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This Week in Freudenfreude: Profiles in Courage

We're going to talk about two different people today, and we will start with someone who is not actually one of those two people, namely Sala Burton. Born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1925, Burton and her family immigrated to the United States in 1939, for the obvious reason. After arriving in the U.S., Burton graduated high school and college, got involved in public service, got married twice and divorced once, and supported her second husband's political career. Phillip Burton served in the California Assembly for 6 years and then the U.S. House of Representatives for 20 years.

Phillip was quite lefty, and was a favorite of labor unions and progressives. He nearly became the Democratic leader in the House, but was defeated by Jim Wright, 148-147. Ironically, despite his Bernie Sanders-like credentials, the thing Phillip is best known for is breaking a decades-long precedent wherein amendments to bills had been prohibited. Once that can of worms was re-opened, any member could add just about anything to any bill, and thus the modern lobbying industry was born.

Phillip died quite suddenly, of an aneurysm, in 1983. Sala ran in the special election to replace him and, as is often the case in these circumstances, she won. When she arrived in Washington, she was one of the few Jewish women ever to have served in the House. She began building her own power base, but had some trouble because many male representatives, even those of her own party, simply did not take women politicians seriously. Sala Burton undoubtedly had the determination to overcome that problem eventually, but then she was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.

The district served by the Burtons, over the course of close to 30 years, was deep blue. So, as Sala's life drew to its close, she knew she'd be replaced by a Democrat. She also knew that if she gave her endorsement to a preferred successor, that would probably allow that successor to defeat all comers in the special election that would be called. So, in her remaining months, Sala Burton took great care to evaluate potential candidates. The Representative was understandably bothered by the sexism in Washington, and so was determined to bestow her blessing on a woman candidate, and one who would be able to shake up the boys' club.

Burton's eventual pick came as something of a surprise, except for those who followed local politics very, very closely. Instead of choosing one of the women who were then serving in the state Assembly, or in various local offices, Burton went with someone who had zero experience in elective office whatsoever. The woman candidate who received Sala Burton's blessing was 47 years old and was still in the process of raising 5 children, who had been born over a span of just 6 years. At the time, there was much dismissive commentary, in part due to the lack of political experience and in part due to good old fashioned sexism. Burton, for her part, saw the "five kids in 6 years" part as a major selling point, reasoning that anyone who could handle that many kids would be more than a match for the House of Representatives (which is sometimes known for its childish behavior).

Sala Burton died on February 1, 1987. As you might imagine, her chosen successor did win the special election. It was pretty close, but the would-be Congresswoman turned out to have prodigious fundraising skills, collecting over $1 million—an unheard of sum at the time—to help her defeat Democrat Harry Britt. Following the election, Burton's protégé went to Washington and faced the same dismissive attitude that Burton had. There were only 23 women members at the time, and their male colleagues tended to see them as curiosities rather than equals. The new Representative was particularly aggravated by the shabby treatment she received from the other members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Still, Burton's reasoning proved prescient. The protégé was quite tough and, representing a safe district that easily reelected her every two years, was able to build a power base. In part, this was because times change. In part, it was because being able to raise money will get you far in Washington. And in part it was because the protégé had terrific political skills, learned in part from family members who were in politics. That woman went on to a long and successful career and is, in fact, still in the House today. We'll return to her shortly.

The second person we'd like to talk about is a fellow who was once a rising star in the Republican Party. He was a Georgetown graduate, well-connected in evangelical circles, and a high-ranking staffer of the Heritage Foundation. He also worked for several prominent Republican politicians, including Bob Dole, before accepting appointment as George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. In that job, he helped craft the verbiage that, for better or worse, sold the Iraq War to the world. That included coining the phrase "Axis of Evil," which might be the best-known catchphrase of the Bush years.

However, while this fellow continued to regard himself as a conservative, he began to wonder if the Republican Party remained so. He became disenchanted with his work for Bush, and with the Iraq War, and quit his post. Many folks like that take a nice, cushy job with Fox, but the key to that Faustian bargain is that you have to keep toeing the Republican Party line. That did not seem agreeable, so instead our conservative friend became a newspaper columnist, where he knew he'd have greater freedom to express his true opinions.

In the newspaper phase of his career, this gentleman continued to advocate for the things he held dear, particularly his Christianity. At the same time, he was unsparing in his criticism of the failings of the Republican Party and its members. In particular, he lamented Donald Trump's "fundamental unfitness for high office," and railed against COVID denialism, "stop the steal," and the GOP's ongoing pandering to racists. He also had an activist side, and was particularly concerned with fighting AIDS and poverty.

There are many Republican adherents who do not suffer criticism gladly, and after he ceased his work for Bush, this fellow was excoriated by many of his former conservative allies. He was also hated by Donald Trump, of course, and was the target of millions of words of vitriol, courtesy of Trump followers, in comments sections. This helped exacerbate this fellow's serious depressive disorder, which was bad enough to put him in the hospital more than once. Still, he soldiered on.

Neither of the two folks we've been talking about here was perfect, of course. Indeed, some readers might find one, or the other, or both, to be quite objectionable. But there is no question that they spent decades standing up for what they believed in, and trying to make the world a better place, despite the vast amount of blowback they got from their fellow Americans. Hence our use of "profiles in courage."

There's also a different sort of courage they both displayed. One was a mother and homemaker until she was nearly 50, and then struck out on a very different path in life. The other was a rising star in politics until his 40s, and then struck out on a very different path in life. The point is, it's never too late to course correct, if you're willing to take the plunge.

As readers have probably guessed by now, Sala Burton's protégé was Nancy Pelosi, whose career is now winding down (see above). And the Bush-speechwriter-turned-columnist was Michael Gerson, who passed away yesterday at the age of 58. A tip of the hat to both of them for having the courage of their convictions. Have a good weekend, everyone. (Z)

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