Saturday, August 11, 2007

Dem hopefuls fumble on compassion

CHICAGO — As with any spectacle at Soldier Field, impatient, nacho-chomping fans shrieked at the stars on the 10-yard line and didn't hesitate to hiss at shady maneuvers.

The 95-degree evening heat underscored the fact that it was only an exhibition game — the seventh this summer — but fevered followers gyrated like it was the season's kickoff in January.

Of course, the Chicago Bears never took the field Tuesday at the space-age stadium — and the 15,000-person crowd couldn't have cared less.

Teachers, steelworkers, firefighters, nurses and autoworkers came to catch a glimpse of seven Democratic presidential contenders at the AFL-CIO forum and see what they'd do about health care, organizing rights, trade, infrastructure and Iraq.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich wooed the rank and file, pledging a "workers' White House" and an end to NAFTA, the bane of their existence.

No matter.

The leadership clearly was smitten with frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who defended taking bundles of corporate lobby cash while brazenly declaring "I'm your girl" against the right-wing machine. They want to back a winner, and the Clinton name is still election gold.

But more than halfway through, it became clear the debate was not about them. It wasn't about the talking heads' prognoses or flag-waving graphics on MSNBC.

When Steve Skvara stood at the microphone, neck throbbing in nervous pain as he gripped the metal braces at his side, the cheers and catcalls stopped.

After putting 34 years into a company that went bankrupt, the disabled Union Township, Ind., steelworker lost one-third of his pension and all his health insurance. He's had four heart attacks and a hip replacement, and his wife is still recovering from shattering her hip and pelvis in an auto accident.

Skvara knows he's not alone; 47 million Americans lack insurance. Health costs are the No. 1 reason for bankruptcy and he thinks Medicare should be available for all.

"What's wrong with America?" he asked, voice quavering. "And what will you do to change it?"Former Sen. John Edwards grinned, clapped and dispensed vague promises to reform pension law and health care.

Then he promptly returned to his theme of being the true workers' candidate, having walked 200 picket lines since leaving the Senate.

"Who was with you in crunch time?" Edwards smiled broadly at the crowd.

Translation: It's not about you, Steve. It's about me.

Deborah Hamner didn't fare much better when she talked about the death of her husband, George, in the Sago mine disaster last year and asked what the candidates could do to improve workplace safety.

Joe Biden announced he felt her pain — he'd lost his first wife, after all — and then took the rest of his time piling on fellow Sen. Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials on Pakistan.

Neither Skvara nor Hamner felt the hopefuls really answered their questions. They couldn't say if anyone on that Soldier Field stage truly responded with compassion.

Skvara said he's met enough politicians to know they'll launch into a stump speech if you ask about the weather.

But he's not giving up.

"Union people want straight answers," he told me, "because we deal with companies all the time that don't give us straight answers."

He and Hamner deserved better Tuesday night. And the candidates on stage should have known better than to grandstand. There are five long months before the Iowa caucus to do that at pig roasts, coffee shops and stockcar races from Des Moines to Daytona Beach.

Tuesday was the time for them to dignify the courage of two Americans voicing real problems and concerns.

That's real leadership.If societies are judged by how we treat the least among us, so too should those who aim to run ours.

And if the candidates' stony stock answers are any indicator, we may as well adopt the sober sign-off of Edward R. Murrow, invoked by debate moderator Keith Olbermann:

"Good night and good luck."

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