Trading Down

By Don Rollins

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 State’s 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, it’d 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 didn’t fly, they sought to exploit the state’s 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 you’re 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 martyr’s complex) emerges. The ambivalent are motivated and mobilized. The hesitant become impassioned. The abolitionist cause in Thomas Starr King’s 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 that’s 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 there’s 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-conservative’s 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 he’s representing the Golden State in the nation’s 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

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

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