As 2019 breaks, it’s likely that the turmoil surrounding President Trump is going to get worse. With Democrats now in control of the House, the pressure on the president will grow.
And there’s one seat I’m glad I’m not sitting in during the coming months — the seat of Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia’s 9th Congressional District. Collins has long been a defender of the president, but late last year, put himself in the bullseye for 2019. Collins ran, and won, the seat as the “ranking minority member” on the House Judiciary Committee.
In other words, Collins is now the top Republican on that critical committee. From his new perch, Collins is expected to lead the defense of Trump against the committee’s probing of alleged misdeeds.
This puts Collins as one of the key defenders of the president in Congress at a time when Trump could face serious legal problems from the Muller probe and from other investigations. No matter how damaging the information may become against Trump, Collins will be expected to defend the president to the bitter end. (That includes any impeachment proceedings, which would come from Collins’ committee.)
That will play well here in the 9th District where Trump is extremely popular. Collins won’t face any kind of political backlash in the 9th District for defending Trump. In fact, Collins’ political ambitions may be enhanced by his becoming a leading defender of the president (a Senate seat or the governorship could be in his future.)
But in the long run, Collins may look back with regret at his embrace of the president.
It’s happened many times before where a politician throws himself into the current political winds, only to be washed away by the tides of history.
Do you remember John Stephens Wood?
Wood was one of Collins’ predecessors as 9th District Congressman, serving from 1931-1935 and from 1945-1953.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Wood was on the House Un-American Activities Committee and served as chairman from 1949-1953. It was that committee that became infamous for ruining the lives of Hollywood stars and others accused of being “un-American.” That committee laid the framework for the rise of the McCarthyism hysteria in the early 1950s.
Both the HUAC committee and McCarthy were popular at the time, getting a lot of support from Americans who believed the nation was being taken over by communists.
Today, the history books record the HUAC committee and McCarthyism as having done great damage to many innocent individuals and to the U.S. Constitution.
With his involvement in that hysteria, Wood was on the wrong side of history. Today, he’s just a forgotten footnote.
Consider Wood’s successor, Rep. Phil Landrum who was congressman from the 9th District from 1953-1977. During his long career, Landrum was a key player in several notable pieces of legislation and helped pass President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1964.
But Landrum was also a staunch segregationist. In 1956, he was one of the signers of “The Southern Manifesto,” a document that vowed to fight against racial integration in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. In 1964, Landrum voted against the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1965, he voted against the Voting Rights Act.
Landrum served for over two decades as congressman from the 9th District. Despite his popularity and his having reflected the racist sentiments of his constituents in the 1950s and 1960s, Landrum was on the wrong side of history. Today, he’s mostly forgotten, his record (and that of many of his Southern colleagues) having been tainted by his opposition to racial equality during the Civil Rights movement.
As both Woods and Landrum’s records show, it’s easy to go with what’s popular in the moment, only to have history render a very different judgement.
Consider a couple of counter-examples to Wood and Landrum.
At the same time Landrum was fighting against civil and voting rights for black citizens in Congress, one of his Georgia colleagues was on the other side of the debate. Charles L. Weltner represented Georgia’s 5th District. In 1964 and again in 1965, he was the only Georgia congressman, and one of the few in the entire South, to vote for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. “We must not remain forever bound to another lost cause,” he said in 1964.
In 1966, Weltner declined to run for re-election when the state’s Democratic Party demanded he sign a loyalty oath to support segregationist Lester Maddox for governor. “I love the Congress, but I will give up my office before I give up my principles,” Weltner said.
Weltner went on to become a noted Justice on the Georgia Supreme Court. In 1991, he was the second person to be honored with the prestigious Profile in Courage Award for having stood on his principles in 1966.
Today, Weltner is an icon in the state’s legal community and remembered for his commitment to open government. He has not been forgotten because he had the courage to be on the right side of history despite the immense political pressure of the moment that ran the other direction.
A more recent example. In the early 1990s, Jackson County was in the 10th Congressional District. Don Johnson from Royston was elected congressman to the 10th District seat in 1992.
But he soon ran into a firestorm. In 1993, Johnson was one of the key swing votes on Bill Clinton’s “Deficit Reduction Budget,” which included some tax increases to try and stop deficit red ink.
After his vote to approve the budget, Johnson was savaged back in his district. He held a series of town hall meetings in a bid to explain how entitlements were pushing up the budget deficit and to defend his vote in favor of the budget as a way to drive down the deficit.
He came to Jackson County in August 1993, to the courtroom in the old courthouse, where he faced a hostile crowd. I was there. It was ugly. No amount of explaining about the deficit mollified the crowd and they went away angrier than they had arrived.
The following year, Johnson was defeated by a wide margin at the ballot box, largely due to the circumstances around that budget vote.
But here’s the rest of the story: Once that controversial 1993 budget took hold, it turned around the nation’s deficit. From 1998 to 2001, the federal budget actually had surpluses, largely because of that controversial Clinton budget. It was the last time the federal budget ran a surplus — today, the budget deficit is again exploding.
Despite the political backlash he faced in 1993-1994, Johnson was right about the federal budget and the need to stop the financial bleeding. He was right that people have to be willing to pay for the services they demand.
Johnson sacrificed his political career to do the right thing, not the popular thing. In that, he was on the right side of history.
Rep. Collins is an honest, decent, moral man who has values. His legislative work on criminal justice reform is notable.
But Collins has set himself up to defend a man who is his moral opposite. Even if he’s not impeached, it’s difficult to imagine that Trump will be regarded in the future as anything other than one of the nation’s worst presidents. Trump is a demagogue and history always records demagogues poorly (Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy, and Eugene Talmadge, just to name a few.)
For Collins to use his own morality in an effort to shield an amoral president is troubling. If a good man like Collins is willfully blind to the ignorance and indecency of this president, what hope is there for the American Republic? If good men like Collins won’t stand up for honesty in the White House, who will?
In the future, what will Collins tell his grandchildren when they ask, “What side were you on grandpa during the great political schism of the early 21st Century?”
I fear his answer may be, “I was on the wrong side of history.”
Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at email@example.com.