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Rob Portman, Nancy Reagan and the Empathy Deficit

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Empathy, noun: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another

When Supreme Court Justice David Souter announced his resignation in the spring of 2009, President Obama told a press conference that he would look for nominees who had the capacity for empathy. As he told the press corps: "I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people's hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes."

Needless to say that statement was denounced by a number of conservatives. It's easy to see why conservatives should be so suspicious of empathy: it has the tendency to dissolve their petty prejudices and loosen up their unyielding dogmas.

The most recent example: Ohio's Republican Senator Rob Portman, whose conservative credentials include a stint in the Bush administration's budget office where he played his part in creating the fiscal mess we find ourselves in now.

Portman has grabbed national attention as one of the most conservative legislators to "flip-flop" on the question of marriage equality. First he was against it - indeed, he represents a state in which voters amended the state constitution to forbid gay marriage - and now he supports it.

The reason for this change of heart is simple and straightforward: Portman's own son is gay, and now that the issue has come home to him it is no longer an abstraction. Harder to hate when the object of your bigotry isn't some hypothetical other, but the child you've loved since the moment you met him.

But before the applause for Senator Portman grows too enthusiastic, let's also note that his embrace of marriage equality reveals a fundamental failure of empathy in the first place. After all, we ought to assume that if not for his gay son, Portman would still oppose gay marriage.

Indeed, the whole question of gay equality might be several years further along were it not for another failure of empathy, this time on the part of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. Powell was certainly no dogmatic conservative, and his tenure on the bench was distinguished. But in 1986 he cast the deciding vote in the Bowers v. Hardwick upholding Georgia's anti-gay sodomy law.

While the case was pending, Powell said to one of his clerks, "I don't believe I've ever met a homosexual." His clerk responded, "Certainly you have, but you just don't know that they are." Powell's clerk, in fact, was gay and Powell later expressed regret at his decision in that case.

Powell's casual dismissal of gay rights stands in marked contrast to the unwavering support he gave to women and their right to reproductive choice. His belief in a woman's right to choose grew from an experience Powell had while he was a lawyer in Richmond. The girlfriend of one of Powell's office staff had become pregnant, the couple tried to abort the fetus themselves and the young woman wound up bleeding to death. Powell, shaken by this grisly event, persuaded prosecutors not to file charges against the young man, and once on the Supreme Court he championed women's right to choose so that they would not die in circumstances like that.

On both issues, however, Powell's legal opinions were rooted in the accidental encounters of his own experience, and perhaps his legal opinions might have been different had he had different experiences. We are all products of these accidents of fate, but our laws should not depend on them. Which is why empathy is so essential: Empathy is that human quality that allows us to transcend the limited world of our own experience and to understand a much wider range of the human experience.

We are told not to judge others until we've walked a mile in their shoes, but we frequently do. These failures of empathy are more dangerous, though, in the politically powerful. Indeed, in the context of our current political and cultural debates no public figure had a greater empathy deficit than Ronald Reagan.

Though The Great Communicator oozed compassion in his public pronouncements, he did so with all the conviction of the actor he was. In his policies - and in his defense of them - he revealed over and over again an inability to understand beyond his own cosseted experience. Whether when he refused to acknowledge that anyone went hungry in his America, or when he held the aspirations of Central Americans in contempt, Reagan simply could not see past his own very blindered world.

One of the actions he took involved banning federal funding for medical research using fetal tissue. In the 1980s that research held the most promise for advances in treating diseases like diabetes, MS and Alzheimer's. The Christian right, to whom Reagan spent much time kowtowing, fulminated wildly against this research and succeeding in thwarting it. Fetal tissue was a generation ago what stem cell research became during the administration of George W. Bush.

So imagine the surprise when, in 2004, Nancy Reagan, her husband now lost in the fog of Alzheimer's, announced that she was lobbying to support federal funding of stem cell research. It was a moment both poignant and utterly hypocritical. The Reagans could not imagine that practical medical research ought to trump ideology until the issue became personal. A brave step in 2004 which revealed an utter failure of empathy over the previous 30 some years.

President Obama was right that empathy matters, and not just for judges. After all, we need legislators too who can imagine at least a little bit the plights and aspirations of people different from themselves.

Otherwise we're left hoping that one of Mitch McConnell's kids comes out of the closet, or that one of Senator Portman's children winds up unemployed and on food stamps. Perhaps then he'll rearrange his budget priorities.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government," (Oxford University Press).