Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sometimes it takes a while to determine your politics

by Paul Krza

I didn’t know about him then, but back in the 1950s, when I was fine-tuning my ABCs in an isolated, Socorro-size Wyoming coal town, another, slightly older, kid lived across town, also growing up, and he says, getting pummeled by local toughs. Now, he’s in the U.S. Senate, filling the committee chair left vacant by Sen. Ted Kennedy, and himself becoming a key player on health care reform.
In the same decade, TV arrived – but because of the town’s remoteness, via “cable,” with the lines carrying not Wyoming but Utah stations. Along with Howdy Dowdy and Ed Sullivan, I also remember seeing stuff on the news about a Salt Lake City guy named Cleon Skousen, who now, it turns out, is the idol of Fox’s Glenn Beck.
The place was Rock Springs, Wyoming, a grimy, deserty industrial town whose greatest redeeming social value was its crazy-quilt nationalities stew, including Balkans, Italians and Irish, a sprinkling of Mexicans and Asians, and yes, even a few African-Americans.
If early influences determine your politics, I guess I could have gone either way. Wyoming has always been conservative and solidly Republican, but Rock Springs was an anomaly, the down-and-dirty working-class bastion of the Democrats. And that Salt Lake City TV also tempted our young brains with Utah’s then-weird brand of religious politics.
That older kid across town, I learned later, was Sen. Tom Harkin, who has represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate since 1984. He mentioned his Rock Springs experience in a 1992 interview, when he was a presidential candidate, saying when his mother died and he was age 11, his father sent him to live with relatives there.
I heard more about Harkin the other day, in an article by Reuters news, in which he gave his no-nonsense prediction of where health care reform would end up: “I’m convinced we’re going to have a bill on the president’s desk before we go home for Christmas … with some form of a public option … we’re not going to accept defeat.”
Maybe it was poverty and depravation in his little Iowa hometown that influenced Harkin’s politics, or perhaps it was the hard edge of Wyoming. Whatever, he’s now an unabashed liberal, Kennedy’s successor on the Senate Health Committee and, I’m happy to report, a hard-charging leader on the top issue of our day when a lot of other Democrats have gotten cold feet.
Back to Skousen, whose name leaked into my consciousness from Utah TV, I guess because he was at the time in the news as police chief in Salt Lake City.
Then, a month or so ago, I got a mind-opening refresher course on the guy, courtesy of an article I ran across on “A once-famous anti-communist ‘historian,’ Skousen was too extreme even for the conservative activists of the Goldwater era,” a “right-wing crank,” fired as police chief because he ran the department “like the Gestapo.”
Gosh, I thought, recalling that as I maneuvered in youth to find my political legs, I had once embraced Barry Goldwater. My Goldwater-ese curiosity also led me to subscribe to a monthly politics pamphlet called “The Freeman,” I think mainly because it was free, and as kid I liked to get mail.
Turns out, the pamphlet came from Skousen, who also wrote several books, attacking communists, socialists, the new world order and arguing that the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” Not long ago, Beck rediscovered Skousen, and gave new life to his writings, some of which, according to the Salon article, notes had “echoes of the original Nazi 25-point plan.”
That hasn’t stopped Beck’s “9/12 project” and its followers from adopting one of his books, “The 5,000 Year Leap,” as its “bible,” and made it a modern bestseller. Meanwhile, Beck has gone primetime, his face even recently landing on the cover of Time, and his backers show up at town-hall meetings, berating health-care reformers as “socialists," and worse.
So when it comes to politics, I could have gone either way. A juvenile flirt with Glenn Beck’s idol might have landed me in a teabagger’s shoes.
But I think my roots in raucous but honest and tolerant Rock Springs, where, like Socorro, reality simmers close to the surface, re-set my leftish (and perhaps naively optimistic) compass direction, on the same course set by Tom Harkin.
And, it seems, both hope and hate can spring from the heartland. Remember, while change may be on the horizon, the hate-mongers are still lurking in the shadows.

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