January 25, 2008

Governor Chiles Veto Message

An excerpt from Governor Chiles' veto of the 1996 school prayer bill:

...The issue of school prayer has been very troubling for me for many years--first as a state legislator, then as a United States senator, and now as governor. School prayer was an everyday occurrence for me as a student in public school, and as a member of the Christian majority. I had, and still have, feelings that this is something that we should be allowed to do. Listening and trying to place myself in the circumstance of the minority, however, gives me a different perspective. I do not believe that the right to petition the divine should be granted or withheld by majority vote.

...I believe personally that a prayerful and spiritual life is richly rewarding. I commend it, and I recommend it. But endorsing such a life is for me to do as an individual. It is different for the state.

...the school prayer provision will diminish the importance of the views and beliefs of those who are not within the majority. The public schools in our pluralistic society are grounded upon the principle of inclusion. School programs which at their best bring people together in common bonds--at sporting events, school assemblies and commencement exercise--could be turned into events that tear people apart.

I am mindful, however, that worshiping together can be unifying and fulfilling experience. We gather together in churches, synagogues and mosques, in other places designated by certain societies and cultures as holy places, and at campfire services to celebrate and practice our religious beliefs with those who share our beliefs and our faiths. We do so--willingly, comfortably, trustingly--to share the common bonds of our faiths. Praying together is a devout act which is to be embraced, not an act to which one is to be subjected.

...After full and prayerful contemplation of this measure, I reach the conclusion that it is better for us to reverently honor prayer as individuals, in our places of worship, in our homes, and in our hearts.

For these reasons, I am withholding my approval of House Bill 1041, and hereby veto the same.

January 24, 2008

AG = "Aspiring Governor"

Now that I've gotten a good start on the school prayer clips, I've moved onto the tobacco arena. In a 1996 Time magazine article on the issue I found a quote by a tobacco lawyer who found cause to snipe at the legion of attorneys general around the country filing suit against his employer to recover lost Medicaid disbursements. He proposed: "Do you know what the 'AG' in attorney general stands for? 'Aspiring Governor.'"

It's true that attorneys general often cause trouble as they struggle to move up in the world--but not in the context of Florida's battle against Big Tobacco. Florida's attorney general in 1996, Bob Butterworth, has never run for governor. Neither has Maryland's tobacco-fighting attorney general, J. Joseph Curran, for that matter--who served as AG from 1987 to 2007. On the tobacco issue, Attorney General Butterworth and Governor Chiles worked as a team. In some states, the AG office and the Governor's fought each other. In West Virginia and Mississippi, the governor filed suit against his own state's AG to stop the tobacco cases from going forward.

Career politicians in the state executive branch interest me quite a bit. Gov. Jim Hunt served North Carolina for four terms! There was a brief gap between the consecutive two-term blocks. Why did he return?

"Laboratories of Democracy"

This good article by Ezra Klein in Washington Monthly describes the slings and arrows of creating universal health care in Hawaii, Tennessee, Washington, and other state-sized laboratories.

Fun Fact: Vermont is the only state in America that does not required a balanced budget. I wonder how that works.

January 23, 2008

School Prayer Spike

In the weeks leading up to Governor Chiles' veto of the school prayer bill on May 31 1996, his correspondence office received more than 20,000 letters and phone calls from advocates and opponents.

This was more public outcry than ever before during the Chiles years in Tallahassee, remarkable considering how much controversy rocked the legislature in that time.

On Edit: Remember also that e-mail had not gone mainstream yet, and appreciate the time commitment necessary to generate that much old-fashioned communication. True, advocacy groups on both sides of the issue were there to coach would-be callers and writers. But anyone who has spent time organizing a letter-to-the-editor campaign knows that unless your issue is hot, you're better off writing all those letters yourself under an assumed name.

January 21, 2008

"If I can win California, I can win the country"

In the final season of The West Wing, Republican presidential candidate Senator Arnold Vinick, R-California, delivers an ode to the Gold State in the last hours of the campaign. He knows it's the key to his electoral vote strategy.

Paraphrasing, he describes it as the only state in America with small towns, big cities, sprawling suburbs, mountain ranges, deserts, green valleys, blacks, whites, Latinos, gay, straight, beaches, surfers...there is more real America, he concludes, in California than in any other state. "If I can win California, I can win the country."

The same can be said of Florida--except for the mountains--and I wouldn't be surprised if Rudy Giuliani sings a pretty song for the Sunshine State this week. Florida did win the country for President Bush in 2000, and groundwork laid now will pay off come November.

It's been done before--governors and senators losing themselves in the beauty of their state around election time. I recall Former Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) describing the Old Dominion as a cross-section of America. I think he directly compared Norfolk harbor to San Diego then depicted the Shenandoah Mountains and everything in between.


I just watched the The West Wing episode "Shibboleth," so appropriate for my study of school prayer in politics. "Faith," the Chinese religious refugee proclaims, "is the truth Shibboleth." Reciting the names of the Apostles or memorizing the Lord's Prayer is not enough.

Writer Aaron Sorkin uses the prayer in schools issue as a tool for character development and some political commentary in the episode. White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry takes his sister to the woodshed for what he sees as sensationalizing a difficult, divisive public policy. I wonder if Sorkin means to intimate some faith on the part of McGarry--private convictions that tug his conscience when "church and state" issues arise. We are a nation of laws, he tells Josephine, but "we do not strut...ever." It's one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole Sorkin canon, and mirrors others that test McGarry's aversion to PR hackery, as well as scenes from The American President dealing with the Bill of Rights. I think it's clear that Sorkin feels ambivalent about the First Amendment's interpretation, or at least wants us to appreciate how easily free speech can be trampled by anyone who pushes for one single answer. To govern a free people is to choose, and choose without fanfare.

In the context of the Chiles gubernatorial administration (1990-1998), the 1996 school prayer bill veto sheds light on some big areas:

1) the newfound and frequent use of the veto in the latter governor years; pushback replaces initiative, except for tobacco and other kids' issues

2) First Amendment

3) the rise of the Religious Right in Florida and the greater Sunbelt especially

4) a look at the inner workings of the governor's legislative unit...the effect of public opinion and correspondence via letters and phone calls on the decision to veto

5) the activity of Chiles' conscience and Christian faith in conflict

President Bartlet is fortunate in one sense. He just wants to start a debate on school prayer; he doesn't face a decision of sign, veto, or put in a drawer.

January 20, 2008

Martin Luther King Day

I'm celebrating a day early with some commentary on Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. The last book I read was Patrick Smith's A Land Remembered. There is some overlap in theme but a very different style.

A bit from page 16 of the 1998 Perennial Classics edition, spoken by Janie's grandma, "Nanny":

"Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah'd take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wildernness for her."

What a great expression of the American dream, a sort of feminine stylizing of the classic plea for "40 acres an a mule" after the Civil War, told in the folksy drawl unique to Eatonville, Florida.

Maybe it's just my habit to look for the authorial voice in fiction, but I wonder if Nanny doesn't channel more than a few of Hurston's thoughts on the world. Another of Nanny's aphorisms relates that black women are by necessity and tradition the "mules of the world." That might explain the title of another of Hurston's books, Mules and Men. Nanny wants her granddaughter Janie to marry up into the world and have more than her ancestors did. She's lost hope for Janie's mom and wants to see Janie happy before she dies.

I can't help but be reminded of Barack Obama's life story when I read Nanny's--the opportunities he has enjoyed since his boyhood in Hawaii and the Ivy League path that has put him within earshot of the White House.

As the Republican presidential candidates turn to Florida, I suspect most will descend on the I-4 corridor to canvass for votes. Already pundits have declared rural North Florida Huckabee country, veteran enclaves in Jacksonville and Tampa for John McCain, Palm Beach for Giuliani, Ft. Myers and Sarasota for Romney. They've carved out the "states within a state," with Governor Crist's endorsement still up for grabs.

By the the Florida primary, the Martin Luther King Day festivities will be over. The quotes from the "I Have a Dream" speech and Hurston's books will be dispensed with. Wouldn't it be interesting if one the presidential candidates saw something in the Sunshine State more than selling sand? I doubt a candidate in U.S. history has ever stumped in Eatonville, except perhaps Bob Graham. But the symbolism surely would count for a couple thousand votes.