Thursday, August 28, 2008

A statesman for Obama

When I met Jim Leach for the first time, protesters were shouting down a speech he gave at the Iowa City Public Library under a hand-painted banner that read, "Killer Leach."

It was during the heady days of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution in 1995 and the mild-mannered, moderate congressman was an unlikely foot soldier. But it was the first time in his 19-year career that the GOP was running the show and he dutifully towed the party line. He truly believed Republicans could clean up Washington.

So when I caught Leach's speech at the Democratic National Convention Monday endorsing Barack Obama, I let out a little gasp.

My former congressman chuckled that as a veteran of five Republican National Conventions, he'd never expected to be at a DNC, either.

"When I was asked to speak, it startled me at first and I had to think about it for a moment," Leach said during a phone interview Wednesday. "But I made a commitment and I decided to go all out."

That commitment is to Republicans for Obama, also led by Sen. Lincoln Chafee. Both were swept out of office during the 2006 Democratic tsunami, but they interestingly haven't bought the idea that maverick John McCain will restore their party. Leach believes a record number of Goldwater Republicans and independents will cross over.

Most Obama backers on tee-vee look to be 18 if they're a day and gush about their personal connection to him. But there was no come-to-Jesus moment with Leach, who admits he doesn't know Obama well.

Dispassionate Princeton professor he is, he neatly laid out a historical and geopolitical case for the Democrat better than anyone I've seen, masterfully weaving in the ideals of Jefferson, Lincoln and Reagan with Obama's.

"The change Barack Obama is advocating is far more than a break with today's politics," Leach said in his speech. "It is a clarion call for renewal rooted in time-tested American values that tap Republican, as well as Democratic traditions."

Leach swats away the idea that the freshman Illinois senator is less ready to be commander-in-chief than McCain, whom he deeply respects.

"There's no doubt that John McCain has served in Congress longer than Barack Obama," says the man who was in Washington longer than both combined. "But it's important to look at judgment over experience and I am impressed by Barack's judgment."

Though he voted for the Gulf War, Leach was one of the few Republicans who didn't back the Iraq war, which he calls "a disaster." He's also troubled by the growing gulf between rich and poor and the middle class that's been left behind. What won him over to Obama was his non-ideological approach to issues and strong cast of bipartisan advisers, which he pointedly says is a break with the Bush administration.

But the most powerful part of his eight-minute monologue Monday was a devastating, and obviously tortured, indictment of the Republican Party he still calls home:

"The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming.

"And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts."

Unfortunately, the Iowan's measured and thoughtful soliloquy was drowned out by cable's talking heads and skipped by the networks, although once-Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's GOP coming-out party next week will likely net great fanfare. Pundits are praying he puts on the same kind of loopy show that Dixiecrat Zell Miller did at the 2004 RNC that spooked small children and family pets.

But the reality is that Lieberman, though an eloquent and impassioned McCainiac, is swimming against a tide where Republicans are fleeing the party in droves. And the country is moving past the middle and gently leftward. Leach thinks it didn't have to be that way.

"If we had stayed true to our core principles, we could still be in control of Congress," he told me.

Leach, who considers Dwight D. Eisenhower to be the greatest GOP president of the 20th century, could have pushed back against the tide in '06 and probably hung on to his seat. But he nixed an anti-gay mailing and inflamed the religious right, who then worked against him. They're the same folks who call him a turncoat today.

Leach can still rattle off details about that Iowa City event 13 years ago, down to the obnoxious sign. Though the liberal college town is known for its sometimes raucous protests, he clearly didn't relish being the target. He wanted to dialogue with the demonstrators; they wanted to shriek slogans stolen from the '60s.

He deserved better then and he deserves more respect now. But being a statesman is often a thankless job.

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