While still in high school I had the pleasure of flying across the country to Washington, D.C., for a weeklong youth workshop on leadership and democracy. I remember the excitement I had knowing I was about to meet both of my Montana senators. Back then I was a proud registered Democrat. Having joined the Party only two months earlier, the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a veteran of my Party, I thought, was sure to be the highlight of the trip.
The swank décor of the hallways on the Hill mesmerized me as I winded through the legislative chambers. The bright carpet and gorgeous, slightly older interns meandering around the foyers made me think that perhaps politics had its subtle rewards. My intrepid journey from wing to wing led me to the bustling office of Montana Senator Max Baucus.
Max wasn't in, however, so a cheery office assistant led me to a committee meeting that the Senator was attending. "It will be just a few minutes," she said, continuing to chat with me about the beauty and serenity of Montana. She had grown up in Great Falls or somewhere nearby, and missed the quiet open range and starry nights. I must have reminded her of what she was like before deciding to test the dirty waters of Washington politics.
A few minutes later, Max scurried out and shook my hand as if I were the elected official he had traveled a thousand miles to meet. “So glad to finally meet you," he said. "How in the hell does he know who I am?" I thought. He didn't, of course. He was just politicking.
Max wasn't a good ol’ boy like Conrad Burns, his rival Republican from Montana at the time, who said during his first campaign in 1988 that he would help single mothers by “[telling] them to find a husband.” But Max was sleazy in his own right. His gaudy single-knot tie and wing-tip shoes caught my eye immediately. I remember wondering how long Mr. Baucus had been away from the Big Sky Country. I didn't really care, though. He was the Democrat I had come to see.
I asked Max about Washington life, and we poked fun at Conrad Burns, whom I had met earlier in the day. Whereas Baucus’ busy over packed office was full of citizens who seemed to give a shit, Conrad's quarters were filled with wide leather couches and trophy animals that hung on his plush papered walls. We joked about Burns’ assistants who were advising him on how he should vote on specific legislation even though they had never even traveled to Montana. I thought to myself, "Man, Democrats really are a lot cooler than Republicans." It didn't hurt that Max knew my uncle who ran a little grocery store in Lockwood, a small town outside of the city where I grew up. It made me think Max was one of us, a regular guy who represented regular folks. I let the used car salesman attire slide; the guy was all right.
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My trip ended soon thereafter. I had met some interesting people, seen a lot of monuments and museums, and was enthralled with how the system actually worked. Or at least I thought I understood how it all functioned. The runners, the lobbyists, the rookies, the senior congressional leaders, the reporters, and oh those interns. I thought I had it down. I couldn't wait to get home to tell my family what I'd learned, whom I'd met, and how Senator Baucus knew my dad's brother. I was even contemplating the best way for me to help his upcoming election campaign.
It wasn't more than six months later that I was knocked to my senses. The fairytale had ended. I read in the newspaper that my buddy Max had supported the North America Free Trade Agreement a few years prior. By then, I was diving into local environmental issues and came across the effects of NAFTA and the senators who supported it. Baucus was at the top of the hit-list. I couldn’t' t believe it.
Upon further exploration, I learned that Baucus sat on the influential congressional committees, including the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Environment and Public Works, and Finance and Joint Taxation. I learned how this man whom I had come to admire -- for no real reason other than his bashing of a Republican -- had succumbed to the interests of campaign contributors time and again. I found out how his seat on the Finance committee scored him bundles of cash from the health care industry and some big corporations I had never even heard of, including JP Morgan, Brown & Foreman, and Citigroup. I knew these guys weren’t from Montana.
I also learned how my hero supported welfare reform, Fast Track, and President Clinton's Salvage Rider Act, all of which blatantly raped the Montana forests I loved so dearly. A year later in college I read an old article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in the Washington Post, which disclosed how actor Robert Redford had campaigned for Baucus by dropping letters in the mailboxes of elite Hollywood liberals, hoping to entice them to donate money to the Montanan for his astute convictions for environmental justice.
But as St. Clair and Cockburn put it so poignantly, “Across the length and breadth of Congress, it is impossible to uncover a more tenacious front-man for the mining, timber, and grazing industries … it was Baucus who crushed the Clinton administration's timid effort to reform federal mining and grazing policies and terminate below-cost timber sales to big timber companies subsidized by the taxpayers.” I was indignant. "How could he …?!" I pondered. "If the Democrats aren't saving our natural resources, who the hell is?” That anger has festered in me to this day. Max Baucus may still be the most corporate –entrenched, conniving Democrat in Washington, and now Americans are getting a health care bill written by the health care lobby for the health care industry.
The dangling tassels on Max's fancy wing-tip shoes will forever irk me. Those tassels and his decorative silk tie should have been the first sign that this politician didn't represent regular folks. He was, after all, literally clad in the interests of the out-of-state corporations that lined his thick campaign coffers. I have hated the pretentious Wall Street pin stripes ever since Baucus’ sobering eye-opener.
I doubt that Max has ever hiked or driven through Montana's Yaak River basin, where a massive forest service sale has destroyed critical grizzly bear habitat. I'd bet he's never seen what the massive clear cuts have done to the region's ecosystem, as tributaries have turned a pale yellow from mud and debris. And I cannot imagine Baucus ever apologizing for the legislation he supported during the Clinton years that's to blame for it all. Many groups have challenged the illegalities of the outright pillage but all of these suits have been defeated or dismissed because the Salvage law gives the forest service "discretion to disregard entirely the effect on the grizzly bear." All this from the party I once belonged.
I can't fathom that Baucus has sat down and spoken with the hundreds of poor single mothers in rural Montana who cannot afford to put their kids in daycare because they are forced to work at places like Wal-Mart where they earn little more than minimum wage. I am sure they'd love to tell him how grateful they are for their newfound careers and Clinton’s welfare reform that put them to work. Unlike many progressives who are preoccupied with the wars in the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, these Montanans have more pressing concerns. They are turned off by politics because they have trouble keeping food in the fridge and buying holiday gifts for their kids. For someone most of us it's a luxury to be politically active.
People continue to believe it’s only the Republicans who have undermined everything progressives have fought for. I once believed this to be the case. I hated conservatives for their outright disregard for the little guy. But my short voyage out east as a teenager turned into a life lesson, teaching me that political affiliation means little when talking about real life consequences of compromising ideals. I think this is a lesson we must all keep in mind as many look to the Democrats, naively hoping that they can save us from the strangle of Glenn Beck’s chock hold. Let's not allow fancy rhetoric or party loyalty derail our need for real change or our push for single-payer health care.
Occasionally I wonder how my grandfather, who I am told was a staunch Democrat, would feel about all this. He wasn’t a flashy man, like the Democrats in Washington today, but a hard working North Dakotan farmer who, as the story is told, even detested his neighbor for being what he called “one of those damned Republicans.” Back then it was thought Democrats, although never progressive, stood for something genuine and were even elected into office because rural folk could discern the subtle difference between a donkey and an elephant.
I am convinced no such differences exist today, and I’m certain that my granddad would agree.
Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008.
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