Some things went on this past week that ostensibly had nothing — or very little — to do with the famous "change" election of 2008 but, in fact, were integral to some of the issues of this campaign year. Two things in particular that stick in my mind: Al Gore's appearance at the Convention Center, receiving one of the National Civil Rights Museum's 2008 Freedom Awards; and Bob Corker's appearance at the University of Memphis Technology Center, reviewing the great bailout controversy.
The latter situation first, because Corker's bona fides were challenged in the most unexpected — and unfair — way during the week, by Naomi Klein in The Nation. Here's her first paragraph:
"In the final days of the election, many Republicans seem to have given up the fight for power. But that doesn't mean they are relaxing. If you want to see real Republican elbow grease, check out the energy going into chucking great chunks of the $700 billion bailout out the door. At a recent Senate Banking Committee hearing, Republican Senator Bob Corker was fixated on this task, and with a clear deadline in mind: inauguration. 'How much of it do you think may be actually spent by January 20th or so?' Corker asked Neel Kashkari, the 35-year-old former banker in charge of the bailout."
There is no reason to doubt that the junior senator from Tennessee asked such a question. But the leap that Klein takes with it betrays an astonishing amount of ignorance on her part about Corker's role in the bailout — or, for that matter, his previous involvement in trying to stem the chucking of great chunks of federal cash in President Bush's now almost forgotten "stimulus" program of early 2008. Corker was a diehard opponent of a package that, as he said last week, "gave out rebates and asked us to spend it all as quickly as possible."
At the time, Corker had noted that disbursing money like that was like throwing it "into a ditch." This past week, at the University of Memphis, he noted that he made his objections well known to the administration and to Treasury secretary Henry Paulson. "I thought it was foolish. I took him [Paulson] on publicly, and I took him on privately. I thought no good could come of that. And at the end, $168 billion was gone out of our arsenal, if you will."
And indeed, the freshman senator, a moderate Republican if there ever was one (though all Republicans, regardless of track record or philosophy, have learned to call themselves "conservative"), was a leading critic, months later, of the original Paulson bailout package for most of the same reasons that many hard-core yellow-dog Democrats were: There was no reliable accounting mechanism, no oversight of Paulson, and no security for taxpayers' interests. As a member of the Senate banking committee, Corker did his best to correct those omissions and was brought, reluctantly, to accept the newly revised package.
It was after these negotiations that New York senator Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and vice chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus, looking optimistically into the possibilities of the next session of Congress, said this: "There are a large number, 15 or 20, of what I call traditional conservatives: John Warner, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Dick Lugar, Johnny Isakson, Bob Corker. I think they went along with the hard right for the past eight years grudgingly, because they felt the hard right had the upper hand. But if we get to 57, 58, 59 [Democratic senators], they're going to smell the coffee. They're going to be more pliable than before, more open to our arguments."
What had gotten Corker on Schumer's list of "pliables" was his penchant, so recently demonstrated, for working across the aisle to find bipartisan solutions. Asked this past week to comment on Schumer's remarks, Corker grudgingly owned up to their accuracy:
"On this banking issue, I was, I think, the person who may have started saying that. I was a practical person. I think you've got to look at the issues. I mean, it depends on what the issue is. I think it was because I had sat down in the meetings and tried to be practical in our approach, and I think that was appreciated."
In other words, had Naomi Klein done even a modicum of research, she would surely have discovered that Corker was no Bushie hack looking to drain money out of the Treasury as quickly as possible for strictly Republican purposes. His concerns had consistently been those of a guardian of the national exchequer, determined to impose caution and establish safeguards regarding any and all disbursements from the Treasury.
Corker's question regarding the pace and quantity of expenditures from the Treasury was almost certainly not in the interests, as she carelessly put it, of "chucking great chunks of the $700 billion bailout out the door." Rather, the opposite of all that.
Gore's remarks at the Convention Center on receiving his Freedom Award gave the former vice president one more opportunity to place the issue of climate change high on the governmental agenda, post-election. The Academy Award winner and Nobel Prize laureate was book-ended by two other recipients: Diane Nash, a veteran of the 1961 sit-ins in Nashville, who spoke first, and Memphis' own B.B. King, who followed Gore.
Each of the other Freedom Award recipients represented, as Shakespeare would have said, "great pitch and moment," of course. Nash's theorem, based on her experience risking life and limb, seemed unexceptionable and even grand: "Oppression always requires the participation of the oppressed." And, given the splendor and authority of his life's work, the modesty of guitar icon King was downright seductive: "It's not often I get an audience this large. I'm not Obama, you know. And I'm not as beautiful as the governor [presumably Sarah Palin]."
Even so, the occasion was mainly Gore's. Beginning by quoting portion's of Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, the martyr's last prophetic one on the eve of his assassination in Memphis in 1968, Gore made the case, both implicitly and explicitly, that answering the danger of climate change was his own life's work.
"We have a choice — blessings or curses, life or death," Gore told the crowd concerning a climate crisis which he termed a "global and strategic threat." Mankind reacts instinctively to "snakes and spiders, and fires and claws," he said. "But if we are confronted with a threat that can only be received by the use of our reasoning process to connect the dots, it does not easily trigger the appropriate response we need in order to ensure our survival." Because of "our absurd overreliance on carbon-based fuels," he warned, "the relationship between human beings and the planet has radically altered in the last 100 years."
Listening to Gore, as he recited his familiar litany of melting ice caps, burgeoning population growth, and proliferating pernicious CO2, it was impossible not to be reminded of the biblical prophets — of Jeremiah, say, the most doom-conscious of them all.
"Evil is the absence of truth," Gore thundered. "If we do not recognize what we are doing to the prospects for all future generations of human beings on this planet, if that truth is absent from our consciousness, then it results in evil. ... I need your help. We face an emergency ... on Main Street and Wall Street and Beale Street." And he ended thusly:
"If I have preached too much ... [long pause] ... what the hell! Thank you very much."