A different kind of Senator

August 12 2013

Bob Braun, a former longtime columnist for The Star-Ledger, is following Rush Holt’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. He will be sharing his thoughts and his stories from the campaign trail from time to time.

The name of novelist Tom Clancy does not instantly come to mind in discussion of real-life politics, but I heard the writer address a group of Presidential Scholars in Washington more than 20 years ago. His advice to the most brilliant high school graduates in the nation was, yes, go into public service, but first be somebody, do something. Don’t just aspire to a political position out of a sense it’s a vocation itself or,. worse, out of ego.

“Accomplish something first, and then you have something to offer to the people you wish to serve,” he said.

I’m not a Clancy fan but I think he had a point. In a way, it’s the underlying issue in the Senate race between Rush Holt and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Booker’s supporters rave about his alleged “star power,” a quality, they say, will help him get things done in a fractious Senate. Booker, in effect, is running as a potential process rather than as a man with a fully formed history of accomplishment .

Well, that’s fine—but what’s the point of process unless you agree with the final result?  What’s the point  of liking how he speaks if you don’t even know what he stands for? Booker believes in spending public money on private, religious schools. He believes in protecting capital operations like Bain Capital and, of course, his own private companies and arrangements. He may call it crossing the aisle—I call it trying to have all the advantages of a Democratic politician in New Jersey while maintaining a Republican donors list.

We already have one statewide politician who came to office with no particular agenda except his own ambition; we certainly don’t need another.  Chris Christie adopted the persona of the tough Jersey guy, the schoolyard bully, because that was, I guess, cool and would help win him votes. Booker is the impassioned orator who tries to varnish over policies like privatizing public education behind phrases such as “education is the Civil Rights issue of our generation.” He signs a lot of autographs.

Rush Holt is, well, Rush Holt. Even his mother would agree that, while he can make a powerful speech—watch the YouTube of him criticizing the FISA Amendments Act in 2008—he is not the greatest orator in the world. Of course, almost no one—not even senators themselves—sit through senate speeches so I am not sure what good rhetorical flourishes can do the nation.

I like Rush Holt because he is a fully formed man of achievement and courage and class. He came to the Congress after almost an entire lifetime of teaching and science. An entire lifetime of substance, culminating in his appointment to a leadership position at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. He wanted to be a “different kind” of representative and he was, and is. A scientist who believes that policies should be based on facts, not on corporate interest groups or personal ambition.

Come on, that has to add class to Congress and it will to the Senate.

Class—and courage. In 1998, with the entire nation tsk-tsk-ing about President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, he ran a pro-Clinton campaign in a majority Republican district. Not that he approved of Clinton’s personal behavior but he knew far more important issues demanded the attention of both Congress and the President.

He had the courage to help a Pakistani family caught tragically in the backlash of the 9/11 attacks.  When Waqar Hasan was murdered by someone seeking revenge for the World Trade Center attacks, the man’s family was left both without a husband and father and any chance of staying in the country. Rush managed to have rare private legislation passed to ensure the family could stay.

Holt has faced up to the CIA and the NSA and the FBI. He continues to demand a full investigation of the anthrax attacks.  He wants to repeal the Patriot Act. He is a relentless advocate for troubled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He isn’t afraid to say that neglecting climate change will result ultimately in the loss of maybe millions of lives.

He is a different kind of congressman. Rush Holt is a brave man. He’s a smart man. What he’s got to give the people of New Jersey and the nation is far more important than his autograph.