Barry Commoner: 1917-2012

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Barry Commoner
  • Barry Commoner
I happened to be writing a column about Mayor Rahm Emanuel when I heard the news that Barry Commoner had died.

How's that for irony—one man is everything the other man was not.

Mayor Rahm is, of course, a slick, opportunistic political operator with no apparent core conviction or purpose, other than raising money and accumulating power.

Which he's very good at.

Commoner, in contrast, was a deep thinker, a man of principle, and a brilliant environmentalist who couldn't win an election if his life depended on it.

And thank goodness, it didn't.

A cellular biologist by training, he became a left-of-center political activist because he wanted to save the world from itself. "Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem," as Daniel Lewis wrote in the New York Times obituary.

In 1980 Commoner actually made these principles the platform of his long-shot—OK, no-shot—third-party presidential campaign. And, true confession time: I almost voted for him.

Back then, I was young and exceedingly idealistic and Commoner represented almost everything I believed in. Plus, AJ—one of my best friends in the world—was bugging me big time to vote for Commoner.

So out of loyalty to AJ, I said I'd vote for the Commoner ticket. Which is a better reason for choosing a candidate than many of the others I've cited over the years.

Then my sister got wind of what I was up to. At the time, she was delivering mail for the post office. A vote for Commoner, she claimed, was a wasted vote—taking precious support from Jimmy Carter, and enabling Ronald Reagan to win.

And if Reagan won, he'd privatize the post office, meaning she and thousands of other hardworking postal employees would lose their jobs.

Well, I didn't want that to happen. I love and revere post office workers almost as much as I love and revere Chicago public schoolteachers.

So, following my sister's command, I voted for Jimmy Carter. Pissed the hell out of AJ—who claimed I'd sold out. But at least my sister was happy. And, folks, I think everyone—including Mayor Rahm—will agree that a happy family is the key to a happy life.

In retrospect, my one vote didn't make a damn bit of difference. Reagan swamped Carter. And he didn't privatize the post office. And my sister kept her job.

In time, I've really come to respect Jimmy Carter. In fact, Reagan doesn't seem so bad anymore—at least, not in contrast to the lunatics now running the Republican Party.

At some gathering in the 80s, I actually met Commoner. I told him my story about not voting for him on account of my sister. He took it pretty well. He said he was glad my sister and her fellow letter carriers had kept their jobs.

My goodness, can you imagine if I'd made a similar confession to Mayor Rahm? The dude would probably cut my water service off. He might do that as it is.

Anyway, rest in peace, Barry Commoner. I should have voted for you when I had the chance.

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