When I was away from Nebraska, I had this romantic vision of home – rolling prairies and amazing sunsets, and of down to earth, hard-working people, who believe in tight-fisted frugality but had hearts filled with generosity and compassion. As I sat across from former Nebraska Governor and Senator, Ben Nelson, last week, I could not help but think of him as the perfect personification of everything great about this state. He’s a cross between Gary Cooper’s Plainsman and Henry Fonda’s Mr. Roberts – courageous and bold, yet loyal and compassionate. He’s a really good guy. We should all praise the day he joined our Party.
In his very first election, he defeated an incumbent Republican governor to be the last Democratic Governor of Nebraska and was reelected in a landslide with a higher majority than any candidate in a half century. Then in 2000, he won an open seat for the United States Senate and became, again, the last Democratic Senator from Nebraska. He was reelected by one of the greatest margins of victory in Nebraska history. But he’ll tell you in no uncertain terms that it’s not just about winning. It’s about governing and sticking to your principles, even when the whole world is telling you to do something different.
He learned a lot about character and life growing up in McCook. That’s the same town from which Progressive Senator, George Norris, sprang to fame. He learned to apply fiscal responsibility, and balance and integrity in all that he did. As governor, he went to work for all Nebraskans, regardless of politics. He cut spending by 64 percent, but at the same time, made serious headway in improving the lives of low-income and minority families. He fought for our environment and kept Nebraska from becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste. He did the right thing even though there was a big cost. He did what needed to be done, the way he thought the people of Nebraska would want him to do it.
Senator Nelson attended the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He finished a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and Juris Doctorate while there. Following college, he went to work as the Assistant General Counsel for the Central National Insurance Group of Omaha. Eventually, he worked his way up to become company President. That's what I call a pattern of loyalty.
By the time he left the U.S. Senate in 2013, things had already been moving in a deeply partisan way. For a centrist with a penchant for making good things happen, that was a difficult journey, and he was frequently attacked by both sides. But he has no apology for sticking to his guns and doing what he could to facilitate good legislation. He still thinks about what he might have done to help with the problems of today.
Thirty years ago, if you plotted the political leanings of every member of Congress, from both parties, it would have revealed a normal bell curve. There were few extreme liberals and few extreme conservatives, and a lot of reasonable people in the middle. It had been that way for a hundred years, but by the time Senator Nelson left the Senate, there were two distinct bell curves – one for liberals and one for conservatives, and very, very few moderates. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it was a tough road to hoe for a man who had built his entire political career on being a centrist.
Asked about his views on the growing extremes in our Party, he said, “You have to be practical about it. You can keep running and losing, or you can listen to your voters. That doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your core values. It means you have to use an approach that makes sense to them.” Starting in his first race for Governor, he always reached out to the whole population – to "Democrats, Independents and Enlightened Republicans.” It would never have occurred to him to look on any Nebraskan as anything other than a friend and neighbor.
The Senator remarked on our current Party obsession with President Trump, and said, “It hard not to obsess when you see all the crazy things he does, but it’s a mistake to waste too much time on him. There are a lot of really important problems out there. That should be our focus.”
He referred to James Carville’s recent statements. "He’s right," he said. "It used to be, it’s the economy stupid. Now, it’s winning stupid.” Amen.
Photo courtesy of journalstar.com.