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The quality we seldom see

This week a friend and I went to see the movie “Trumbo,” about the multi-Oscar winning screenwriter who was imprisoned and blacklisted for holding unpopular opinions in the 1950s.

Trumbo spent his blacklisted years writing screenplays behind fronts or with pseudonyms and actually won one of his Academy Awards (for “The Brave One”) under the pen name “Robert Rich.”

At the end of “Trumbo,” an old film interview with the real Dalton Trumbo was shown in which he said that if he ever obtained the gold Oscar statuette for “Brave One,” he would give it to his daughter, who like the other members of his family paid a high price when they were scraping by financially and living under a cloud.

The audience in the theatre burst into spontaneous applause, something I have never seen happen before except in a theatre filled with film students. It was a nice display of admiration for Trumbo’s courage. Courage is not often seen and it has always amazed me how little it takes to decalcify the backbones of some folks.

Years ago, the cost of Nevada’s state workers injury insurance plan for businesses was kept artificially low for a long time in order to reduce pressure to turn it over to the private sector. The result was that businesses in Nevada got a long term break on injury insurance fees. Another result was that eventually the unfunded liabilities of the program were running sky high and the program had to be “reformed” – often a term for sticking it to the public. The Nevada Legislature did the job mostly at the expense of the workers, not the businesses that had gotten the breaks in fees. One of the few who had the courage to stand up to the business community was Clark County Assemblymember Chris Giunchigliani, who led the fight to try to get workers a better deal.

When the whole thing was over, one of Giunchigliani’s fellow Democrats stood up on in the Assembly hall and all but apologized for her fellow Democrats who had abandoned her.

What amazed me at the time was what was at stake – mere Assembly seats in which the members serve two year terms. It’s not like they had U.S. Senate seats on the line. If such a minor office could collapse them at business’s feet so early in their careers, what likelihood is there that they will have any nerve when it really counts on, say, questions of war or peace ten or twenty years down the road? Which, of course, is what happened in 2002.

When Congress voted for war in Iraq on October 16, 2002, there were surely some in Congress who had reservations. Hillary Clinton, for instance, as a campaign worker for George McGovern in 1972, certainly knew the hazards of congressional resolutions that turn presidents loose with war powers.

Yet those members of Congress did not demand to see the proof of weapons of mass destruction as a condition of their votes for war. Too timid to face down George Bush’s post-September 11 popularity, most of them caved in and went along, leading the country into the flypaper fiasco that has pulled us deeper and deeper into that regional morass.

While watching the “Trumbo” movie, I recalled another inexplicable failure of courage during the McCarthy era. In June 1951 U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched a vicious attack on Gen. George C. Marshall, secretary of state, secretary of defense and Nobel Peace Prize winner. One of Marshall’s close friends was Dwight Eisenhower. The next year Eisenhower, the Republican nominee for president, traveled to McCarthy’s home state of Wisconsin determined to speak out in defense of Marshall and to condemn McCarthy’s tactics as “the way freedom must not defend itself.” When it came time for Eisenhower to deliver the speech, he caved in and dropped the Marshall paragraphs from his text.

There was virtually no risk to Eisenhower. He was a war hero campaigning for president and all but certain to win. Not once during the campaign did he lose his lead in the polls. Yet when given a choice between defending a friend or not, Eisenhower wilted!

Trumbo had a lot to lose, and he risked it and lost it. A gorgeous country home, the peace of mind of his family, even his personal freedom for a time went out of his life because he would not say the words government wanted him to say.

I recommend the movie to readers as an example of qualities we seldom see in our leaders.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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