Sign of Our Times?

Maybe the Gianforte episode is an early indicator of a new period in our political culture already described by some as “Trumpism"

By Bob Brown

Greg Gianforte eventually apologized to the reporter he manhandled on the eve of the U.S. House election. For some the apology was late and inadequate. For others Gianforte shouldn’t have apologized to the “liberal” reporter at all. Such is the divided nature of these times.

If Gianforte owed an apology, though, it was to the people of Montana for reaching the age of 56 and showing the maturity of a 7-year-old.

Gianforte was under stress when he attacked the reporter. Political campaigns are stressful. But so is holding public office. In this session of Congress, Gianforte will have to make tough decisions, sometimes late at night when he is bone tired and under pressure, on health care, tax reform, the priorities of a balanced budget, energy and the environment, and a host of other contentious issues with big implications for Montana people. Coolheaded and careful judgment will be required.

Both Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester provide Montanans with sure-footed and responsible representation in the U.S. Senate. Both are respected and effective. Both are relatively young and building valuable seniority. Good for Montana, but not adequate if our sole spokesman in the House is a loose cannon. Thoughtful Montanans can only reserve judgment on Gianforte. He has a lot to prove and little time to transform himself from a lifetime of becoming the man he is.

Violent escapades are not new in American politics, but they can be a sign of the times in which they occur. In 1856 shortly before the country was ripped apart by the Civil War, pro-slavery South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks blind-sided anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, and beat the defenseless Sumner so viciously with his cane that he broke it. The result was that Sumner, an invalid for the rest of his life, was made a martyr in Massachusetts and most of the north, whereas “Bully Brooks” became an instant hero in the South, receiving dozens of canes from soon to be confederates across cotton country.

In 1950, Senator Joe McCarthy, furious with newspaper columnist Drew Pearson, hurled Pearson against a wall as the guests were leaving a Washington D.C. dinner, and was vigorously kneeing Pearson in the groin, when young newly elected Senator Richard Nixon wrestled the burly McCarthy off of the traumatized Pearson.

In the press coverage that followed, the country was deeply divided about whether the liberal Pearson had it coming, or whether the brutish McCarthy was an out-of-control right-wing fanatic.  This was near the beginning of the time in history remembered for “McCarthyism.”

Maybe similarly the Gianforte episode is an early indicator of a new period in our political culture already described by some as “Trumpism.”

Broad minded, thoughtfully balanced representation by Greg Gianforte would send a positive signal from a congressman elected by only 50.2 percent of the vote, and with something to prove. But if Gianforte identifies with the renegade and divisive “Freedom Caucus,” that will send another signal. Time won’t be long in telling.

Bob Brown is a former Republican Montana secretary of state and state Senate president.

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