WASHINGTON — While listening to an NPR report out of Moore, OK, this week, I was genuinely shocked. Not by the scale of the devastation or the tenacity of people who have grown stoically accustomed to the damage tornadoes can do, but by a political sentiment that, in almost any other era, would not have been surprising at all.
Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican who lives in the very neighborhood that was overwhelmed, was talking about a call he received from President Obama. Hearing Cole, I realized how strange it is these days for politicians to speak in human terms about someone in the other political party — especially if that someone is named Barack Obama. “He was very kind,” Cole said.
The president, Cole added, “ticked off very quickly that the assets were available … and said, ‘You know, you’re going to have everything you need and if something — you have a problem, just call me directly at the White House.’ It was an exceptionally kind, thoughtful and gracious call.”
Imagine: a solid conservative Republican declaring that Obama did something “kind, thoughtful and gracious.” This takes courage in the GOP these days. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie learned as much last fall. He was ostracized by large parts of the right (and pronounced unwelcome at March’s Conservative Political Action Conference) because he praised Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy.
I hope Cole escapes this fate. A 64-year-old with a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oklahoma, he spent years in loyal service to the Republican Party, including a stint as state party chair in the 1980s. Back then, he was a straight-talking source for many journalists around the country (including me). He was never anything but a conservative.
And except for one moment in our past, there has never been anything un-conservative or controversial about helping the victims of disasters. In fact, federal disaster relief is as old as our republic, as Brian Balogh, a University of Virginia historian, noted in his seminal book, A Government Out of Sight.
The practice goes back to the 1780s, he writes, and “by the mid-1820s, general relief bills were directed at entire classes of victims.” The sensible justification “was the victims’ inability to foresee or predict these sudden events, and the recipients’ innocence of any responsibility for them.”