[Note: Im the Chicago correspondent for a national Catholic weeklythe oldest one in the U.S., The Wanderer. Heres an article theyre using this week on the Illinois 6th district U.S. House race]
CHICAGO Old vaudeville performers had a dread that sometime they would be scheduled to appear in their specialty act and have to follow a blind kid playing an accordion. It wouldnt matter if the blind kid were a terrible accordion player, the result would be the same: audience sympathy would carry the day. I have an even worse experience than that to tell.
Many years ago when I lived in Minnesota, I signed up with a Toastmasters club in St. Cloud (population: 25,000 then). Toastmasters is a club where they serve dinner and each member has the opportunity to make a speech of some sortsometimes 2-1/2 minutes in length, other times in full length: a speech of about 7 minutes. There is a state contest, the winner of which goes to the national.
As a young, single newspaper reporter, I decided to join Toastmasters and soon found the experience exhilarating. I entered the speech contest, won the county, won the regional, won the district (composed of several counties) and went to the state finals. I prepared thoroughly for the contest and thought I had won when the guy who followed me began his talk with these words: Im lucky to be alive. One year ago today I was diagnosed with incurable leukemia. Well, I figured that was the luck of the draw: what better than to be beaten by one who may not survive the year? But after he won, he acknowledged that he never had leukemia but had taken advantage of an overlooked phrase in the contest rules: you could either choose a life experience or manufacture one.
We protested but thats what the rules said. The rules were changed the next year. It didnt help me because I was too busy to get involved in the speech contest that year. My experience with the fictional leukemia victim was one thing. The race to fill the soon-to-be vacant congressional seat held by Cong. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) has a blind kid with an accordion quality to it.
Hyde, well known as the champion of pro-life, is, of course, the outstanding member of the House from Illinois on both sides of the aisleand this includes the Speaker, J. Dennis Hastert. Hyde, a former state House majority leader, was one of the few bright spots for national Republicans in a terrible year for the GOP: 1974, right after Watergate. A former Democrat, he was tall, oracular and forceful with a winning personality and stunning telegenic presence. He has also been one of the great Catholic laymen in the nation. In Congress one day he scribbled on a note-pad the language for a rider that, if passed, would ban funding for Medicaid abortions. It was desperately difficult work to pass it and to renew it in successive Democratic congresses. But he worked at it and what has become known as the Hyde amendment has become a part of U.S. history. In doing so, he saved the lives of countless unborn children.
More than a single issue Congressman, he became an expert on constitutional law in Judiciary. When the Republicans won the House in 1994, he became chairman of House Judiciary committee. A malleable lawmaker by disposition, he undertook the tough work of impeaching President Bill Clinton. Republicans in the House observe term limits. The impeachment took a great amount of time and following it, Hyde asked for a simple extension of his time. He was denied that courtesy by Speaker Hastert. Then Hyde ran for chairman of the House International Affairs committee. Incredibly, Hastert also opposed him there but he beat the Speaker and, as chairman, became an expert on foreign affairs.
Now he has served more than 30 years, is 80 years old and afflicted with a severe back problem which interferes with his locomotion. Retirement should have been a necessity for him in 2004, but he was asked to run again because it was a presidential year. In this last run for reelection, he did wellbut not spectacularly well, the reason being his ill-health prevented him from making many appearances. Resolutely he traveled the suburban district debating often his young Democratic opponent, Christine Cegalis.
Earlier this year, Henry Hyde announced his retirement. But he had planned well in advance. He chose as his replacement a young 40ish state lawmaker, a leader in the state legislature and an outstanding pro-life advocate: a lawyer, seasoned lawmaker and attractive. State Sen. Peter Roskom is well known to Illinoisans and it was presumed that he would have a relatively easy time following in Hydes footsteps. The nation then would have the benefit of the senior pro-life advocate being replaced by a young man who could well become the next leading pro-life advocate: an expert on all the conservative social issuesan opponent of making homosexuality a government-sponsored item along with race, color, creed and national origin, and an articulate opponent of embryonic stem cell research. Roskom, a Protestant, is so fed up with the Episcopalian church that he aligns himself with an Anglican Communion which is solidly traditionalist.
Not that Roskom would be necessarily a shoo-in. Hydes former opponent, Cegalis, a smart young Democrat, had run a good race in 2004 and was expected to provide some stiff opposition to Roskom. She had every right to expect that her party would back her for renomination. But a terrifying Democratic duo has other plans.
That duo are two of the most strident pit bull lawmakers in the nation: Sen. Dick Durbin, a Catholic one-time pro-lifer who reneged and became stridently pro-abortion to fit his political needs and Cong. Rahm Emanuel. Durbin, the Democratic whip is voluble but with a mouth that moves before his brain kicks in. This happened earlier this year when he compared some of our troops guarding captured terrorists to lackeys of Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot.
Emanuel, about whom I written before, could well be cast in the screenplay What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg, the story of a slick, sleek young opportunist in Hollywood. Emanuel a former ballet dancer who turned fund-raiser could play the Glick role if it were transported to Democratic politician. He burnished these traits to a high gloss as a Washington operative. As a White House political director under Bill Clinton, he was Bill Clintons ace apologist during the Monica Lewinsky affair. When Clintons second term was over, Emanuel left the White House and to everyones amazement in this city set up an office as an investment banker. With no experience in this trade at all, he had barely opened his door when the phones were ringing with businesses seeking a political liaison. First group in the door was Exelon, into which the old Commonwealth Edison utility is based, seeking federal approval for a mega-billion-dollar merger.
For Emanuel it was easy. He used his close connection with Robert Rubin, the mega-millionaire who was Clintons treasury secretary, who had returned to Wall Street. With Rubin guiding the way Emanuel became overnight many times a millionaire. Is this a great country or what? Armed with personal wealth, Emanuel then plopped himself into a congressional district, announced he was a candidate and tussled with a brighy young woman State Rep who, because she had lived in the district for many years, had the temerity to imagine she should be elected. It was touch and go for a while until, happily for Emanuel, an aged supporter of his opponent said that Emanuel had dual-citizenship, in the U.S. and Israel. Such was not the case but Emanuel insisted the old fellow had insulted him with virulent anti-Semitism. Saying wrongly that you have a dual citizenship with Israel is hate speech? But riding a wave of newspaper publicity to defend himself as a target of racism (which he wasnt), Emanuel won election.
Once he got in the House he used his ample rolodex and Wall Street connections with Rubin to become a prodigious fund-raiser for Democrats. It led to the next step up the ladder: his being made chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee, the Dems top political apparatus in the House, the group that picks Dem candidates for Congress.
But it wasnt Emanuel but Durbin who stumbled on good fortune for the Democrats in the House. Trying to repair his tattered relations with members of the armed forces in Illinois, Durbin went visiting military hospitals. In one he found a young Illinois helicopter pilot recovering from severe wounds. Tammy Duckworth had lost both legs and had a seriously damaged arm. She could stand and walk on two artificial contrivances but she was willing to go back to Iraq to fly helicopters. Durbin was hit by a bolt from the blue: Duckworth lived in the general area of the 6th district which Hyde was vacating. And she was personable and very intelligent with a husband who was very supportive. What if he could convince her to run against Roskom? He contacted his close colleague Emanuel and quite quickly the deed was done.
For one who was so pro-war that she said she wanted to resume flying helicopters, a change in public persona came following her announcement for public office. She now said the war was a mistake. It fit in with the criticism the Democrats are making of Bush. One can hardly blame Duckworth for wanting to run for Congress. At her young age she faces a life of severe disability. If she can take up a new career who can blame her? But if she wins in Hydes district, she will beat the ranking pro-life leader in Illinois. Thus social conservatives have a major problem and none of Roskoms legislative skills may mean nothing since voters may not want to deny a young woman who lost so much in the war.
The one impediment in the Durban-Emanuel strategy is Christine Cegalis who doesnt like being bumped so rudely out of the way. She will run in the primary but her chances arent great compared to a hugely funded Duckworth, with the national Dem House Campaign committee calling the strategic shots. If, by chance, Cegalis wins the nomination, she and Roskom will be on an even playing field and issues will matter then. But Roskom against Tammy Duckworth? Already she is making the rounds of the big TV networks in tow with an Emanuel aide. Her story is power-driven for politics. Given the emotionalism that surrounds such a severely wounded young woman, Roskom has an uphill climb. Normally, a woman who loses both legs and has artificial ones wears slacks so as not to draw attention to her disability. Now when she appears, Tammy Duckworth wears a dress, showing in full the two metallic poles she uses for legs. The stark appearance may be her decisionor her professional handlers.
Can Roskom overcome the enormous sympathy voters will have for the severely maimed ex-helicopter pilot? I would say yes. But the odds have escalated sharply against him. Tammy will not be expected to talk about other issues than the warof which she presents herself as a striking reminder. How can Roskom debate her? What about other issues concerning the district? Odds are, she will not have to take any position on the issues: just show up. Can an injured veteran be defeated? Possibly, yes. Sen. Max Clelland, a severely disabled Vietnam veteran was in 2000. But he had been elected first and had committed several grievous political errors in conservative Georgia. And you have to calculate that she not only has this powerful resume but all the funds that the Democratic Congressional Campaign committee under Emanuel can muster.
The Hyde seat, once regarded as in continuing possession of pro-life, is now in the at risk column.
Now you know why the Christmas songnormally brimming with theological significance0 Come, Emmanuel! isnt my first choice in the hymnal.