Mudslinging has begun! Paul Sarbanes is running a...

SO THE

October 20, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SO THE mudslinging has begun! Paul Sarbanes is running a television commercial saying Bill Brock is a Tennessean!

Sarbanes seems to think that reminding Maryland voters that his opponent used to be Rep. (later Sen.) Brock, R-Tenn., is damaging -- that "Tenn" is a four-letter word in Maryland. And he's probably right. Take me. Some of my best friends are Tennesseans, but I wouldn't want my daughters to vote for one.

Brock told editorial writers last week that he wishes the campaign could be fought out on today's issues and tomorrow's votes in Congress rather than yesterday's. But he's been around politics long enough to know that there is no statute of limitations on votes and speeches. How Brock voted in the 1960s and 1970s is just as much fair game (whether it's relevant or not) in political combat as how Sarbanes voted in 1994.

How bad was Brock's voting record in his Tennessee days? Well, let's just focus on one very important area: He voted against the 1964 Omnibus Civil Rights Bill. I covered the debate and voting on that legislation, paying special attention to members of Congress in the circulation area of the paper I then worked for, the Atlanta Constitution. Brock's southeastern Tennessee district was in that area.

The crucial vote was cast on Feb. 10, 1964. Brock voted "nay." To all us right thinkers, that was terribly wrong. (Every Maryland representative voted "yea," even the conservative Republican then representing the Eastern Shore, Rep. Rogers C. B. Morton, a Kentuckian.)

But to be fair, Brock was in some good company. Several liberal Southern Democrats voted against the bill: Charles Weltner of Atlanta (later winner of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award); Hale Boggs of New Orleans (Cokie Roberts' daddy); and, when the bill went to the Senate, Albert Gore Sr. (the vice president's daddy, whom Brock later ousted, with the campaign help of Spiro T. Agnew).

My real problem with Brock's record has to do with his 1965 vote against the Voting Rights Act. Weltner, Boggs, Gore Sr. and numerous moderate and even conservative Southern representatives voted for that one. Years later Brock would vote for extending the Voting Rights Act, but only after trying to weaken it with numerous amendments.

Some people think votes in Congress on civil rights bills in the 1960s and 1970s were defining moments for Southern politicians. You know, "Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide/In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side. . . ." What you did that moment lasts forever.

Viscerally, I agree with the poet, but, rationally speaking, I believe in political redemption, whatever the issue. I believe in it for Bill Brock (who has been on the side of Truth insofar as civil rights is concerned for about a dozen years), for Richard Nixon, for Ollie North, for Marion Barry, for George Wallace, for Ted Agnew, for Harry Hughes. Well, maybe not for Richard Nixon.

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