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A Different Take on Mark McKinnon and Barack Obama

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Good Lord! I just read Jim Moore's post on Mark McKinnon saying he will resign from the McCain campaign if Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination.

Now, I've been behind closed doors on political campaigns when Ann Richards and Bob Bullock both chewed staff butt, and I have never witnessed or read the type of scalding Moore gave McKinnon -- ever.

This is tough to write, honestly, because I've always felt a little closer to McKinnon than he probably has to me. I've known both these guys for more than a decade, and Moore has passionately and eloquently penned what I'm afraid a lot of people are privately thinking.

This week, at the end of an email to a friend, I wrote: "P.S. You know McKinnon is working for McCain now (along with Phil Gramm)...ugh...Not to judge, but Lord, life really has its surprises, doesn't it?"

(For non-Texans, the reference to Gramm and life's surprises refers to McKinnon's job in 1984 as press secretary for the liberal Democrat Gramm beat in his first senate race.)

My friend, a former reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, knows my history with the Bushies. (I was the only press spokesman to work against Bush in both his gubernatorial races.) This guy, whose soul is as gentle and whose heart is as big as anyone I know, replied: "Judge McKinnon. Go ahead. Judge him. He has done great harm to the world."

I just can't. Here's why.

I met McKinnon during that 1984 campaign, when he was working against Gramm. I was still in my first job, a B-market political reporter for the Wichita Falls Record News. He was a rising star among Austin Democrats, working for a liberal state senator in the year of the Reagan landslide.

That whole campaign, McKinnon treated me like I was capitol bureau chief for the Associated Press. I don't mean he schmoozed and flattered my ego. I mean he treated me professionally and kept a dignified distance that showed the type of respect reporters at smaller papers seldom get from Austin insiders during a statewide campaign. I never forgot it.

Eight years later, when I was statehouse reporter for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the third largest paper in Texas at the time, I took on the insane task of organizing the Texas chapter of the National Lesbian-Gay Journalists Association.

It was tough in those days to convince gay reporters even to be seen coming to a meeting, much less joining the group. So when our board met in Austin, I asked some high profile, HETEROSEXUAL friends of mine to be part of a panel discussion on Texas media and politics, hoping it would draw a crowd.

I was shocked at the excuses I got, but two people stepped-up immediately: my dear friend Molly Ivins and Mark McKinnon.

They came and spoke from their hearts to a paltry audience of about a dozen nervous gay reporters and reassured us that decent people -- regardless of sexual-orientation -- would welcome the type of journalism our group was promoting: fair and accurate and portrayals of lesbian and gay people and the roles they play in their communities.

I never forgot that either.

There are plenty of other examples, but that is the Mark McKinnon I know. It's been a decade since I last saw him, but I remember that day -- unfortunately for the awkwardness and the sadness I felt afterward.

It was 1998, and I was communications director for the Quixotic campaign of the democratic gubernatorial candidate trying to unseat Bush in his re-election bid. There was a lot of talk even then that McKinnon might work for Bush if he ran for president. Of course, that was a little tough for me, since my job every day was to convince a Texas press corps eager to ravel with Bush on a presidential campaign plane that his re-election as governor wasn't a forgone conclusion.

It was mid-day at a Home Depot in North Austin. I was walking to my car and I looked up and there he was. As always, it was great to see him. We both smiled and said hello. Then, there was a silence. Neither of us knew what to say or how soon to move along.

Texas politics is full of tough people. Lloyd Bentsen was tough. So were Ann Richards, Henry B. Gonzalez and Barbara Jordan -- but they were all honorable.

It's also full of mean people, partisans on both sides who live every day to hurt others out of some sense that their side is right and anyone who disagrees with them is fair game for as much as they can dish out. I know, because in my time some of them came after me.

A lot of good people -- in and out of Texas -- have been rolled by the Bush political machine and its Democratic Party collaborators over the years -- beginning with the despicable and utterly false whisper campaign it ran in 1994 about Ann Richards' sexual orientation.

How can I not take it personal when my president announces he wants to amend the Constitution to keep me from ever marrying the person I love? What should I feel when that fails and he launches a cynical series of similar ballot initiatives to state constitutions designed solely to gin up turnout in swing states so he can win re-election?

There is anger out there among Democrats, especially in Texas, about what Bush has done to us and to this country. It's deep and it's real. Moore's post reads like a soulful essay drawn start-to-finish without a break. He's a man of deep conviction, and I respect him.

A lot can happen in nine months, but at least for now, Democrats seem to be poised to win this election. Obama's calls for change and an end to the bitter partisanship of recent years is part of the reason.

I've worried that many Obama supporters don't realize that when he says he wants to bring "everyone to the table" to find "a common solution" for our problems, that means giving a voice to the insurance companies, religious fundamentalists, the NRA and others who silenced us at every opportunity these last eight years -- and who likely won't return the favor if they win again.

I want my country back, and I'm honestly trying to figure out my part in all this -- whether our nominee is Obama or Hillary Clinton. What I can do to help that change happen? What does it take to end this partisan national nightmare?

Hey McKinnon, call me.

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