Jonathan Miller, the Democratic state treasurer who’s rising like a phoenix from the ashes of Kentucky’s Republican-dominated politics of the last three years, is standing against a brick wall on Louisville’s Fourth Street, just north of Theater Square, outside LEO’s front door. He’s cheesing with all kinds of white teeth, shoulders back in good posture, straight-backed and cradling before his stomach my hardback copy of his new book, “The Compassionate Community.”
Three snaps later, the photos are taken and Miller’s off to another talk show, this time Terry Meiners. If not for his Treo phone, which is like a Blackberry but more adaptable, the neatly coiffed politician might be lost on this book tour.
He’s been touting it around the country, and for good reason: Miller has written precisely what the majority of Americans want to hear right now, and he’s written it because he believes it, not because he wants to get elected: The politicians of self-interest have hijacked the political process and the religious right has seized and perverted the concept of morality. “Representation” has become a contaminated stew of payoffs and distortions and scandals and wars, with a side-salad of economic depression that is leading to extreme class polarization. It’s all being served by a band of screw-jawed jackals who stomp the Constitution with cleated jackboots and cut the opposing political party with the rusty forks of misinformation, all while claiming to reside in a modest single-family home on the mountain of morality.
Of course, Miller is more measured than that. He is an even-handed politician who admires Martin Luther King for the way he balanced government and religion, and someone whose faith — he’s a devout Jew — informs his policy decisions but doesn’t override his rational thought. His highest marks in Kentucky have come from two things. First, his Military Families’ Bill of Rights, which establishes financial protections and educational opportunities for the families of those in the armed services. And second, his “Cradle to College” initiative with Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, which would establish a college fund for every newborn in Kentucky, funded both privately and by the state, until legal adulthood.
Miller is progressive on education, health care, homeland security, Social Security, housing, taxation, and environmental issues (Al Gore wrote the afterword to his book). He calls the climate change crisis the great moral issue of our day. He believes the Republicans sabotaged the American working class by tagging the recent bill to raise the minimum wage with an amendment to abolish the estate tax, which they knew Democrats wouldn’t pass.
“When you get into this business, you need to be expected to live to a higher standard,” he says.
The standard he sets, then, is simple: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The politics of self-interest are “focused on hot button issues that people care deeply about but don’t determine America’s place in the 21st century, and so we lose touch with what really is going to affect our kids and their kids,” he told me last week. “To me, again, there is no more important issue for the future of this state and this country than figuring out how we can make sure all of our kids get the kind of education they need.”
That is, in a nutshell, why we like Jonathan Miller. His brain is in the right place, not a foot up his ass like so many people currently holding high political office. It’s why he, a Jewish Democrat, keeps getting elected in red, Christian Kentucky. He is, to borrow a phrase Louisville historian and councilman Tom Owen used for something else, like a cool breeze to the forehead.
“The Compassionate Community” reads like a position paper, full of policy proposals and initiatives to get America back to the traditions of the Democratic Party, if you still remember them: use government to help the lowest on society’s totem pole. The book’s 10 chapters examine the 10 core values he proposes: Opportunity, responsibility, work, family, freedom, faith, justice, peace, respect and life. Each is connected allegorically to a figure from the Old Testament.
For all Miller’s progressive ideas, he admits he’s still more conservative than your average tree-hugger (foreign policy is one instance). And the fact that most of his solutions to solve the social inequity in America are in stark contrast to what’s happened since the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000 — establishing a more sound public education system by ensuring everyone gets an opportunity to pursue higher education would be a first step to making America more competitive in the knowledge-based economy while simultaneously helping to keep the middle class around — there is an important first step: taking the power back.
done a very effective job of politics,” Miller says on the phone, driving back to his Lexington home. “But again, we’ve left this vacuum open. Democrats, other progressives, by not talking about issues and framing them as values, we’ve let
define what values are, and they’ve defined values as abortion and gay marriage. And so you get out into red states or red parts of states, where people are searching for something bigger than themselves, and they want to support a leader who’s got values, even if they might disagree with them; this is their only choice.”
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