The Nation's Pulse

My Two Bits

An open letter to scaredy-cat Republicans.

By 1.31.07

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HELENA, Montana
Dear Mr. Elected Republican,

I know you're busy there in Washington D.C., but I'd like to offer this little anecdote. It's true it comes from Montana, with only four electoral votes, but still, it's an anecdote about acting on principles and the positive, unexpected results thereof. It might prove useful to you in the next election.

I live in Helena, the capital of Montana. It's a small town in big, empty state. I live a few blocks from the Capitol Building. My mother-in-law lives next door to the Governor's parents. And just the other day my wife bumped into the Lieutenant Governor while standing in line at Safeway and had a chat about the symphony they'd both attended. The point is, everybody pretty much knows everybody. Events occur, and everyone can see for themselves what's what. The media and polls and such don't have much room to filter or reinterpret our reality.

The other morning I took my 13-year-old daughter and a few of her pals to the Helena Civic Center for the "Official Launch" of the new Montana quarter. The place was packed with thousands of schoolchildren and a dozen or so dignitaries. Luckily, we found a few empty seats up in the balcony, in between a few hundred fourth graders.

Though it interrupted their never-ending discussion of boys and clothes, I was glad I brought them to a happy, apolitical civil event. They listened to the high school bands and a Blackfeet folk musician play some music, none of which, thankfully, was hip-hip.

We heard Gary Marks of the Montana's Quarter Commission make a funny little speech about coin collectors buying money with money and thereby never running out of money. Edmund Moy, Director of the U.S. Mint, spoke of his first trip to Montana as a youth, and his awe at seeing the sky filled with stars from horizon to horizon, and how it was a memory he had never forgotten. I swear the tears were ready to flow from his eyes. I know I got a little misty-eyed. Our charismatic Governor Schweitzer, wearing clean cowboy boots, gave a snappy, happy little speech to the kids about saving their Montana quarter (every child received one), so that when someday when they become grandparents they can show it to their ten year old grandchildren and share their memories of Montana. Schweitzer may be a true-blue Democrat in his day job, but darnit, you gotta love a guy who can speak heartfelt Montana-ese and get into the hearts and souls of a couple thousand school kids. Good for him.

But even in lonely, forgotten, four-electoral-votes Montana, the cancer exists.

In the midst of the speeches and non-partisan, communal coming-togetherness, a ragtag half-dozen protesters quietly walked across the balcony holding posters. Something about Big Skull Country (get it? Not Big Sky, but Big Skull?), murder, genocide, slaughter. They walked across and out.

A few state troopers appeared. The protesters appeared again and walked across. The troopers watched passively.

By the way, my thanks to the Supreme Court for allowing six people's right to freedom of expression to trump the right of two thousand kids to peacefully and joyfully come together and ...

Wait a ding-donged, dang-blatted Montana minute! The protesters weren't obstructing two thousand kids. No! They were obstructing the views of a few hundred fourth graders in the balcony! And my view! And my daughter's view!

Meanwhile, every adult pretended the protesters didn't exist, that everything was really just fine, that there was no problem, no need to do anything. Much like you guys do in Washington, D.C. whenever Pelosi, Kennedy, Rangel, et al. get blathering. Something you learned from Bob Michel, no doubt.

The protesters quietly walked off. Except for one. She stood directly in front of me holding a poster high. Right smack in front of my face.

I remember, years ago, reading a review of a book lamenting our culture's declining manners and civility, and how this rotting endangers the future of our civilization. A good argument, but I had the sense the author wrote from a position of wealth and isolation, that he was not likely to be in the trenches asking teenagers to turn down their ghetto blasters or to pick up the beer can they threw in the gutter. I always wanted to write a letter: "Dear Author, what if the barbarians don't read your book? What then? What do we do?"

IT'S BEEN A LIFETIME inner debate: Do I assume a role of concerned citizen and tell this punk to knock it off, or do I turn my head and look out for number one? I go back and forth.

In this instance of the protestor in Helena, I went forth.

I stood up, walked up to the woman, asked her to move so we could see the speaker. She sneered.

"You can see."

"No, I can't. Please move."

"You can see past me."

"No, my vision is not warped. I really cannot see around your cardboard sign in front of my face. Please move so I and my child can exercise our right to hear the speaker."

At which point the woman leaned forward and jabbed her elbow into my chest! (So much for "non-confrontational" protest!) Daring me to...slug her? Now, the last time I slugged someone I was in sixth grade, St. John's Christensom School, Los Angeles, when I decked George Patterson and felt so bad about it I cried. Besides, I could see this woman was nuts, just plain nuts, and no doubt dreamed of a big fight, an arrest, newspaper and TV reports. I wasn't going to give her the satisfaction. I turned, sat down. I looked, and she was gone.

The speeches ended. The Governor and the Director Moy and some other politicians put on a wonderful hands-on display of government in action by walking the aisles HANDING OUT FREE MONEY! A free quarter to everyone under eighteen.

As we were leaving, a group of boys came up to me and asked what happened with the protester. I told them. They thought that was pretty neat. It seems they too were irritated by the six people using this venue to exercise their right to free speech. I like ten year olds who know their manners.

"What are they doin' here? What do they want?"

I told them I didn't know.

A woman passed by and thanked me. "I'm glad somebody did something." Her husband gave me the Montana cowboy nod.

Some other kids pointed at me, smiled, nodded.

Another man and woman thanked me.

I brushed past a state trooper, and just so he would know, mentioned what happened. He leaned forward eagerly.

"Do you want to press charges?"

I didn't.

"You sure?"

"I'm sure. Unless you want me to. If it would be helpful somehow."

"I'm not allowed to influence your decision."

I thought of the protester smiling for the photographer as her fingerprints were taken in the jailhouse. I passed on the pressing of charges. (I later learned that this particular tribe of protesters shows up regularly at public state functions, and has a consistent record of spitting on the troopers and, when it's available, throwing dirt on them. Hmm. Maybe I should have pressed charges -- I'd never be issued another speeding ticket in Montana.)

Outside, the protesters formed a semi-circle between the doors and the school buses. Apparently the fourth grade demographic is critical to the buffalo/slaughter/genocide/murder/whatever protest faction.

Adults walked by with bemused smiles. One guy in a cowboy hat started lecturing one of the hippy-chick protesters about the importance of the Montana beef industry to the economy. Probably a lobbyist.

And the best thing of all, the fourth graders were pointing and laughing at the protesters. In the photo I took, you can even see the kids inside the school bus laughing at the protesters.

AFTERWARDS, MY WIFE AND I went to Wendy's for lunch. I ate a baked potato with sour cream and chives. As we were leaving, a woman approached me. Her face was earnest.

"I saw you at the Civic Center, and I just want to thank you for standing up!"

And later: Two of my daughter's classmates told her they were "proud" her dad had stood up and asked the protestor to behave.

And: My daughter's principal extended her thanks to my wife, and volunteered how she had been planning to tell the kids at the Civic Center to encircle the protesters and lock arms for a passive entrapment. (You can see the headline: "Fourth Graders Arrested for Infringing Free Speech Rights of Protesters.")

So you see, Mr. Elected Republican, it doesn't take much. Stand up to the frothing Democrats, left wing nut jobs and smarmy media types. Verbally espouse a few conservative principles. Most people have an affinity for conservative principles, which really are based upon civility and respect for others. Just say what's right. Tell the Democrats to knock it off. If they don't, wash out their naughty, lying, disrespectful mouths with soap (figuratively, of course). Make a stand. Put it on the line. Good people will thank you.

I, along with a few others who didn't vote for you last time around, would like to vote for you the next time around. We're not asking for much. We're not even asking for twenty-five cent cash handouts.

Just starting speaking up. Now.

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