tax Investment Credit and the Civil Rights Act. True, John F. Kennedy offered the Vice Presidency to L.B.J., because of the political strength he brought to the ticket, but equally important is the fact that he wanted Mansfield and not Johnson to be the Senate Majority Leader. Kennedy's insightful assessment was that "Mansfield was a gem, all class and all character." His distinguished service to this nation was eloquently accented by his intellect, civility and grace while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Japan.
Cecil Andrus provided a model of integrity and creativity as the governor of Idaho, and then he moved on to be a highly innovative Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter.
Mark Hatfield was a man of great principle and courage. He opposed our nation's misguided role in Vietnam and stood against popular sentiment, his party and every conceivable political pressure to oppose the short-sighted and potentially disastrous Balanced Budget Constitutional Amendment.
Tom McCall led the nation, while governor of Oregon, in identifying and addressing perhaps the greatest threat to this era -- the protection of our overstressed environment.
Warren Magnuson was the principle architect of the U.S. Budget for three decades and lent his subtle talents to enacting and enhancing crucial social and environmental legislation. Note the "compassionate." Magnuson budgets did not multiply the national debt by six, as occurred under the "fiscally conservative" Reagan and Bush administrations.
Lastly, a personal reflection: When I and other legislators could not dissuade a determined Gov. Dixie Lee Ray from inviting the major oil companies to bring their supertankers into the Puget Sound, we journeyed to D.C. to seek the counsel/assistance of Sen. Magnuson. He and his talented staff used the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prohibit this ill-conceived "economic stimulant." The history of the last 25 years, especially what happened in Prince William Sound in Alaska, validate his wisdom. Unfortunately, there is neither the space nor time available to recount the cornucopia of courage, vision, grace and intellect these men and women exercised on our collective behalf. Truly, we are all enriched to have received the fruits of their noble labors.
Wordsworth laments the loss of "the glory and the dream," which could just as easily describe our current shortage of visionary leaders in the West and across the country. We are compelled to ask why this happened. Like so many of today's challenges, the causes are neither easily definable nor readily remedied. A reflection deep into our own souls seems warranted.
Indifference and cynicism have flourished in our collective consciousness. We have come to expect so little, and consequently we demand even less. Oh, we howl and we bray, but we also flee the true court of accountability -- the exercise of voting. The steady and dramatic decline in voting, by larger and larger numbers of our region's voters, slides all too comfortably into the dismal national pattern. We have become progressively less and less attentive and involved. The bar of expectations has been lowered to a level where it seemingly invites candidates and their handlers and spinmasters to literally inundate us with poll-driven, dumbed-down campaigns of semi-palatable political mush. This diet of political junk food does not forebode well for the prospects of a healthy, informed electorate.
What can be done? We must read newspapers, write letters to the editor, write or call the politicians personally, e-mail them, watch the news, volunteer to help a candidate of substance and, most importantly, register and vote in an informed manner. Difficult, you say? Yes, it is, but in a democracy, that is precisely how the game is played. An informed, involved electorate chooses and pressures their representatives to be the "best and the brightest" -- or else we pay the piper dearly. The current scarcity of political statesmen and women suggests the need to act now.
Senator John McCain, a man evolving into one of the few true political statesman of this period, has isolated another root cause for this dramatic decline. He has courageously identified and sought to eradicate the political cancer of soft money. This deadly campaign virus is virtually unlimited, practically untraceable and seemingly uncontrollable. McCain has accurately labeled it as the single most corrupting force in American politics. Few insiders or seasoned observers challenge this proposition. He has subsequently alienated himself from the president and his party's congressional leadership in his dogged efforts. Until the elected pawns of the special interests are cut off from this campaign cocaine, the other reforms are for naught. If the McCain/Feingold Campaign Finance Reform bill is waylaid -- or "Bushwacked" -- rest assured we will reap the bitter harvests of self-interest.
Lastly, the media must move from sensationalism in the coverage of elected officials' private lives to a serious analysis of their performance in office. The public needs to know the voting records, the policy positions and the influences exerted on the politicians and their effects. It does not want or need to know of their private life. The Mother Theresas and Billy Grahams of the world don't generally tend to seek public office. Public officials' crimes, corruption, misfeasance and malfeasance, and not their sins, are the proper subjects of media scrutiny. The Fourth Estate serves its proper role best when it explains the votes, policies and motives of the policy-makers. The political giants referenced earlier, like us, sinned. How many of those good, but clearly not perfect, leaders would dare venture to serve under the current journalistic standards -- "Print first/fact check later," "To hell with the two-source rule" and "Nothing is off limits."
The glory and the dream can be recaptured, but it will take a committed, informed electorate, meaningful campaign finance reform and a responsibly focused media. Let the journey begin.
Jerry Hughes is a former Washington State Senator who now teaches government and history at Gonzaga University.