the naďve age of eighteen, while still in high school, I had the pleasure of
flying across the country to Washington D.C. for a weeklong youth workshop
on leadership and democracy. I remember the teary excitement I had knowing I
was about to meet both of my Montana senators. Back then I was a proud
registered Democrat, having joined the Party only two months prior—the
prospect of rubbing shoulders with a veteran of my Party was sure to be the
highlight of the trip.
The swank décor of the hallways on the Hill mesmerized me as I winded through the legislative chambers. The bright carpet and gorgeous young interns meandering around the foyers made me think that perhaps politics had its subtle rewards. My intrepid journey from wing to wing led me to the bustling office of Montana Senator Max Baucus.
Max wasn’t in, so a cheery office assistant led me to a committee meeting that Baucus was attending. “It will be just a few minutes,” she said as she continued to chat with me about the beauty of Montana. She had grown up in Great Falls or somewhere, and missed the quiet open range and the starry nights. I must have reminded her of what she was like before she decided to test the dirty waters of Washington politics.
About five minutes later, Max scurried out and shook my hand as if I were the elected official he had traveled a thousand miles to meet. "So glad to finally meet you'" he said. "How in the hell does he know who I am," I thought. He didn't, he was just politikin.
Max wasn’t a good old boy like his rival Republican from Montana, Conrad Burns, but Max was sleazy in his own way. His gaudy single knot tie and wing-tip shoes caught my attention. I remember wondering how long Mr. Baucus had been away from the Big Sky Country. I didn't really care. He was the Democrat I had come to see.
I asked him about Washington life, and we poked fun at Conrad Burns, who I had met earlier in the day. Conrad’s office was filled with wide leather couches and trophy animals that hung on his plush papered walls. We joked about Burn’s assistants who had never even seen Montana, but were advising him on how he should vote on specific legislation. I thought to myself, “Man, Democrats really are a lot cooler than Republicans.” It didn’t hurt that Max knew my uncle who ran a little grocery store in Lockwood, a small town outside of the city where I grew up. It made me think Max was one of us, a regular guy who represented regular folks. I let the used car salesman attire slide, the guy was alright.
My trip ended soon after. I had met some interesting people, seen a lot of monuments and museums, and was enthralled with how the system actually worked. Or at least I thought I knew how it functioned. The runners, the lobbyists, the rookies, the senior congressman, the reporters, and oh those interns. I thought I had it down. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my family what I'd learned, who I’d met, and how Sen. Baucus even knew my Dad’s brother. I was even contemplating on how best to help his upcoming election campaign. A young Democratic enthusiast, that was me! Probably a lot like the present day Deaniacs who are daily canvassing my neighborhood with their cheeky grins and bouncy gaits.
Yeah, I was annoying as hell.
It wasn’t more than six months after my trip before the thin earth began to shatter beneath my feet. I had read in the paper that Max Baucus had supported the North America Free Trade Agreement a few years prior. By then I was diving into environmental issues, and came across NAFTA as well as the senators that supported it. Max Baucus was at the top of the hit-list. I couldn't believe it.
I learned that Baucus sat on the influential committees like Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Environment and Public Works, as well as Finance and Joint Taxation. I learned how this man I had come to admire (for no real reason other than his bashing of a Republican) had rolled over to campaign contributors. I found out how his seat on the Finance committee scored him bundles of cash from corporations I had never even heard of like—JP Morgan, Brown & Foreman, and Citigroup.
I also learned how my hero supported Welfare Reform, Fast Track, and President Clinton’s Salvage Rider Act, which blatantly raped the Montana forests I loved so dearly. And a year later in college I read an article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair on Baucus and actor Robert Redford’s environmental swindling. I was crushed. “How could he,” I pondered, “if the Democrats aren’t saving our natural resources, who is?” I was irate.
That anger has festered in me to this day. Max Baucus may still be the most corporate entrenched Democratic politician in Washington, and Montana has suffered tremendously because of it. Low employment, a broken public school system, a degraded natural environmental, and the exponential evaporation of the once hallowed family farm—Montana’s hurting and the Democrats don’t seem to give a damn.
The dangly tassels on Max’s fancy wing-tip shoes will forever annoy me. That and his decorative silk tie should have signaled to me that this politician didn't represent Montana -- but rather the interests of out-of-state corporations that lined his thick campaign coffers.
It is doubtful Max has ever hiked or driven through Montana’s Yaak River basin, where a massive Forest Service sale has violated critical grizzly bear habitat. I’d bet he’s never seen what the massive clear cuts have done to the region’s ecosystem, or apologized for the legislation he supported back during the Clinton years that's to blame for it all. Many groups have Federally challenged the illegalities of the outright pillage. And all have lost or been dismissed because the Salvage Rider law has given the Forest Service “discretion to disregard entirely the effect on the grizzly bear.”
All this from the party I once belonged.
I can't fathom that Baucus has sat down and talked to the hundreds of poor single mothers in rural Montana that can't afford to put their kids in daycare, because they are forced to work at places like Wal-Mart for a little over five bucks an hour. I am sure they'd love to tell him how grateful they are for their new found careers. Unlike many progressives, the Iraq War isn't the focus of these Montanans' qualms with our government. They are turned off by politics because they have trouble keeping food in the fridge and buying holiday gifts for their kids. For most of us it's a luxury to be politically active.
Right now many people believe it's only President Bush who has undermined everything progressives have fought for. I once thought the same. I hated Republicans for their outright disregard for the little guy. But my quick voyage out east when I was a teenager turned into a life lesson, where I have learned that political affiliation means little when talking about actual policy positions. I think this is a lesson we must all keep in mind as we approach the upcoming national elections. Let's not allow fancy rhetoric or party loyalty to pull us off the path of progressive change.
Max Baucus will be in office until 2006, and he's not the only charlatan that will be either. We are up against many on both sides of the aisle. I guess I should give credit to Baucus for teaching me Democrats aren't to be trusted any more than Republicans. Thanks for the education Max.
Josh Frank is a writer and activist living in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.