Speaking Truth to Folly

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Charlotte, NC -- Leaving Washington, DC, on Wednesday night, I saw one of the most heartening examples of American exceptionalism. I was going through security at Dulles Airport, and right ahead of me was the unmistakable presence of Representative, and former Presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich. We shook hands and said hello. But there was, evidently, something metallic in Dennis's luggage, so I sailed on through while a member of the U.S. Congress had to go through extra screening -- and whatever we may think of the technical deftness of the TSA, I think the fact that a former Presidential candidate is treated like anyone else is one of the great things about this country. And no, I don't think that Dennis's politics had anything to do with him being singled out -- otherwise, I would have been toast.

Another example of American greatness showed up in Charlotte the next day. The audience was the President of the United States. The speaker was Harry Taylor: real-estate broker, Sierra Club community activist, and Move-On member.

Here's Harry's message to the President:

"While I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges, to try to preclude me from breathing clean air and drinking clean water."

I've sat in meetings in the White House and watched mayors of very large cities squirm and tremble at trying to tell the President of the United anything he didn't want to hear. So for Taylor to speak out, in an audience which he had to know would boo him (it did), took extraordinary courage. Bush, to his credit, hushed the booers down and let Harry have his say.

But the real hero is Harry Taylor.

In my view Taylor joins another Sierra Club member, Ed Hall, the Portland fire fighter who volunteered with other first responders at Ground Zero and then, while being thanked by Bush at the Portland Airport a month later, told the President not to drill the Arctic.

Harry Taylor's comments to the President are all over the wires today: "President Bush isn't used to tongue-lashings, but he got a scolding Thursday from a North Carolina man who told the president that he should be ashamed of himself."

Indeed, Taylor's comments were strong enough and bold enough that they cast a pall over the President's entire swing on behalf of his policies.

So who is Harry Taylor -- beyond being a real-estate broker and a great American? Well, he's 61, and our staff in Charlotte describe him as "affable and articulate." He's the kind of person who shows up at phone banks, and at events like the Club's "walk backwards on mercury" rally. In 2004, he worked to get his neighbors out to vote.

And he had some really amazing things to say today when we talked to him about his courage in speaking up to the President of the United States:

"I'm just astonished at the reaction. It's been overwhelming. My anxiety level is increasing, and I feel like it's the start of something instead of the end.

"When I voted for Al Gore against George Bush the first time he ran, I made a committed decision inside myself that my votes were going to be with the environment. My final acid test was that I was going to cast my votes for environment. Because it is going to be here a lot longer than I am going to be.

"I didn't even like Al Gore, and I thought that Bush was a likeable person but his environmental record is so terrible. And it's been heartbreaking to see him win again, because of the environmental record, because of the war, Iraq...

"I never walk into a voting booth if I don't know how I'm voting. I try to study the issue; the issues are easier to vote on than the candidates...

"I love the quote the Sierra Club has on their posters: that the world wasn't given to us by our parents but borrowed from our children. That's where I place my convictions, and that's where I intend to place my convictions for the rest of my life."

It's enough to make you proud to be an American.