Political Mercury

January 20th, 2011 |



By Douglas Burns


What a congresswoman really does


The currency of our democracy is accessibility, the ability to walk right up to a Member of Congress at a town hall and ask for help with your Medicare issue, challenge her on a health-care vote or solicit support for your son’s ambitions to attend the U.S. Military Academy.

We so often think of our politicians through a “West Wing” sense, with high drama, a la the now-syndicated NBC show, and Lincoln-Douglas debates, eloquent speeches filling the days. High-minded stuff.

But much of what makes a legislator is the schedule-taxing, not-so-thrilling work of constituent services, exactly what Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was doing in Tucson Saturday morning when a fringe-thinking 22-year-old whose motives were still largely unknown opened fire at grocery parking lot, killing six people and injuring 14, including the congresswoman.

We know this much. The congresswoman was the shooter’s target.

This is personal for all Americans because it attacks that basic exchange so essential to democracy. Approachability. That’s why the Iowa Caucuses are so special and effective. We interact with political celebrities as regular folk.

I was on a treadmill Saturday morning as word of the shooting spread across Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, all channels I roamed for the rest of the day. For two years, in the 1990s, I was one of the people who stood beside a congresswoman at such events. I was the communications director/press secretary for a conservative “blue dog” Democrat, Congresswoman Pat Danner of Missouri. She was a pro-gun, pro-working man party maverick (when that term meant what it means) who brilliantly navigated a conservative rural district, earning a reputation as something of a tough grandmother who knew how to fight for Maryville, Mo., in Washington, D.C. Her district and positioning in it was not unlike that of Congresswoman Giffords.

It was my job, privilege, really, to lead Congresswoman Danner through a gaggle of reporters after a State of The Union speech, to arrange all manner and variety of interaction with the media — and, yes, to at times, staff her at town hall meetings in northwest Missouri, in and around St. Joseph and Maryville .

At a different time, I stood in the same place as those aides who were gunned down. This is not lost on me.

In the last decade and a half since I moved back to Iowa to rejoin The Carroll Daily Times Herald, I’ve covered well over a hundred town-hall political events. At least. They can be grueling for members, particularly in rural districts, where a day of them may involve six or eight meetings and hundreds of miles of windshield time.

From time to time, the political ambitious will call me and ask what I think about their intentions to run for office, for the Legislature or Congress. “Would I be good at it?” they ask.

“Well,” I have said. “So much of it involves that nuts-and-bolts community service. You’ll spend days listening to the elderly tell you their health problems, nights listening to veterans who are shorted on benefits. And the next day, school teachers and parents will want answers on education. It’s a grind, and most of the job, if you do it right, involves fighting behind-the-scenes for your constituents on thousands of individual matters that have little to do with who is a Democrat or Republican and everything to do with getting the right paperwork to the right agency at the right time.”

We would do well to remember this now about our representatives — to look at the actual definition of what they do, not how they are defined by blowhard bloggers and mouth-breathing radio voices.

As of press time we had much to learn about the Arizona shooter (who doesn’t deserve the infamy of widespread use of his name in print).

The cable commentariat and blogosphere are pregnant with speculation that the shooting spree had been imminent for sometime, that the roiling, boiling rhetoric of the last year, from Sarah Palin’s crosshairs over certain Democratic districts on her PAC map to “pull the plug on grandma” hysterics about health care, collectively set the scene for violence. There’s much to learn about the shooter before motive is assigned and larger conclusions can be drawn about political rhetoric and its consequences.

The attention, as it should, will be trained by anti-hate trackers like the Southern Poverty Law Center on fringe groups.

But the apathetic, wishy-washy Great American Middle is a force through its silence and vacillation.

In Iowa, 712,553 voters are registered as independents. It’s the largest block. This means they are largely out of the structuring of the state’s two-party system, meaning people on the radical edges, those whose voices should be shouted down as irrelevant, crazy, must be tolerated and, yes, cultivated to a level that is downright frightening.

The story of the contemporary American political climate is just as much about who isn’t talking as it is about who is. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.