Gordon Smith's "Miss America Compassion"

Gordon Smith & Katie HarmanWe missed this last month, but it's still worth sharing. Over at The Decembrist, Mark Schmitt is decrying Republicans who suddenly discover the worthiness of government action and funding when tragedy strikes their family:

I'm tired of giving quasi-conservatives credit for what I call Miss America compassion (I'll explain in a minute). [Senator Gordon] Smith's son's suicide led him to support more funding for suicide prevention and for mental health care generally. Great -- my life has been affected by suicide also, so I'm all for that. ...

But what has always bothered me about such examples is that their compassion seems so narrowly and literally focused on the specific misfortune that their family encountered. Having a child who suffers from mental illness would indeed make one particularly passionate about funding for mental health, sure. But shouldn't it also lead to a deeper understanding that there are a lot of families, in all kinds of situations beyond their control, who need help from government? Shouldn't having a son whose illness leads to suicide open your eyes to something more than a belief that we need more money for suicide help-lines? Shouldn't it call into question the entire winners-win/losers-lose ideology of the current Republican Party? ...

And that's what I mean by "Miss America Compassion." These Senators are like Miss America contestants, each with a "platform": Mr. Ohio: "Adoption Assistance." Mr. Oregon: "Suicide Prevention." Mr. Minnesota: "Community Development." Mr. New Mexico: "Mental Health Parity." Mr. Pennsylvania: "Missing children" The platform is meant to show them as thoughtful, deep and independent-minded, but after the "platform segment" they return to play their obedient part in a degrading exercise that makes this country crueler and government less supportive.


  • Trey (unverified)

    Look, I like to bitch about Republicans as much as the next person, BUT I don't think it's fair to lay this label solely on their heads. Many liberals, progressives and radicals suffer from this same problem too.

    I like to refer to it as tunnel vision. Far too many people from ALL political perspectives and ALL walks of life refuse to see the forest for the trees. It's one of the explanations (though certainly NOT the only nor the main one) for why people tend to vote against their own interests. They focus on one issue or sub-issue and seem unwilling or unable to look at the big picture.

    I realize that last paragraph may seem a little off-topic, but I believe it's yet another example of tunnel vision or "Miss America Compassion".

    With all that said, I would certainly agree that Republicans and/or the Religious Right seem acutely prone to this syndrome.

  • Becky (unverified)

    I have to agree. Being raised conservative, I absorbed the belief system that people should stand on their own and be tough. There wasn't a lot of compassion thrown in. I'm not saying all Republicans are that way, but the ones I know tend to be.

    I'm not proud of the fact that it took an accumulation of tragedies before I began to understand the need for a compassionate society, including a government safety net. A medical condition that made it nearly impossible for me to work for awhile, cancer that took my father after bleeding him dry of his retirement savings so that all he had left to live on was Social Security, an aunt with Downs Syndrome, friends and family members who revealed they were gay, several family members and friends struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, a brother and aunt who were molested, etc. These things each cracked my eyelids open a little, but only as they snowballed on me did I begin to see the bigger picture.

    I wish I knew how to get Republicans to be more compassionate, but based on my experience (and perhaps I'm more stubborn than most), it takes some pretty hard knocks to break through that belief system that worships the notion of rugged individualism.

    And it's not without merit, when balanced with compassion. For example, I have watched my boys respond to my husband's firm expectations and do more than I ever thought they could do, and then enjoy the pride of accomplishment. I'm the one who holds them when they're hurting, and he's the one who spurs them on to greatness. In a perfect world, both of these approaches are part of a balanced whole. I suppose that, more than anything, is what I find so sad about the hatred I now see between the right and the left, each trying to dominate the other when in fact both are essential for a balanced, healthy society.

  • Sally (unverified)

    There's also the danger of medicalizing or socializing every problem, and governmentalizing every solution. This is the Democratic danger that much of the country almost instinctively (or culturally, really) resists. It runs the real risk of walking over and even eviscerating the quintessential American strength of success through individual effort and strength.

    If "compassion" can be short-sighted in seeing only a narrow focus, so can this propulsion toward seeing all our problems as everyone's problems. When the solutions are overly governmental, I fear that even the community is lost.

    I used to support my state almost equivalently to my family. But this was to give, not to get. When most seem looking to get, or come with a long list of needs or demands, the rightness and even the workability of the equation is reversed.

    In my view.

  • David Wright (unverified)

    Isn't it pretty common for individual legislators to have their own "pet causes" based on personal interests? Some crusade on education, some on tax reform, some on health care, etc. I don't think it's realistic to expect every legislator to take up every single worthy cause as his (or her) own. By getting a group of legislators with a diverse set of interests, we get individual advocates for a wide range of issues. I don't see anything wrong with that.

    I do, however, take the point about people who are generally anti-government-assistance reversing themselves on specific issues that are dear to them. In this way they are philosophically inconsistent. The reverse also happens, where some people are generally pro-government-involvement, but want the government to stay out of specific issues that are dear to them.

    One point I'd like to make about this knock on Republicans for not being "compassionate": I think there's a world of difference between being personally compassionate, and expecting government to solve everyone's problems. It is unfair to paint Republicans as not compassionate simply because they don't generally think it's government's role to step in and help. Many people across the political spectrum volunteer time and money to private charitable causes to provide assistance to people who need it. Yes, that means Republicans too work towards solving problems with compassion. But they generally prefer private rather than public solutions.

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    I appreciate the thoughtful comments on this thread. No time to add more than that right now.

  • panchopdx (unverified)


    The problem with your observation is that once you let the Compassion-requires-forcibly-redistributing-wealth-Genie out of the bottle it can get into a LOT of mischief.

    In the same vein, you can always find some examples where government social programs accomplish what they are supposed to accomplish (helping someone through bad circumstances, educating them, etc). If they didn't ever provide any examples of actually helping people, then they could not endure politically (the public employee unions aren't that powerful).

    But don't allow yourself to fall into (what I term) Government Original Sin Trap. This is the idea touted by many liberals that if you or your family has benefitted in one way or another at some point by a government program that you cannot argue against it without being hypocritical.

    In other words, acceptance of this theory requires viewing every recipient of government assistance (and their descendants) as forever "tainted" by those benefits.

    For example, I've been told that no one who was educated at a public school (like me) should be able to support school privatization policies.

    Or if someone's grandparents relied upon welfare benefits to make ends meet while raising their parents, they are now beholden to support the institution.

    This sort of rationale supposes that you cannot advocate to change public policy where you have previously benefitted from the status quo.

    The flaw with this approach is the assumption that if those programs had not been in place, the world would have been exactly the same (except for the missing program).

    It assumes that if there was no Social Security, everyone who is currently receiving SS would now be destitute. That none of them would have put any of the saved money away. That no additional charities would exist to assist those that didn't. That the extra money saved from not paying those SS taxes during a lifetime of work, wouldn't make a huge difference in the life of the worker. That the aggregate effect of millions of such workers having access to that money would not make a huge difference in the economic history of this country.

    If you fall victim to the Government Original Sin Trap, it can lead you to ridiculous conclusions.

    For example, should an illegitimate child be forever unable to support government teenage abstinence programs? After all, that person owes his very existence to premarital sex.

  • (Show?)

    Given that before SS, most people without it WERE destitute, you may want to scratch that one off your list...

  • panchopdx (unverified)


    I suppose we could spend months publicly debating the causes and effects of the government policies that contributed to (or were created as a result of) the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.

    But I'm not willing to commit the time to adequately make the case for you that many of the destitute elderly people surviving the Great Depression should have been more concerned with the government policies (before and after the crash) that influenced their circumstances than they were with the non-existence of a SS program.

    This just isn't a very good forum to debate the historical revisionism in the treatment of the New Deal programs that has become (ironically) a staple of modern public education.

    I only bring this up to illustrate why I'm not scratching SS off my personal list of examples of why you shouldn't buy into the Government Original Sin Trap.

    But I'll acknowledge right now, the futility of trying to fully validate the argument in this forum. So consider an example you prefer (e.g., a person born in pre-Griswold Conneticut in a family of 12 who now supports the right to purchase birth control post-Griswold).

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    Whoa, Pancho... Are you coming out against birth control?

  • (Show?)

    Perhaps I'm somewhat more cynical and Machiavellian than most people here, but I suspect that the "Miss American Compassion" phenomenon among Republican senators is simply an example of them trying to opportunistically carve out a "Democratic" issue or cause to support in order to appear more mainstream, moderate, or human, in order to firm up their re-electability.

    Just about every successful politician, Republican or Democrat, narrowly picks out one or two issues where they support the other side's view, in order to be able to claim that they are "independent" thinking, or a "maverick," or moderate in some way, and not an extreme ideologue.

    If they have a personal experience that lends credibility to their claim of compassion or independent thinking, all the better. Then it has the added benefit of actually being genuine, somewhat.

  • Lee Douglas (unverified)

    I personally don't think Smith's legislation is all that narrow. There was much more done with this bill then suicide prevention. It also channeled critical dollars to mental health treatment for college students and also to campuses for mental health interventions. My brother is mentally ill, so I have watched this topic closely. I think the bill was a solid step forward in steering resources toward a delicate demographic. Everyone knows that the early 20s is when most mental illness shows itself.

    While Smith might not advance his position, he is just as likely to expand the legislation through future work. This is a fairly new proposal that's had little time to gel or be tinkered with. I think it's too soon to say that the progression of the legislation has stopped.

    I agree that it's unfortunate that it took the death of his son to steer Smith's interest to this issue but the fact is that he is still making a difference. At the time that this bill was moving through its political hoops, my family was in a struggle with the health care system and it was a great relief to see a lawmaker doing something creative with mental health rather than wringing their hands about Medicare. Many Democrats have failed to do as much as Smith.

    I will add that the relationship between Smith and Wyden is among the most successful examples of Congressional cooperation in the United States. Without the ability of both Smith and Wyden to work outside party lines, Oregon would be worse for wear. It's not a Democratic paradise as is, but their relationship keeps us moving forward in a cooperative way as a state. We all could learn from this example. Not everything Republicans do is criminal and to take that position is a path well worn by shallow thinkers.

  • andrew kaza (unverified)

    Any amount of GENUINE compassion has to be welcomed, especially coming from a Republican. Since nobody is suggesting that Gordon Smith's isn't genuine, why aren't we busy calling out some of the real political phonies, rather than him?

  • Becky (unverified)

    First, my apologies to anyone who might have misinterpreted my earlier remarks to infer that I thought my friends' and relatives' coming out of the closet was a tragedy. On re-reading my message I'm pretty upset about the unintended implication of my own wording. What I meant was that their coming out opened my eyes to the "other side" of that issue.

    Pancho, I certainly am not one to say that simply because I or those in my circle of loved ones have benefited from a government program that the program is, therefore, above reproach. Rather, such experiences help us see that perhaps those programs have a good side, too.

    Regarding my father and his Social Security situation, nothing has ever convinced me more of the value of that program than his experience. My father saved for his retirement all his life and managed to accumulate enough to have a long and fun retirement. He survived cancer three different times before he finally got a form that was too much for him. Those treatments cost him everything he had saved, and they could never have been anticipated. Would I have helped him if he hadn't had his Social Security safety net? Of course. (I helped him as much as he would let me as it was.) I would have done anything for him. But in doing so, I would have spent my children's future college education and my own retirement savings. Should people living in a modern society such as our have to face that kind of choice? Is it good for society to have intelligent and motivated people deprived of the opportunity for a college education and then forced to take care of their aging parents? Doesn't that set of a whole negative chain of events scarring generations?

    Frankly, sometimes life throws unanticipated things at us and we have no way to respond without the help of others. Many people in today's increasingly disconnected and mobile society, with small families and low church attendance, have no one to turn to in their time of need. Further, few people give support of any substance to charities anymore. We have as a society come to rely on a centralized safety net that all are required to contribute to so all may benefit as needed. Certainly some abuse it, and certainly the programs oculd be improved. But I am not arrogant enough to throw out an established system of safety nets that has been crafted by many thoughtful people who came before me - people who saw this country through the Depression and know how hard life can get.

    One final comment - the value of government regulation in the public interest was brought starkly home to me when I found myself in the middle of a 6.5 earthquake in Paso Robles, CA two years ago. Because of recent mandated earthquake retrofitting on old buildings, only one building collapsed and one or two people were killed. Two days later a 6.5 earthquake hit Iran, killing thousands, as I recall, because their unregulated buildings collapsed on top of them. I was humbled at the wisdom and compassion we have in this country for our fellow man.

  • (Show?)

    I encourage folks to read the full post over at The Decembrist.

    And let's see just how solid Smith's support for Medicaid is when he gets to vote on the budget that comes out of conference. If the mandated ("reconciled") cuts to the Finance Committee threaten Medicaid, let's see if he will show he's as shallow as some of the Miss America candidates and give the Rs his vote, or a solid supporter for Medicaid and vote against the budget. That will be the litmus test of Gordon's backbone and resolve.

  • panchopdx (unverified)

    Whoa, Pancho... Are you coming out against birth control?

    Heavens no!

    My life would have been, ummm, much less interesting without it.

  • Mitchell Santine Gould (unverified)

    Becky wrote, "First, my apologies to anyone who might have misinterpreted my earlier remarks to infer that I thought my friends' and relatives' coming out of the closet was a tragedy..."

    Hey, Becky, I'm pretty vigilant for cheap shots directed at gay Americans, and I didn't take offense at that observation--quite the opposite. What I thought you meant what the tragedy isn't coming out of the closet, it's what can happen to people who do.

    ... Since you brought this up, I hope you don't mind, but it made me think... along these lines, wanna see one of the most visionary movies ever made? There's a beautiful film called "Big Eden" which on the surface simply seems to be a story about this gay New Yorker coming home to rural Montana. His problem is that he doesn't realize he's already met Mr. Right.

    The viewer assumes "Big Eden" is just a pleasant, GP-rated, straight-friendly gay love story, until it slowly dawns on you that it's set in this alternate universe, one just like ours, except there is no homophobia among straight people, anywhere to be found. It's a spiritual vision about the way we can live -- if we choose to.

  • dissentdiscouraged (unverified)

    First of all, I believe your premise is false, misleading, and cruel. Sen. Smith is a deeply compassionate man (Yes, Julia, there really is a compassionate Republican); to suggest he felt no compassion until suffering the horrific loss of his son is just plain mean. To politicize the personal tragedy represented by the family's loss goes beyond the pale. Have you no shame?

    Sen. Wyden wasn't calling for an investigation of gasoline prices until the price at the pump skyrocketed, Rep. Hooley wasn't talking about identity theft until Time, Newsweek, and US News & World Report had covered it for years, Gov. Kulongoski was an opponent of additional gambling revenues until it was politically expedient. Politicians adapt to new information: it's what they do in order to look smart, and get reelected.

    Sally wrote, There's also the danger of medicalizing or socializing every problem, and governmentalizing every solution.

    Sally continues, It runs the real risk of walking over and even eviscerating the quintessential American strength of success through individual effort and strength....When the solutions are overly governmental, I fear that even the community is lost.

    PRAISE THE LORD, DARLING, AND PASS THE AMMUNITION! Whatever Sally's selling I'm buying: that is the kind of old school wisdomthat we can sell across Oregon and The West. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps: a hand up, not a hand out.

  • Bruce Anderholt (unverified)

    I have to agree with Sally:

    This is the Democratic danger that much of the country almost instinctively (or culturally, really) resists.

    Similarly, David Wright is right on: I think there's a world of difference between being personally compassionate, and expecting government to solve everyone's problems. It is unfair to paint Republicans as not compassionate simply because they don't generally think it's government's role to step in and help.

    Democrats have traditionally approached the general electorate like Santa Claus with his sleigh full of goodies ('What does the UAW want for Christmas? Has the NEA been a good girl this year?') As the general welfare improved, or during periods of recession or social upheaval, the Santa approach had a paternalistic ring to it. This approach alienated those who didn't feel victimized by laissez faire capitalism or limited government. It still explains why the D's do so much better in urban areas (great acceptance of more government) than in rural areas (where government is largely distrusted).


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