Private Moments, Momentous Acts
Wednesday - November 09, 2005
One afternoon in 1955, Rosa Parks, a Montgomery, Ala., seamstress, refused to yield her seat to a white man on a segregated city bus. Ms. Parks acted privately, unobtrusively: a humble, dignified woman who had simply had enough.
Her civil disobedience launched the Montgomery bus boycott from which a young minister named Martin Luther King would emerge, a strategy of non-violent civil disobedience would develop, and 10 years later the 1964 civil rights and 1965 voting rights acts would finally end the American civil war.
But Rosa Parks retreated into her private life. She had turned a private moment into a quiet expression of outrage, and then she stepped back - for the rest of her life. Occasionally, of course, she would accede to a historian’s interview or step forward to accept an award.
That private moment has to be seen in context. There is always context: personal, political, historical. Ms. Parks and her husband had been longtime members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. They had attended a summer seminar on civil disobedience. Ms. Parks acted out of long-nurtured conviction that something had to be done. That afternoon, in the waning Alabama sunlight, Rosa Parks decided she would be one who would do it.
Last week Alabama, where she had been jailed, mourned her. Detroit, her adopted home, mourned her. And she lay in state in the nation’s Capitol while all who care about the American promise of liberty and equality mourned her.
A private moment turned into an expression of national pride.
Unfortunately, it can work the other way. I first met Galen Fox a quarter century ago. He was a member of the United States Foreign Service, seconded to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. He called me up; he wanted to talk about Hawaii politics.
We met, talked, met again, talked anew. Galen was impressive; he was smart, worldly, broad-gauged in his thinking - and fascinated by Hawaii’s politics.
Soon thereafter he left the diplomatic service and went to work as an aide to Mayor Frank Fasi - then to the state Department of Business and Economic Development. In 1996, he ran as a Republican for an open house seat in Waikiki. I was enthused about a candidate of Galen’s caliber running for the Legislature, and - to the disgust of a vociferous Democrat running against him - I gave him a couple of inches in a column.
Galen represented the moderate face of Hawaii Republicanism, the face that Linda Lingle would win the governorship with in 2002. While he was certainly a partisan, Galen always preferred cool reason over heated rhetoric.
Sometime last December on a flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, in a private moment, Galen Fox did something very stupid. According to the judgment of the court, he groped a young woman who was sleeping in the seat next to him.
Who knows why? Drink? Divorce? Depression? A 62-year-old-man’s lechery? How can it be explained, save by pleading “not guilty” or “momentary lunacy?”
In a private moment, Galen destroyed his political career and his reputation. It is difficult to imagine how he will retrieve them. And that’s a shame. For again, this shameful private moment must be seen in context.
Since his resignation announcement last week, I’ve read not a single negative word from anyone in his district about Rep. Fox. That doesn’t surprise me. Galen served his constituents well, and he brought intelligence and good sense to his post as minority leader of the House Republicans - a position he gave up soon after charges were brought against him in Los Angeles earlier this year.
Galen was a good man - is a good man - who in a private moment did something very stupid.
It happens every day, to people in both private and public life. A gubernatorial aide asks a prospective appointee to the state House: “Is there anything in your past that would embarrass the governor or her administration?” In a moment, Bev Harbin answered “No.” She now holds an office in which she has the trust of neither the governor who appointed her, nor her majority colleagues, nor her constituents.
A stupid, selfish response brings an empty victory.
Private acts such as Harbin’s and Fox’s make us value Rosa Parks’ even more.
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