BLOG: Moments of Political Courage
This past Sunday was the Emmy Awards. Among the nominees was the HBO movie All the Way – a chronicle of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. LBJ’s passage of that law over strong opposition from his fellow Southern Democrats is rightly looked at as a moment of political courage – he himself said after the bill was signed that he feared Democrats had lost the South for a generation. Tonight, however, I’d like to take a look at a less well-known example of courage: from LBJ’s son in law, Virginia Senator Chuck Robb.
In 1996, the Senate passed the Defense of Marriage Act 85-14, federally defining marriage as between a man and a woman. A majority of Democrats, including liberal stalwarts such as Tom Harkin, Barbara Mikulski, and Joe Biden all voted for the bill. Those that opposed largely couched their concerns in politically expedient ways – constitutional concerns such as federal vs. state powers. Senator Robb, however, gave an eloquent floor speech in which he laid out his view that the bill was discriminatory, saying that “when that civil institution is separated from a religious ceremony, and that civil institution is recognized by a sovereign state, then denying federal recognition of that union amounts to nothing short of indefensible discrimination,” and “discomfort over sexual orientation does not give us the right to discriminate against a class of Americans.”
It’s hard to overstate how risky of a vote Senator Robb cast. He was the only senator from the former Confederacy to vote against the bill. His – and my – home state of Virginia was, in 1996, still a deeply conservative state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in over 30 years. His colleagues begged him not to make this speech, saying that it would be devastating to him politically. Indeed, Senator Robb lost his race for reelection in 2000. But as he said in his speech, quoting from LBJ: “it’s not hard to do what’s right, it’s hard to know what’s right.” He knew what was right, and he took a stand, ready to deal with whatever consequences would come.
It’s easy to be cynical about politics. It’s easy to see elected officials contorting themselves to avoid taking any sort of controversial position – or any position, period. But although there are those who act in that manner, throughout our history, there have always been men like Chuck Robb – who believed that it was his duty not to cast the popular vote, but the right vote, and who stood by the downtrodden minority in the face of overwhelming opposition and political fallout. They have not always been well known, but they have always been there – and I promise you, even in an election as discouraging and difficult as this one, they still are.
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