He was by all accounts a little fella. An Eastern-dandy preacher, prone to recurring bouts of illness, even his friends thought him ugly as sin. (Honest to God, go online and have a look at the guy he looks like Eddie Munster on a bad hair day.) Indeed, Thomas Starr King was a dark horse candidate for much of anything, really, yet his bronze statue has graced the United States Capitol since the Hoover administration. But no more. The Golden States legislature recently followed through on a 2006 decision to replace his likeness with none other than the man Don Henley (Eagles) depicted as, that tired, old man we elected king: Ronald Reagan. Folks, if fantasy baseball went retro, itd be like trading Babe Ruth for Bob Uecker.
Thomas Starr King, for all his physical disadvantages, was instrumental in keeping California in the Union. By the 1850s, that newly declared state was rife with Southern businessmen and politicians who had come west for the cheap, plentiful land of the valleys and the cheap, plentiful labor that came with it. Confederate-leaning types, they angled first for total independence. When that didnt fly, they sought to exploit the states frontier spirit in support of states rights, code throughout the South for pro-slavery. And they made serious headway. By 1860, it was not at all clear that, despite entering the gathering fray as a free state, California would remain in the Union column.
Enter the sickly, little abolitionist preacher from back East.
You know youre not well when the state of your health is such that the summer fog and winter rains of San Francisco is just what your doctor orders. But, in the spring of 1860 and after a crowded, storm-battered journey (including a railroad portage across the Isthmus of Panama) King and his family came there to stay. Unable to resist his anti-slavery urgings, and using the pulpit of his Unitarian church as his base of operations, King risked life and limb for his staunch abolitionist sermons and lectures. Death threats were legion and real.
We think our legislators are an unsavory lot, but they pale in comparison to some of those who had risen to the top of 1860 California politics. Many openly defended slavery as the means for their vision of an agricultural colossus, the like of which the world had never seen; and they were not above enlisting in their cause violent Southern sympathizers, hired thugs and bribed colleagues.
Every once in a while the human race is gifted with the right person bearing the right message at the right time. A champion (preferably one free of either a death wish or a martyrs complex) emerges. The ambivalent are motivated and mobilized. The hesitant become impassioned. The abolitionist cause in Thomas Starr Kings California was right, but it lacked the leadership, funding and focus needed to beat back the rising pro-slavery tide. King rallied to his side nearly every contingent of the budding liberal movement of his time, ensuring that the stain of sanctioned slavery did not reach the Pacific. And thats why his bust graced the Capitol for decades.
Fast forward about a hundred years to Governor, then, President Ronald Reagan, the Gipper. Possessed of dogged determinism, over the course of some three decades in California and national politics, he made more comebacks than Brett Favre. The guy had moxie, stage presence and the ability to make us feel good despite ourselves.
So, what did Reagan do for his adopted state and, later, the nation? Here, in no particular order, is some of his cred:
Opposed two Civil Rights Acts
Opposed fair housing legislation
Opposed the Equal Rights Amendment
Opposed reproductive freedom
Opposed nationalizing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
Opposed the creation of the Department of Education
Opposed health care reform
Supported school prayer
Supported capital punishment
Supported unbridled oil exploration
Supported a voluntary Social Security Administration
Supported nuclear proliferation
Supported targeted, limited immigration policies
Quite the vitae, eh? And theres the goofy approach to drug use and importation, laying-off of striking air traffic controllers, Reaganomics and, oh, yes, a little thing we like to call Iran-Contra. An ultra-conservatives dream, Mr. Reagan.
Thomas Starr King and Ronald Reagan. The one helped save California from a backward slide into chattel slavery. The other? He helped further marginalize women, poor folks and people of color, waste resources in a simplistic and misguided War on Drugs and played enabler to the rise of the pietistic Moral Majority. And now hes representing the Golden State in the nations capitol.
California, your legislature just traded down. Big time. They gave up, with next to no opposition, a proud piece of your collective conscience. And what did you get in return? A true political opportunist whose unreconstructed conservatism and unconscionable policies haunt us still. Such a deal.
Rev. Don Rollins is interim minister of the Minnesota Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Bloomington, Minn. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009
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