Changing America
Muskie Archive Building - Bates College, Lewiston
October 11, 2005
Thank you Ryan and Will, and thank you all for coming out on this beautiful day after such a soggy weekend to hear what a self-proclaimed progressive liberal running for U.S. Senate here in Maine has to say.

Yes, I am Jean Hay Bright. I am a writer, with three books, dozens of columns and hundreds of newspaper stories under my belt. I am the second wife of a second husband. We own a beautiful organic farm, BrightBerry Farm, in the hills of Dixmont, which is a little town just west of Bangor. I am the mother of two and the step-mother of two, they're all now adults.

And right now I'm a full-time candidate for U.S. Senate, for the seat now held by Olympia Snowe.

It's a long way from being the daughter of an Ohio steelworker to being a candidate for U.S. Senate in Maine. I've changed a lot, and so has this country, in those 58 years. And that's what I'd like to talk to you about today: Changing America, how it has changed since Edmund S. Muskie inhabited the Blaine House, roamed the halls of the Senate, and traveled the world as our Secretary of State.

And I want to talk to you about how we, you and I, how we MUST change America to get it back on course toward a beautiful and proud future.

First, how America has changed.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, America was viewed as a shining beacon of hope and promise. After all, our parents had fought Evil in World War II, and they had won. The duly-elected German tyrant who had preemptively invaded another country and had killed thousands, millions of people because of their religion or ethnicity had been finally defeated after several horrendous and bloody years.

In school I was taught that our Declaration of Independence proclaimed everyone's inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I was taught that our Constitution embodied the means for guaranteeing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defense and promoting the general welfare for us citizens.

In the world where I grew up, Superman was flying high for Truth, Justice and the American Way. The Pledge of Allegiance, to which God was added when I was in first grade, promised a country "with liberty and justice for all."

The Statue of Liberty, which had welcomed my maternal grandparents a half-century before I was born, proclaimed hope to the world in a poem at her feet:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

Freedom, Justice, Liberty, Truth, Opportunity, Hope. My generation grew up on those. Or at least we thought we did. It was a time of optimism, of faith in the American Dream.

Ah, the American Dream - a good job, a loving wife, a house to call your own, a couple of kids who went to good public schools and got good grades and would go on to affordable colleges and get better jobs, better paying, important jobs like lawyer or doctor or even astronaut.

War was behind us, the world was at peace, prosperity was in the wind, and anything was possible.

Of course, that world was not entirely peaceful. There was the Korean Conflict, and later the Vietnam War. And then there was the red-baiting of Sen. Joe McCarthy, which Maine's own Sen. Margaret Chase Smith stood up to and challenged.

But that exalted view of America that I thought I grew up in isn't just the impressions of a naive young girl. Even the President of the United States back then, Dwight David Eisenhower, understood the importance of peace, progress, stability, and good government. Here's an excerpt of a letter Ike wrote to his brother Edgar in November of 1954, when I was seven years old.

"...It is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it."

And further down in the letter:
" ...Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt, ... a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid."

And that is from a Republican President.

Fast forward to this year. The White House is inhabited by a failed Texas oil millionaire. His cronies, some of them eminently, and even imminently, indictable, control Congress and the Senate. His appointed lackeys are at all levels of the government, from Homeland Security, FEMA, to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and now, even the United States Supreme Court.

And they seem to be using the words of the 34th President as a personal challenge.

Social Security. George W. Bush has been trying all year to abolish Social Security, thankfully to little effect.

Farm programs. As a farmer, I understand that a nation that cannot feed itself is a nation at risk, but programs to keep small farms viable are coming under Congressional attack.

Labor laws. In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Bush waved his hand and eliminated a pretty prominent labor law in those affected areas. He suspended the 1898 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federal contractors to pay at least prevailing wages‹which in that part of the country are in the neighborhood of $9 an hour.

And then to pay for the massive reconstruction effort of the mid-South, does he admit that the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans need to be rolled back? Not on your life. The federal government must be eviscerated from within - it will be the poor, the elderly, children and the disabled who will pay the price, according to the ruling Republicans.

Here are just some of the most egregious of their proposed cuts:
  • $225 billion cut from Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled.
  • $200 billion cut from Medicare, the health care program for the elderly.
  • $25 billion cut from the Centers for Disease Control, at a time when worldwide bird flu pandemic may be on the horizon.
  • $6.7 billion cut from school lunches for poor children.
  • $7.5 billion cut from programs to fight global AIDS.
  • $5.5 billion to eliminate all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • $8.5 billion cut to eliminate all subsidized loans to graduate students.
  • $2.5 billion cut from Amtrak.
I'm sorry, but no matter what way you cut it, this is not the America I grew up in.

When I was 10 years old, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first-ever orbiting satellite, and to its horror, our nation realized we had lost the race into space. And we lost the space race to what we had considered a third-rate country, and a Communist one at that. School courses everywhere were suddenly changed to emphasize science and math, and by the time I got to high school, even a few girls were allowed into advanced-placement physics classes, me among them.

Fast forward to today, when science is under attack. The President and the Republicans in Congress refuse to sign onto the Kyoto Protocols, refuting or disparaging any claims of global warming. Attempts to require higher fuel standards on vehicles are repeatedly rebuffed. GMO foods are declared to be "essentially the same" as natural foods, so no health or safety tests are required before the implementation of this massive experiment with our nation's food supply. The rules that help Endangered Species survive are cut back or eliminated, to quell complaints by business groups who see the environment as the enemy.

Meanwhile, in some areas of the country, parents are up in arms that evolution is in the textbooks. They contend that the concepts taught in science classes are incompatible with their religions, and should therefore not be taught in our public schools.

I do not understand this argument. Even as a kid I recognized that science - whether biology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, whatever - was a way of figuring out little pieces of the massive marvels of the universe. Then, as now, I looked at the wonders of science as a way to appreciate the complexities of whatever it was that brought us to this point in time and the universe.

Again, this is not the America I grew up in.

Eisenhower's presidency was followed by that of John F. Kennedy. It's odd to think of it now, but we actually had a presidential administration that was likened to Camelot, and the English legend of King Arthur. It even had a theme song. JFK was handsome, he had a beautiful wife, two young children, and a way of making everyone believe that anything was possible in America if only we put our collective mind to it. Kennedy even convinced us, those few years after Sputnik, that we would get to the moon by the end of that decade. Striving for excellence became a national pastime.

In November of 1963, that sense of Camelot innocence and hope was shattered by an assassin's bullet. I remember I was in high school chemistry class when word came over the loudspeaker about Kennedy being shot. And I remember our student teacher, a young likeable redhead, fumbling for something appropriate to say. He did OK. He said, "We never know how something like this will affect our lives." He was right.

Fast-forward forty years, to 2003. The President of the United States orders the invasion of another sovereign country, one that had not attacked us on 9/11/2001, a country that had not threatened to attack us, indeed did not have the means to attack us. Like 1963, it was another shattering of innocence, but of an entirely different kind.

The United States of America, I had been taught, does not invade countries. We are not the aggressors, we are the peacekeepers. Only that elected leader in Germany, you know, the one back in the late 1930s, the one we had fought against in World War II, would do something awful like that.

But here we had the President of the United States of America - the office we were told as children that anyone could aspire to hold if we were good enough and loved our country enough - that President lied to the American people and to the members of Congress to get them to go along with his illegal invasion. He turned his attention from the real target, the real mastermind behind the attack on our soil on 9/11, Osama bin Laden, to instead go after the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein because, according to George W. Bush in one of his many changing reasons for invading Iraq, Saddam Hussein "tried to kill my dad."

And nearly 2,000 of our good men and women, sent to Iraq on a fool's mission, have died needlessly because a man who does not deserve our trust or loyalty, a man who is a disgrace to the office he now holds, had the ability and the power to send them there. So he did.

This is not the America I grew up in.

Remember that Pledge of Allegiance? "Liberty and justice for all"? It doesn't say "Liberty and justice only for those native-born American citizens who have not been deemed enemy combatants by the President of the United States."

What right do we have to hold prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or anywhere else in the world, and deny them access to lawyers or to our courts? And if you think of course we have that right because we're the only superpower left in the world and we can do anything we want, think about that the next time you are overseas and you jaywalk or spit on a foreign sidewalk.

This is not the America I want to live in.

How does the Patriot Act reconcile itself with "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" in our Declaration of Independence? Or for that matter with the Fourth Amendment proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures?

This is not the America ANY of us should want to live in.

And why should the U.S. Senate have to, as it did last week in a 90-9 vote, include an amendment to a Pentagon spending bill that expressly prohibits the military from indulging in the very types of torture forbidden by The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948; The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the U.S. is a signatory; AND the binding Convention Against Torture, negotiated by the Reagan administration and ratified by the Senate?

And why is the President of the United States threatening to veto that bill if it reaches his desk with that provision?

What kind of America are we living in?

What kind? The kind where the Attorney General of the United States, Alberto Gonzales, in a position he gained through confirmation by the United States Senate, can publicly voice the sentiment that he thinks the Geneva Convention restrictions on torture are "quaint."

This is definitely NOT the America I want to be living in.

Back to my youth. On August 28, 1963, history was made with the largest political demonstration then on record, with between 200,000 and 500,000 people demonstrating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Remember those figures, between 200,000 and 500,000 people. This is the event where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

According to

"Press coverage was more extensive than for any previous political demonstration in U.S. history. A huge tent near the Lincoln Memorial held the march committee's "News HQ." The committee issued no fewer than 1,655 special press passes, augmenting the 1,220 members of the regular Washington press corps. News agencies sent large crews of reporters and photographers‹some assigned to celebrities, others to everyday marchers, others to aerial coverage. Leading newspapers in many countries ran the march story on their front pages. It was also one of the first events to be broadcast live around the world, via the newly launched communications satellite Telstar. The three major television networks spent over three hundred thousand dollars (more than twice the march committee's budget) to broadcast the event."

"Fears of a possible riot were intense, and the Washington authorities and the march organizers were determined to ensure a peaceful day. D.C. police units had all their leaves canceled; neighboring suburban forces were given special riot-control training. With Birmingham in mind, the attorney general expressly forbade the presence of police dogs. Liquor sales were banned for a day‹for the first time since Prohibition. Two Washington Senators' baseball games were postponed. The Justice Department and the army coordinated preparations for emergency troop deployments..."

Fast forward to September 24, 2005, just a few weeks ago. Between 200,000 and 500,000 anti-Iraq War protesters descended on Washington from all over the country. Maine activists filled several buses. Those of us who couldn't make it to DC were riveted to our television screens to see the wall-to-wall news coverage.

What? You didn't see that coverage? All you saw were wet reporters speaking into soggy microphones, drenched by the wind and rain of a medium-strength Hurricane Rita as she passed through Texas and Louisiana? Hmmm.

If a humongous anti-war demonstration fills the Mall in Washington DC and the mass media ignores it, does it make a sound?

The lack of media coverage for last month's anti-war March on Washington is the best and most powerful example we have had of the damage to the commonality of our collective understanding caused by the consolidation of the media and their commensurate control of the national message.

If you weren't in the march, didn't know someone who was, or did not learn about it from an independent Internet site, you are probably not even aware that this huge and very impressive display of non-violent political dissent even occurred. This was brought home to me the week after the march when on Public Radio's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," the contestant could not identify "the recent event attended by more than 100,000 people." But he COULD identify which famous couple had just that week broken up.

This is not the America I want to live in.

The March on Washington in August of 1963 was peaceful and powerful. The people who marched by the thousands, and the people who supported them from afar, were empowered.

Congress, in 1963, paid attention to that march, to that national political protest, and what it meant for the future of the country. On July 2, 1964, Congress passed the monumental Civil Rights Act. It gave federal protection to African Americans seeking to vote, to shop, to eat out, and to be educated on equal terms.

And along with that law came the national debate and understanding of just what "rights" are. As author Ayn Rand so eloquently put it, "Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual)."

Fast forward to today, and we find that in four weeks' time we in Maine will be voting on whether or not to vote away the rights of a minority, in this case those of a different "sexual orientation." Forty-two years after the great public discussion about individual rights, why is this even an issue?

A vote NO on 1 on November 8 is not just a vote for gay rights. It is also a vote against oppression of a minority by majority rule. I will vote NO on 1 on November 8.

I will vote on November 8 for the America I want to live in.

On November 8 this year, next June in the primaries, in November of 2006, and in every election where you cast a ballot for the rest of your lives, you need to vote for the America you want to live in.

Here in Maine we have an active history of small groups of people collecting enough signatures to put citizens' initiatives on the ballot. That is straight-line democracy, with the whole state voting one issue at a time up or down.

We also still have many small communities where voters decide on their town's annual budget directly, one article at a time, every mud season at Town Meeting.

For the rest of the laws, rules and regulations, we of course rely on our elected officials, be they municipal, county, state or federal office-holders.

I urge you, plead with you, beg you to take your vote very seriously. Always. In every election.

You must, in every election, vote for the America you want to live in.

Don't, for God's sake, vote for the person you think is most elect-able. If you vote in any election for a candidate other than the one you think will do the best job, then you are doing a disservice to your community and to your country. We need the collective wisdom of our voting population, but if that wisdom is not expressed in the voting booth, then the results are skewed. We can't read minds. We can only read votes.

Which brings up the validity of our election results, another issue that we need to address post-haste. But I digress.

If you want to stop the Iraq War, you need to vote for candidates who are opposed to the war. If you want national health care, not just for the elderly and disabled, or just for children, but for all Americans, you need to vote for a candidate who has that as a primary legislative target. If you think a Department of Peace makes sense, follow your nose. If you think the minimum wage should be a living wage, that NAFTA and CAFTA are wrecking our manufacturing base, find a candidate who shares your views and work to get out the vote for him or her.

Of course, as you might expect, those are some of the leading issues in my U.S. Senate campaign. But that's another digression.

Vote for the America you want to live in.

Yes, you can write letters to the editor, you can sign petitions, you can call your Congressmen, your Senators, your legislators and give them a piece of your mind. You can hold silent vigils, or not-so-silent vigils. You can hold local protest marches or rallies. You can band together and read the names of all our Iraq war dead, as a group of us did in Bangor last summer. It took us six hours, and now as the military death toll in Iraq closes in on 2,000, it will take even longer next time.

But all this gets us nowhere if our elected representatives don't agree, or don't care.

Vote for the America you want to live in. If you do that, if everyone did that, even if your issue or your candidate loses, you will have shown the strength of like-minded people.

In 1963, the Marchers on Washington showed their strength in numbers. Congress paid attention. I see no evidence of that dynamic having happened last month, in September 2005. From what I heard, Congress beat it out of town. And so did the media.

That leaves us with voting. Our collective vote is the only effective way we have left to demonstrate both our displeasure and our hope.

As author Alice Walker once said, "The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any."

We have the power. We have the vote. I urge you to use it well. Always.

Thank you.