Commentary by Keith Thompson
from Thompson at Large
In the wake of my essay Leaving the Left, many readers have asked me to elaborate what precipitated my political departure. Did it happen pretty much all at once, or were there several stages of recognition? A decisive shift took place nearly three decades before I penned my recent essay.
The year was 1976. For liberal Cleveland attorney Howard Metzenbaum, the third time was the charm. In the wake of two previous efforts to win a U.S. Senate seat, Ohio voters voted to send Metzenbaum to Washington. I worked in the campaign as Metzenbaum's scheduler, responsible for sending him to events all around the state. As a 22-year-old recent college graduate, it was a terrific experience.
When Metzenbaum asked me to take on the role of managing his district Senate office in Columbus, Ohio, I was glad to accept the position. I did so knowing I wouldn't stay in the position for more than a year. Eager to explore new horizons, I had already decided to move to the west coast to become a journalist.
Within a few months as Senator Metzenbaum's Ohio representative, I became familiar with a controversy surrounding the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area. In the mid-1970s, Congress had authorized the Park Service to acquire private land within the Recreation Area, but to do so in a way that preserved the culture of the communities along with the wildlife.
The homeowners were some of the most conservation-minded people imaginable. Many of the houses had belonged to families for over a century. Yet the Park Service bureaucracy set about implementing a massive land acquisition program that forced homeowners to sell houses and small businesses that could easily have been integrated into the park.
For instance, a farmer named Bob Lindley was told that the farm his grandfather had started wasn’t big enough to be a “real” farm. Amazingly, they classified him as a hobby farmer and forced him to sell. The Park Service's disregard of the facts was stunning.
In retrospect, I realize that I was probably already thinking like an investigative journalist when I began lobbying my U.S. senator boss to intervene in the homeowners’ behalf. Metzenbaum thought of himself as a determined environmentalist, and I thought of myself the same way. Given a choice between "develop" and "conserve," it wasn't a hard choice for me when the issue was framed in general terms. But here the Park Service was the developer, and the property owners inside the newly created park were the conservationists.
The turnabout was remarkable, and it created enormous mental dissonance for me, a young Sierra Club member. There was something very wrong about what was happening to the homeowners, and I worked to get Metzenbaum on their side. To say the least, I was disappointed by Metzenbaum’s decision to steer clear of the battle.
The Park Service proceeded to force homeowners to sell their property, in clear violation of the legislation’s intent to keep the culture intact through the use of easements. It turned out the Park Service had no real acquisition plan, other than to move as many people out in the name of preservation. Out of 500 houses, over 425 were taken. Communities were destroyed, churches and schools closed, house boarded up and the tax base eroded by land acquisition overkill.
It was an atrocity. It reminded me of what the American military official had said about the Vietnamese village — it was “necessary to destroy it in order to save it." That was an eye-opener for me, but it was only the beginning.
When I moved to the left coast, California Senator Alan Cranston introduced legislation to declare the state’s central coast a national scenic area. I spent a lot of time backpacking at Big Sur, a small town where everyone is a conservationist. The area was already well protected by both state and county government. So I joined a confederation of activists to defeat the Cranston bill, and agreed to travel to Washington to lobby senators.
I met with Metzenbaum and explained why Cranston’s bill was wrong for Big Sur, in the same sense that the Park Service had not done well by Cuyahoga Valley. Metzenbaum said he "regretted what happened to Cuyahoga Valley," but added that he was inclined to vote for the Cranston bill because he trusted Alan Cranston’s “sense of the situation” or something like that.
Then he had to rush off to the Senate floor for a vote, so I continued talking with Metzenbaum's natural resources staffer. I told the staffer I would be testifying against the Cranston bill the following day. As a courtesy, I wanted Metzenbaum to know I intended to describe in vivid detail what the Park Service had done to Cuyahoga Valley. I planned to strongly urge the committee members not to allow the same thing to happen to Big Sur.
Let’s say it was a tense moment. Metzenbaum’s staff guy said something like, “I think the senator wouldn’t consider that helpful.” I nodded and said my goal was to help California, and I hoped his boss would agree to do the same thing by voting against the Big Sur bill. I left Metzenbaum's office knowing they thought I was on the wrong side of the issue. I also knew in some sense I had "left the plantation," and I felt very free.
The following day I testified before a Senate committee, telling the senators how the Park Service had obliterated the town of Everett, Ohio, in the name of the general “public interest.” Metzenbaum didn’t attend the session. The committee voted to table the bill, or to otherwise postpone action. The following fall, Ronald Reagan got elected president, and the days of “one size fits all” federal wilderness protection legislation were suddenly a thing of the past.
After Cuyahoga Valley and Big Sur, I found myself between worlds, politically speaking. I no longer automatically assumed the beneficence of federal programs designed to "protect resources" or "eradicate poverty." But I wasn't ready either to become a full-fledged conservative.
There would be other steps away from the left, the most crucial being my final recognition in January 2005 that I wanted nothing to do with any manner of liberalism that couldn't find it within itself to celebrate the freedom quest of Iraq's elections.