What's Martin Van Buren got to do with it?
Rep. Chris Gibson, whose closely cropped graying hair announces his Army pedigree, believes he should be in the Guinness Book of Records for having moved so swiftly — in 10 months — from membership in America's most admired to its least admired institution. On March 1, 2010, he ended a 24-year military career and on Nov. 2 was elected to Congress. This fall, he will participate in perhaps the year's most interesting congressional contest.
Just 16 Republicans — Gibson is one — represent districts Barack Obama carried; only nine Democrats represent districts Mitt Romney carried. Perhaps fewer than 45 House contests nationwide will be competitive. One will be in the 8,000 square miles of New York's rural 19th district, which runs along the Hudson from about 60 miles north of the Bronx to the Vermont border.
Gibson, 49, was raised in Kinderhook, near the home of Martin Van Buren, a Jacksonian Democrat who Gibson, a Reagan Republican, considers a kindred spirit. Gibson enlisted the day after he turned 17 but graduated from Ichabod Crane High School — the Hudson Valley also gave the nation Washington Irving — and Siena College, served in the Gulf War, Kosovo and Iraq, rose to the rank of colonel with the 82nd Airborne, along the way earning four Bronze Stars and a Cornell Ph.D., and taught political science at West Point.
He entered politics when the tea party impulse was waxing and he agrees with its adherents about limited government but favors compromise to get there. “The Constitution,” he notes with a colonel's crispness, “was a compromise.” And, he adds, Patrick Henry, a tea party pinup, opposed ratification of it.
But Gibson thinks Van Buren deserves to be a tea party favorite because he was Andrew Jackson's sidekick in slaying the Bank of the United States, which they considered an instrument for people who practiced the vice nowadays called crony capitalism.
Gibson has pledged to serve no more than four terms. Sean Eldridge hopes to give Gibson an early start on his next career.
Eldridge, 27, is married to Chris Hughes, 30, who bought The New Republic magazine — founded 100 years ago this year as a voice of progressivism — with a portion of the fortune he made as co-founder of Facebook. Eldridge, who wants to bring his own progressivism to Congress, grew up in Ohio, graduated from Brown University, attended but did not graduate from Columbia Law School, founded a venture capital firm and went looking for a receptive congressional district outside New York City.
It was said (by John Randolph) that Van Buren “rowed to his object with muffled oars.” Muted, stealthy politics is, however, not the current style. Eldridge's investment firm is located in the district and last summer The New York Times reported that the firm had made at least $800,000 in loans to local businesses.
Progressives, being situational ethicists regarding the phenomenon of money in politics, are selectively indignant about the rich throwing around the weight of their wallets. But when progressives say there is “too much money in politics,” etc., conservatives should remain relaxed. Everyone, including Eldridge, should have the right to do what he or she wants with his or her money. Besides, Eldridge will use his money to disseminate his political speech, which conservatives should be confident will do Gibson much more good than harm.
George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.