We have created a climate that rewards life on the extremes of the political spectrum.
Cable TV and the Internet favor the starkest of opinions, preferably compressed into a 12-second sound bite. Twitter allows 140 characters at a time. More than a bumper sticker — but not by much.
Greek choruses on left and right shout down those who stray into enemy territory. MoveOn.org can’t stand Blue Dog Democrats. Rush Limbaugh & Co. have redefined Republicanism into something that Ronald Reagan might not even recognize.
For a decade and more, the lack of applause coming from the middle ground, where deals happen, has been deafening — a situation that Georgia Tech wants to change.
This week, Tech bestowed on former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn its first Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage. The prize — which comes with $100,000 — is meant to encourage the men and women who take chances in public life, perhaps at some expense to their careers.
It is to be perpetually funded by the Wilbur and Hilda Glenn Family foundation. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston does something comparable each year with its Profile in Courage Award.
Why Nunn? “It was more for his work since he left the Senate — where courage had been most necessary,” said William Todd, president of the Georgia Cancer Coalition, a member of the nominating committee.
During his 24 years in the Senate, Nunn was the ultimate Cold Warrior and advocate for military supremacy over the Soviet Union.
He is now head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which applies itself to reducing the threat of “loose nukes.” More importantly, Nunn has worked with the likes of former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, and former secretary of defense William Perry, to make the bipartisan argument that — in a post-Cold War world— we must take a slow walk away from nuclear weapons.
The better question may be, why Ivan Allen, the former mayor of Atlanta? The answer: Because his city was very good at finding that narrow path between the rock and the hardest of hard places — as anyone old enough to remember integration and the early ’60s can attest.
It was a time when even the slightest action — say, taking the “whites only” sign from over a City Hall water fountain — carried risk. In 1963, Allen was the only elected official from the South willing to testify in favor of the public accommodation section of President John Kennedy’s civil rights bill — which would desegregate restaurants and hotels throughout the South.
Allen told the soon-to-be-assassinated president that the endorsement would cost him his brief political career — Allen had beaten Lester Maddox for the job of mayor in 1961. But it didn’t.
When Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Allen – still mayor – spearheaded the integrated banquet to honor King. It was perhaps the most important social event in Atlanta’s history.
At a luncheon in the Biltmore Hotel Atlanta on Tuesday, Nunn went out of his way to urge applause for Georgia politicians who have been taking chances this year:
– U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, for voting for a new arms control agreement with Russia;
– U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss for diving into the politically treacherous deficit issue;
– Gov. Nathan Deal for urging caution on illegal immigration legislation now being hammered out by the General Assembly;
– Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, for his effort to bring city pensions under control;
– And House Speaker David Ralston for the uncommon relationship that has developed between the white north Georgia lawmaker and Reed, a Democratic African-American.
The former Georgia senator saved his bile for what he declared to be the enemy of moderation — a kind of political entrepreneurism that cashes in on extremism.
“Today our airwaves and public debates are filled with attempts to not just denounce opponents’ logic but to impugn their motives. Demagogues and rabble rousers are not new to American history — but the economics and the technology have changed,” Nunn said. “A large number of these folks are making millions of dollars dividing America into segments and yelling, ‘Sic ’em!’”
These political entrepreneurs have made humility unfashionable. It has become a sin in politics to say — nay, to confess — “I’m not sure.”
It is Nunn’s curse that, until the end of his days, Georgia will be asking him what to make world affairs. Before that luncheon, he was asked what to make of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s resurgence in Libya.
Should the U.S. help establish a no-fly zone?
In essence, Nunn said he wasn’t sure. “If I were in charge, I would certainly be asking the military why we shouldn’t. And I’d be listening carefully to reasons why they say we shouldn’t. And there are reasons,” Nunn said. “But I would be leaning forward on that one — particularly since the Arab League has requested it.”
And yet he had doubts. “I don’t know if it’s too late or not. But you really have a hard time stopping helicopters,” Nunn said. “They can fly low, they can land quickly. It’s hard for F-16s to chase helicopters.”
And what do you do if it doesn’t work? Nunn added. Under no terms does he think U.S. ground troops should be used. “We can’t do that,” he said.
His was not a binary, black or white answer that would sell well on cable TV. But remember — that’s a good thing.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider