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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Winning a lost cause

"God is watching us. If we support someone we don't believe in and say he's electable, then God will make sure he's not elected and hope we do better the next time." Mort Sahl.

"Dad used to say the only causes worth fighting for were the lost causes." ("Mr. Smith Goes To Washington", Sidney Buchman).

"I’m not fighting for anything anymore, except myself. I’m the only cause I’m interested in." ("Casablanca", Philip & Julius Epstein)

What I find interesting about the Obama phenomenon is that he seems to be a leader who in tune with his times, attuned to his generation’s heartbeat, eloquently giving it voice. In my life, FDR, JFK, Reagan, Clinton all had the same power – whether they used it for good or not, it is the essence of democratic leadership.

When I became a public defender, in the late 1960's, I quickly became disabused of the romantic notion that I was fighting for a "cause". I was taught that I was there to defend individuals, not the Bill of Rights, or racial equality, or anything else. If the interests of the client demanded fighting, fine; but if it was best for the client to compromise, or even give up, that was my obligation. This was not the Clarence Darrow role; he could no longer be a model — fighting for lost causes was "noble" but was not an affordable luxury to a public defender.

Nonetheless, the fondest memory of my career was winning a case that resulted in reversal of many death verdicts. The asserted nobility of public defending lies in the pride of losing most of the time while fighting "the good fight."

In politics, I’ve supported mostly lost causes during my lifetime. McGovern, Dukakis, Mondale, Gore, Kerry. Tired of losing nobly, Bill Clinton represented a new idea: winning was more important than noble losing.

Greg’s generation seems to have found a candidate who can appeal to both impulses. Obama’s recent statements smack of "positioning."
But that’s okay, because his youthful supporters understand the concept.

When Greg was in 6th grade, we took him for an interview at a prominent private school. We sat in the admissions office squirming while the director quizzed our son. "Do you like to wear a uniform for school?" she asked him. "Yes," he said without hesitation. "Why?" "Because when I put it on I know I’m there for work."

In the car, I asked him how he came up with that answer. "I thought that was what she wanted to hear," he shrugged.

I knew then that our nation’s future was in good hands.

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