By William Fisher
When he took office in 2000, President Bush promised us he would be a uniter. Since then, he has managed to create the most divided country in our history.
If the president is content with that legacy, so be it. But that will mean a second term in which virtually nothing of consequence will get done, and a president who becomes a very lame duck sooner than most of his predecessors.
But if a Supreme Court opening should occur in his watch, it will present the president with an extraordinary opportunity to do what he said he would do, and what the country desperately needs: someone who can bring us together.
He could do this by nominating John Danforth to the Court. And his appointment would sail through the Senate at the speed of light.
Why John Danforth?
To begin with, he has all the resume credentials. Law degree from Yale. Former Attorney General of Missouri. Private practice with a prestigious law firm.
He is revered by his former Senate colleagues. John Kerry once said he wished President Bush had picked Danforth instead of John Ashcroft as attorney general. “A beautiful human being," says Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).
His faith is very private. In his twelve years in the Senate, he never went to Senate prayer meetings. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). "If you didn't know he was an ordained minister, you wouldn't know. He never went on and on about it."
Untypical of most Senators, he has learned humility. In his book, Danforth wrote that he was "ashamed" at how far he went to discredit Anita Hill, the former assistant to his protégé, Clarence Thomas, who spoke out against him during the hearings.
He has been called on and trusted by Republicans and Democrats, by both the left and the right. President Clinton chose him to investigate the Waco affair. President George W. Bush picked him as special envoy to Sudan. Arthur Andersen hired him during the Enron scandal to review the firm's records.
He is what used to be called a Wendell Wilkie Republican. In the Senate, he worked to reign in entitlements, reduce the deficit, encourage long-term economic growth, improve education, reduce hunger and malnutrition throughout the world, and increase production of affordable housing. As the Senate's only ordained minister, he was a great disappointment to the religious right. He voted against abortion rights but shied away from a leadership role in the movement. He was against school prayer, against the death penalty. The left loved him for shepherding the 1991 Civil Rights Act. After he left the Senate and joined a law firm, he never lobbied at all, on principle.
He is an unbending advocate of church-state separation. Writing in the New York Times in March 2005, he said, “Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians. The elements of this transformation have included advocacy of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, opposition to stem cell research involving both frozen embryos and human cells in petri dishes, and the extraordinary effort to keep Terri Schiavo hooked up to a feeding tube.”
He believes that “The work of government and those who engage in it is to hold together as one people a very diverse country. At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive.”
“Our current fixation on a religious agenda”, he wrote, “has turned us in the wrong direction. It is time for Republicans to rediscover our roots.”
So John Danforth has a great deal going for him. But alas, he has one big thing going in the other direction: He is 68 years old. Many presidents would find this a deal-breaker. They want to put their imprint on the court for a generation. But, given our increasing longevity, Danforth could have a productive ten years.
Maybe just long enough to help us to recover and recolor our Red and Blue America.