Politics as usual, even when disaster strikes

Some years ago, during the Clinton administration, the nightly news on PBS did a recurring round-table featuring journalists from around the country. Every so often there was a member of the Oklahoma press included, and it didn’t take much exposure to this sorry excuse for journalistic objectivity to wonder why on earth did the program producers think it necessary to invite this guy. In contrast to the diverse views of other contributors, from the Oklahoma rep., particularly on Clinton administration policy matters, there was routinely an uncompromising thumbs down. One couldn’t help re-threading this Oklahoma profile snippet in light of what has propelled the state into a major news highlight in recent days.

You couldn’t possibly be a member of the human family and not feel for the people of Oklahoma who’ve twice within a couple of weeks been pummeled by death-dealing tornadoes. The devastation — including loss of life suffered by school-age kids — has been on a scale that probably engendered in many Oklahomans a profound spiritual bafflement as to the “Why?” of it.

President Obama, who has stood tall as consoler-in-chief in these times of crisis, looked the part again when he visited Moore after the first tornado rampage laid waste to the area. The national government in the person of the president — what he stood for, what he conveyed – responding with compassion to the plight of the citizenry was of course poignant counterpoint to the many examples we know of over time when a clear need for compassion went unmet by the government – a phenomenon about which those of us in the “persons of color” bloc can recite volumes.

But by no means does Oklahoma own a monopoly on disasters, natural or man-made. And these latest hammer blows, coming mere months after Capitol Hill was forced to address the more widespread destruction wrought by super-storm Sandy, saw a fateful turn in the political interplay surrounding government funding of relief efforts. Oklahoma’s two senators, Tom Coburn and James Inhofe, were among 36 Republicans who voted against the aid package of over $50 billion approved by Congress. Coburn and Inhofe walking in lock step with the rigid ideological precept that social spending of any stripe is to be frowned upon. And so, beyond the outer limits of indifference as it may seem, Coburn, Inhofe and their confederates were content to turn their backs on the countless scenes of human misery that Sandy left in its wake in the Northeast.

Even in a climate in which Republican backlash against government spending that’s not defense related is quite the norm, 36 of their number voting against aid for folks who took the brunt of Sandy’s fury cannot but deepen one’s cynicism about those who would be gate-keepers. When, even in the face of unimaginable catastrophe that renders poor slobs helpless, so-called representatives of the people can summon the temerity to look the other way, it’s clear that “representation” as an idea is lost on many of those claiming to embrace it.

It gets a bit tired, this notion that the only expenditure that merits unqualified support should be money for military hardware or deploying troops someplace and the like. Hawks like John McCain who believe that maintaining American hegemony by brute force should be this country’s foremost imperative evidently don’t recognize this as an idea whose time has gone. Think about it. Had McCain prevailed in his presidential bid in ’08, talk of terminating American occupation of Iraq would not have surfaced…at least not via a McCain White House. In that “America is macho” environment, many of its proponents also unrepentant anti-tax crusaders, “soft” spending like aid for Sandy’s victims earns instant non-priority status. At best, from the hard-line conservative sector, a compromise proposal that any funds so appropriated must be offset by budget cuts elsewhere, defense cuts exempted, of course.

Of such cloth are the two Oklahoma senators cut. So it was no small irony that after stomping all over the Sandy aid package bill, they found themselves with horrific happenings on their home turf that, in the judgment of saner heads, will again require federal intervention. Adding crackle to the plot twist, a number of politicians in the Northeast have announced that they have no intention of mimicking the surliness of Coburn and Inhofe in the Sandy chapter and will be supportive of aid for Oklahoma’s victims.

For Inhofe, the Sandy-Oklahoma tornadoes sequence should be a lesson he takes to heart. Talk of global warming probably being a factor in some of the unusual weather events of recent years leaves the senator unimpressed. He has made a career of dismissing any scientific evidence attesting to the earth’s having gotten hotter, and has famously referred to global warming as “the greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people.” Which doesn’t exactly suggest that there’ll be any special takeaway for Inhofe from a ferocious storm in the Northeast or killer tornadoes in Oklahoma.

And that only portends, sadly, the status quo holding firm for Inhofe, Coburn and their ilk. The graciousness of elected officials in the Northeast notwithstanding, the chances are slim to none of a change in the bunker mentality of hard-line extremists for whom offering a lifeline to fellow Americans taking it on the chin somehow becomes sacrilegious. Thank heavens Washington still includes stalwarts for whom “we the people” mean quite a bit more.

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