Monday, November 20, 2017
Opinion

Morality play antagonists

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Lame duck (in more ways than one) Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon was in a grumpy mood. These sorts of things happen when term-limited big shots on the way out the door are being accused of engaging in specious, politically motivated, pouty efforts to subvert the integrity of the Florida Supreme Court.

Oh, the nerve of some people!

So there was Cannon railing against criticisms of Amendment 5, which would allow the Florida Senate to confirm appointments to the high court and grant the House speaker access to the investigative files of the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Cannon also is among the Republicans pushing voters to oust three Supreme Court justices up for merit retention because they had the temerity to take three of the Legislature's proposed constitutional amendments off the 2010 ballot. He had an overly ripe riposte for his critics, noting they delude themselves into casting "politics as a kind of Great Morality Play."

It is noteworthy that the speaker's characterization of his detractors as being unduly preoccupied with morality was intended as a criticism.

Who knows if Sam Gibbons had an opportunity to read Cannon's column, which appeared on these pages a day before he died Wednesday at 92. But I think I knew Gibbons well enough to suspect the former congressman might have offered up an harrumph or two with the thought: "That's one of the most bone-headed things I've ever read from an elected official."

When practiced at its most ideal level, the legislative process should indeed be viewed through the prism of a Great Morality Play.

Sam Gibbons certainly did that. During a 44-year political career — from his early service in the Florida Legislature through more than three decades as a congressman — Gibbons was at the forefront of the some of the most profound social and moral issues in the nation's history.

He was a major figure in the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the founding of Head Start, Medicare and a host of antipoverty programs. He also was the guiding force behind the creation of the University of South Florida.

These were more than pieces of dryly written legislation. They were programs designed to help improve the lives of people. What is more moral than that? Isn't that the whole idea behind public service?

Gibbons wasn't always right. He came late to admitting the folly of his support for the war in Vietnam. He could be testy. But we don't elect people to office because they are omniscient. Or perfect. It is enough to expect them to be intellectually honest. And Gibbons more than passed that litmus test.

Can Cannon make the same claim? Even in front of a mirror?

Sam Gibbons spent a professional lifetime in the give-and-take trenches of Washington fighting (sometimes literally) to protect the interests of the voiceless, the powerless, the forgotten.

Cannon dedicated his time to collecting contributions from special interests for his self-serving political action committee and preparing for his next career move.

Perhaps it was Gibbons' own modest upbringing. Perhaps it was his experiences in the battlefields of France, which shaped his world view. But Gibbons appreciated that legislating and governing are all about playing a leading role in a literal life-and-death — and long-running — morality play.

Gibbons will be remembered as the man who championed the needs of minorities, women, children and the impoverished. Cannon leaves office as the chap who wasted his time trying to blow up the state's judiciary.

Which is the more honorable legacy?

Cannon leaves the speakership refusing to acknowledge that Tallahassee is indeed a morality play of governance. He failed to show up to perform his role.

And that is a Greek tragedy.

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