LONG GOODBYES are a feature of our political system and Representative Chris Gibson has honored that tradition. He announced at the beginning of his current term that he would not seek a fourth term in Congress. He could have coasted from then on. But he hasn’t acted like somebody eager for quiet life on a comfy recliner.
He spoke last week at Columbia-Greene Community College at the annual President’s Community Breakfast that salutes community leaders. Both Mr. Gibson and his wife, Mary Jo Gibson, an accomplished social worker and educator, were individually recognized for their separate contributions to the public. The Gibson family lives in Kinderhook and Rep. Gibson grew up here, so when he spoke he was talking to both constituents and neighbors. His remarks arrived like calming news from another planet.
The room was filled with officials, and business and cultural leaders all of whom had some sense of the public uncertainty about the incoming administration. Everyone understands that Republicans will have control over all three branches of the federal government very soon. Mr. Gibson, a Republican and a scholar who will teach at Williams College in Massachusetts after he leaves office, could easily have gloated.
But he didn’t. He acknowledged he’d been asked: “Don’t you wish you were still serving?” and offered his response, “No, actually.
“This,” he said, meaning the last six years, “was my time.” In a divided government, “I really thought I could help.”
He recalled witnessing the starkest alternative to our political system on one of his tours of duty in Iraq as a commander of American troops. He was attempting to broker an agreement among a group of sheiks, some of them enemies based on the rift between Sunni and Shiite Islam, others who clung to tribal grievances nursed over centuries. “We don’t have divides here like they have in Iraq,” he said.
But apparently there are some similarities between negotiating with Iraqi sheiks and getting legislation through the House of Representatives. “I think about the Farm Bill,” he said. And unlike in Iraq, in Congress some differences were set aside to arrive at bipartisan legislation. The law has created a training program for young farmers, several of whom are being trained at Hawthorne Valley Farm in Harlemville.
Critics of that Farm Bill, including me, objected to some of its provisions, like reductions in funding for nutrition programs. But his point then was that the bill amounted to the best law possible in the face of conservative opposition, a compromise where the good outweighed the bad.
If his actions on that one bill were all he could offer in support of his approach, you could dismiss it as pure politicking. But at the college breakfast he went down a list of legislation he’s helped move through the House, including reforms for veterans’ medical care, funding for addiction recovery–he paused to praise Chatham and its Police Department for the Chatham Cares 4U program–and the pending 21st Century Cures bill, which he believes still has a chance for passage before this Congress adjourns next month. He’s not a quitter.
He harps on this idea of bi-partisan legislation without apology, unlike people who consider bi-partisan a dirty word. He talks about national security in a measured way. He says he’s proud that while he’s been in office the deficit has been reduced by 70% and how that was done by “working together.” He touches on race relations and says nothing about the collapse of American civilization. He takes credit where he led but uses the pronoun “we” to mean he didn’t do it alone, something rare at the highest level of political power.
One thing I didn’t hear was reference to a piece of legislation he introduced in the House in 2015 that has, so far, languished. It’s his resolution that would have Congress acknowledge climate change is a threat to the nation, that humans are contributing to the change and that congressional action is needed. GOP leaders and their donors have buried it.
It doesn’t matter. This mild resolution will haunt the deniers as the changes intensify. If nothing else, it assures Chris Gibson’s place in history.
That’s some of what he did and didn’t say to a friendly audience in his home county. It seemed to me like an odd place and time to launch what sounded like campaign for president. But no, actually. When he says, “Our best days are still in front of us,” he must mean that as a teacher.