Left Behind By the Party
In January 2001, I was one of thousands of Americans who braved the cold rain to attend and cheer George W. Bush's inauguration. After eight years hating "Slick Willie," it felt good to have a Republican back in the White House. But I knew that he wasn't one of our guys. We had been McCain fans, and even if we liked the compassionate bit of Bush's conservatism, we didn't care for his religiosity or his social politics.
Bush won a lot of us over with his hawkish response to 9/11, but he lost me with the Iraq War. Weren't we still busy in Afghanistan? I didn't see the urgency.
By then, I was at the Justice Department, working in an office that handled litigation related to what was officially called the Global War on Terror (or GWOT). My office was tasked with opposing petitions for habeas corpus brought by Guanta'namo detainees who claimed that they were being held indefinitely without charge. The government's position struck me as an abdication of a core Republican value: protecting the "procedural" rights found in the Bill of Rights. Sure, habeas corpus had been waived in wartime before, but it seemed to me that waiving it here reduced us to the terrorists' level. Besides, since acts of terrorism were crimes, why not prosecute them? I refused to work on those cases.
With the Abu Ghraib pictures, my disappointment turned to rage. The America I believed in didn't torture people.
I couldn't avoid GWOT work. I was forced to read reams of allegations of torture, sexual abuse, and cover-ups in our war zones to give the White House a heads-up in case any of made it into the news cycle.
I was so mad that I voted for Kerry out of spite.
How I Learned to Start Worrying
I might still have stuck it out as a frustrated liberal Republican, knowing that the wealthy business core of the party still pulled a few strings and people like Richard Lugar and Olympia Snowe remained in the Senate -- if only because the idea of voting for Democrats by choice made me feel uncomfortable. (It would have been so" gauche.) Then came Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans, I learned that it wasn't just the Bush administration that was flawed but my worldview itself.
I had fallen in love with New Orleans during a post-law-school year spent in Louisiana clerking for a federal judge, and the Bush administration's callous (non-)response to the storm broke my heart. I wanted to help out, but I didn't fly helicopters or know how to do anything useful in a disaster, so just I sat glued to the coverage and fumed -- until FEMA asked federal employees to volunteer to help. I jumped at the chance.
Soon, I was involved with a task force trying to rebuild (and reform) the city's criminal justice system. Growing up hating racism, I was appalled but not very surprised to find overt racism and the obvious use of racist code words by officials in the Deep South.
Then something tiny happened that pried open my eyes to the less obvious forms of racism and the hurdles the poor face when they try to climb the economic ladder; It happened on an official visit to a school in a suburb of New Orleans that served kids who had gotten kicked out of every other school around. I was investigating what types of services were available to the young people who were showing up in juvenile hall and seemed to be headed toward the proverbial life of crime.
My tour guide mentioned that parents were required to participate in some school programs; One of these was a field trip to a sit-down restaurant.
This stopped me in my tracks; I thought: What kind of a lame field trip is that?
It turned out that none of the families had ever been to a sit-down restaurant before; The teachers had to instruct parents and students alike how to order off a menu, how to calculate the tip.
I was stunned.