The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Hughes Injects Morality Into Politics
November 29, 1983
As we stuffed ourselves last week, there was a lot of groping around for explanations of what we're being thankful for.
The question poses no difficulty for Harold Hughes. I spent some time, just the day before Thanksgiving, with the former governor, senator and alcoholic. (Yes. I know. There's no such thing as a "former" alcoholic. But if there were, Hughes, who is approaching his 30th anniversary of sobriety, would qualify.)
Hughes may be recovering significantly from alcohol, but he has not recovered from the spiritual awakening that accompanied his triumph over the bottle. So when I asked him, in view of all his misgiving about the state of the world, if he had anything to be thankful for, the big brusque Iowan responded without hesitation:
"There's a great deal to be thankful for. This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it "
You get a lot of that from the cable TV preachers, followed usually by an appeal for funds. Reporters aren't used to it when questioning politicians which is what Hughes still is, despite his well-publicized departure from the Senate five years ago to pursue his lay ministry.
When he was asked whether he was back, "dabbling" in politics, Hughes fairly exploded; "I hope I'm not just dabbling. I'm serious. I've never left politics.'
He went on to explain that while he left public office in the mid-70's because he felt he could play a more effective role as a minister trying to change men rather than just changing laws he believes as firmly as ever in the role of politics to get change accomplished.
He does not agree with President Reagan that government should get out of programs to improve the general welfare, leaving them to private initiative and voluntarism.
"We have private, personal responsibility," he says. "But we also have a corporate responsibility, through our government, through paying our taxes, for the poor and the left out."
Hughes the preacher is more believable to journalistic skeptics than the electronic evangelizers now dominating so much of the airwaves. It is because he carries his religious beliefs and principles directly into the political arena, without apology and translated bluntly into human terms.
Recent political campaigns have heard much from conservative Christians, from the religious right. Hughes injects morality into politics from the opposite direction. Described as a liberal, he asserts:
"If being liberal is being for the poor, the helpless, the left-out, the least-of-these in our midst, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the aging, the undereducated then I'm a liberal and I'm damn proud of it."
Despite his personal thankfulness for the "day the Lord has made," Hughes is troubled because the "least-of-these" are getting less. We're getting more of a two-tier society, wider gap between the haves and the have-nots, "a greater separation between those who are working and those who aren't," he says. "The poor are getting poorer while others are getting better off. It's not just the banker on the hill, the country club set, who've got it but an awfully lot of the laboring class are doing just great while an awfully lot of others are doing just lousy."
Hughes blames this on a lack of spiritual leadership form the top down in the nation's political system: "We need a spiritual awakening in the world, a rising of the human heart." Despite his own peace of mind because, "I believe in eternal life," he fears for the world. "We're closer than ever to nuclear war, rushing like lemmings to the precipice."
Nor is it just the nukes that dismay him. "If we had the brains God gave a goose," the one-time truck driver blurted, "we could feed the world." It isn't lack of food, or the oft-used excuse of improper distribution, or even lack of initiative among the leadership, he claimed. "The problem is we just don't identify with the hungry. We need to get personally involved. Ask yourself. What have you done today you personally to feed someone who is hungry? Not whether you've paid your taxes, or contributed to some organization. Not whether someone else is doing it. You. Are you personally doing anything today? To feed someone?"
Illustrative of his belief that these personal and moral responsibilities must be met through the political process, Hughes is planning a one-day festival in Des Moines next February 11 to focus national attention on the nation's alcohol and drug problems. Called "Freedom Fest '84" it hopes to attract 10,000 people. President Reagan and all the Democratic presidential hopefuls have been invited to present their "political agendas" on prevention and treatment of addiction.
Hughes calls alcoholism "the greatest crisis that we have in America today." With this festival, just before the Iowa presidential nominating caucuses, he hopes to get the issue "into the platforms of both political parties. There's political commitment to the problem," he explains. "But it is not the high priority it should be."
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