The morning after

Those who’ve seen Taylor only in nasty TV spots can have no idea how intelligent he is and how effective he can be as a politician.

“You have been sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, and let us have done with you.”

Oliver Cromwell delivered those words to the Rump Parliament just before he dissolved it in 1653, but he could just as well have been speaking to the Republican Party in America today — and, by association, our own Charles Taylor.

A bitter, ugly campaign is over, and no one will miss it. Western North Carolinians made the right choice, but their new man in Washington will have his hands full rebuilding the trust he lost through negative campaigning.

Although Heath Shuler ran on a platform of “mountain values,” many of his anti-Taylor ads reflected no such thing. Indeed, Shuler is lucky his campaigning was overshadowed by the national disgust with the Republicans. When even my dad — as staunch a Republican as you’ll ever find — admits that “sometimes you just have to throw the bums out,” you know the red-state party has been screwing the pooch on a scale so big it’s almost cosmic.

Still, what gets lost amid the frenzy of attack ads and sound bites are the human beings behind the media masks. Having covered this race for my employer, The Mountaineer newspaper, I offer the following notes from the campaign trail.

A fresh face

Heath Shuler arrived at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel around 9 p.m. on Election Day. He’d been playing basketball to wind down a bit, and he joined his wife and children in an upstairs room while a throng in the ballroom cheered Taylor’s concession speech as loudly and passionately as any tent-revival crowd.

My photographer, who was granted access to Shuler’s room to photograph the candidate and his family, said Shuler’s hands were shaking.

When WNC’s next congressman appeared downstairs at 10:50 p.m., the applause and feverish excitement were astonishing. Shuler could barely speak a word into the microphone as his supporters overwhelmed him with praise.

I first met Shuler back in May. I was writing an article, and we talked over breakfast at a favorite restaurant of his near his home in Waynesville.

I was impressed by Shuler’s passion for such potentially dull issues as Medicare Part D. On the other hand, he was decidedly noncommittal on many points, especially the Iraq war, giving the kind of answers that no one could wholly disagree with.

More than anything, though, I had the sense that I was sitting across the table from a really, really nice guy. I walked away from that meeting — and every other one I had with Shuler, who insisted that I call him “Heath” — with the impression that he was an extremely decent, trustworthy human being.

Also impressive was Shuler’s insistence on holding true to many conservative social values. While he took flak from Asheville liberals for opposing gay marriage and abortion, it was immediately clear that Shuler’s values accurately represent those of the predominantly rural 11th District.

As the race progressed, Shuler proved a quick study. He began taking a stronger stance against the war, and he delved deeper into complex issues such as health care. One morning in October, I rode with him to Brevard — his opponent’s hometown — where Shuler spoke to a small group of seniors at a retirement community. It was obvious that he’d stiffened his position on many issues. His vocal opposition to the war won applause, and he hammered the president’s Medicare Part D program and the No Child Left Behind Act.

On my way back to the office, my photographer — who’s worked with senators, congressmen and presidential candidates — turned to me and said, “Governor Shuler.”

Sorry Charlie

Those who’ve merely read about Charles Taylor on liberal blogs and seen him only in nasty TV spots can have no idea how intelligent he is and how effective he can be as a politician. It’s no accident that Taylor became as wealthy as he did as fast as he did, or that he achieved such a lofty position in Congress.

I spent the better part of an afternoon with Taylor in October and was constantly amazed by his clever use of words, his ability to stay on message, and his funny, affable personality.

Although Taylor was a senior member of the Republican House leadership, it would be hard to make the case that he was responsible for all its failures. Taylor lost this race by association, not by being a poor congressman.

Certainly, the cloud of scandal hovering over his head didn’t help him any. Indeed, it may have overshadowed some of the good he did: While the practice of earmarking (slipping pet projects into bills on the sly) may be questionable, there’s no doubt that many WNC schools, businesses, highways and organizations have benefited from Taylor’s pork in a way they won’t be able to with a freshman representing them.

Here’s one of my favorite “Taylorisms”: “If it’s something for you, it’s pork. If it’s something for me, that’s good legislation.”

Bridge burning, bridge building

So, to paraphrase my dad, Western North Carolina has “thrown ‘the bum’ out.” But it’s not time to celebrate just yet. An increasingly nasty and often clumsy race left many voters disgruntled and angry. In the line on Election Day, my wife heard two voters in front of her complaining that both Shuler and Taylor are “awful, horrible people.”

Accordingly, I imagine the question on many people’s minds now is whether we have simply replaced our eight-term incumbent with a younger, healthier, better-looking bum.

We have not. But it will take some doing on Shuler’s part for them to realize it.

[Sam Wardle is a staff writer at The Mountaineer newspaper and a blogger at http://WestAndCenter.blogspot.com.]

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