CARLTON FLETCHER: Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss one of few leaders left in Washington

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

A good man is hard to find.

Tom Waits

Let’s get this out of the way first.

Over the 11-plus years of his tenure in the U.S. Senate, there have been any number of issues involving Moultrie Republican Saxby Chambliss that have disappointed me. Three that come to mind are his still unexplained part in the alleged attempt to shift responsibility away from the Imperial Sugar Co. after an explosion at the company’s Port Wentworth refinery killed 13 workers, his silence on the end-of-life health care concern that he recommended before opportunists like Sarah Palin turned it into a maccabre “death squads” fallacy that many gullible Americans bought into, and his characterization of Palin in comparison to President Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Starting with the last issue: During a conversation with The Albany Herald Editorial Board in the heat of the 2012 campaign, Chambliss answered questions about Palin’s ability to serve as vice president by saying that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, “Mrs. Palin is actually a more intelligent person that President Obama.” That, even the most bitter Obama detractor would have to admit, is stretching the party line well beyond the breaking point.

And it was Chambliss who was among the first to recommend that end-of-life counseling be part of any national health care conversation so that families of elderly and terminally ill patients would understand the options they faced. When Palin jumped on the moronic “death squads for the elderly” bandwagon to discredit Obama’s proposed health care plan, Chambliss again toed the party line and backed away from a common-sense, if unfortunate, issue for all families facing such concerns.

And Chambliss drew intense heat when he was charged with trying to discredit a key witness who had testified about the dangerous conditions at the Imperial Sugar refinery in the aftermath of the 2008 explosion that left 13 workers dead. Chambliss was not actually a member of the Senate committee investigating the tragedy that centered around more than 200 alleged safety violations at the refinery but was allowed to take part in questioning because the plant is located in Georgia.

Detractors pointed out that Chambliss had accepted campaign contributions from Imperial Sugar’s political action committee.

All that being said, as Chambliss gets ready to leave his seat in the Senate, his departure will create a void that’s going to be hard to fill. While Washington has devolved into all partisan politics, all the time, the senior Georgia senator has stood out as one of a handful of national elected officials willing to work with members of the opposing party in an effort to do what’s best for the country.

Chambliss lamented that fact during another meeting last week with The Herald’s Editorial Board, recalling the nonpartisan efforts of men like (Republican President) Ronald Reagan and (Democratic House Speaker) Tip O’Neill. “They didn’t care who got the credit as long as the best interests of the American people were served,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also rightfully blasted Obama for his inactivity during recent international incidents, noting, “Whether it was Bush, Clinton, Bush 41 or Reagan, if there was a military conflict, they acted immediately,” Chambliss said. “(Obama’s) failure to act sends a signal of weakness.” That’s part of the reason Chambliss declared of Obama, “He’s not very effective right now.”

But the senator acknowledged last week that his colleagues’ refusal to put the interests of the nation before partisan politics is “part of the frustration that led to my decision not to run” for re-election. He noted, “What people don’t understand is that (running for office) is not a six-year decision, it’s an eight-year decision with two added for campaigning. I’d also have to raise $15 million for the campaign … not something I’d look forward to. That’s one of the realities of politics now; I spent $13 1/2 million during the 2008 campaign.”

Those of us who follow politics only peripherally have a tendancy to get caught up in the headlines fed to us by the national media, a media it should be noted, whose major players have chosen sides and typically slant their news coverage to that effect. In our frustration over those slanted news reports, we often forget that the people we elect are, in many cases, people whose histories at least somewhat mirror our own.

Through his efforts to work across party lines on behalf of the American people, often costing him favor with party leaders, Saxby Chambliss proved to be one of this country’s few true leaders left in Washington, someone who actually tried to look out for the people he represents. His leadership will be missed.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.