Lessons to be learned from former UTM students’ actions
Posted: Wednesday, September 9, 2009 8:01 pm
By: Richard Chesteen
By RICHARD CHESTEEN
Special to The Messenger
In my years as a political science professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin, I have taught a number of students who went on to distinguished careers in government as either career public servants or politicians. Both Philip Pinion and Roy Herron were among them. Currently, one of the federal district judges in West Tennessee and one member on each of the Tennessee courts of appeal are also former political science students of mine.
Some of those students settled in Washington, D.C. Two of them were to later find themselves the center of national attention as a result of their political activities. One was Ed Buckham, a conservative Republican. Ed went to D.C. in 1980 and was there when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Ed began his career as an aide to a congressional committee and later moved on to become a congressional assistant. At a relatively young age, he was selected as executive director for the Republican House Study Group, comprised of conservative House Republicans. It was a very important position. Later, Ed was selected by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to be his chief administrative assistant. When I had occasional opportunity to go to D.C., I would often visit with Ed. I was proud for him and his successful career.
At UT Martin, Ed had belonged to an evangelical campus religious group called Maranatha. Its members would preach in front of the University Center at noon. Ed’s conservative religious and political views were just right for the Moral Majority movement sweeping the country at the time. Ed, of course, was opposed to abortion, gays and other “liberal” causes. However, he was very low-key and rarely did he show emotional anger when expressing his views. According to news magazines that later spoke of Ed, in addition to being DeLay’s chief assistant, he was also DeLay’s religious adviser. The two often prayed together in DeLay’s office.
Later, Ed left his position with DeLay and founded an organization called the Alexander Strategy Group in the D.C. area. I never really understood exactly what the agency did. I asked him at one time but did not get a clear answer. Needless to say, I was surprised to see stories with pictures of Ed in national news magazines. Over the next several months, Ed’s name was to appear a lot as the relationship between the Alexander Strategy Group, Tom DeLay and some D.C. political PACs close to professional lobbyist and convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff unfolded. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say, Ed suddenly found himself in possible serious legal trouble. So far, Ed has escaped indictment but, needless to say, the Alexander Study Group has folded.
Ed took a real beating as the Abramoff escapade unfolded. I have not connected with him since those events have unfolded. It hurt to see Ed being portrayed in a very negative light. The Ed I knew was a very principled person but he was too strongly committed to his conservative religious views and allowed them to justify his questionable political activities.
Now, I am going through deja vu. This time, the former student is an African-American, Van Jones, who has recently been pummeled pretty badly by Fox News political commentators, particularly Glen Beck, who has portrayed him as a dangerous radical.
Like, Ed Buckham, Van Jones was a very good student at UT Martin. He was a campus leader and already developing his political activist personality. This was evident when he and a few other students, both Republicans and Democrats, formed an alternative campus newspaper because they felt the official university student newspaper was not being as critical of the administration as they felt it should be.
After graduation Van attended Yale Law School, a most distinguished law school. I remember once when Van came back to campus and he was by my office for a visit. He told me that while at UT Martin he considered himself liberal but compared to most students at Yale his views were pretty conservative.
Van went on to affiliate with some of these activist students. After graduation, he moved to San Francisco to be an activist attorney. Later, he founded the Ella Baker Center to carry out efforts in the areas of prisoner rights and exposing police misbehavior. He won awards for his efforts. Then in the last several years, Van started a movement of “green jobs,” which caught national attention. In 2007, Van was recognized by UT Martin as its Alumni of the Year for his activities.
Due to President Obama’s interest in green jobs and the environment, Van, who by the time of his appointment had written a best-selling book on green jobs economy, was tapped by the president as his green jobs adviser. I was very proud for him.
Unfortunately, Van has said some things and done some things that have been seen as “extreme” and suddenly was having these activities highlighted by conservative voices. As soon as I saw some of what was being said about him, I knew Van’s days were numbered. Unfortunately, words he had said whether in context or out of context and without thought had come back to haunt him. I hate it for Van. He is a bright young man. He will continue to do good things. He is not the dangerous radical he has been painted.
Ed Buckham and Van Jones both believed strongly in their causes. They both saw their opponents as “evil.” This is not what either one was taught. Unfortunately, they got drawn into the vortex of hateful politics and both have paid an unfortunate price. I hope that they each learn from their unfortunate experiences. They deserve redemption. They still both have much to offer. I hurt for them both now as much as I expressed pride in them when they were succeeding.
There is a lesson in these two men’s lives all of us could learn from. Yes, we should fight for what we believe in, but the ends do not justify the means if others are hurt in the process and our behavior, if outside bounds set by society, can in the end destroy the good we hope to achieve.
Richard Chesteen, a longtime Union City resident, is professor emeritus in political science at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is former chairman of the Obion County Democratic Party and was a gubernatorial candidate in 1994 Democratic Primary.
Published in The Messenger 9.909