06/14/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2014

'You Have to Work with A**holes. That's Democracy. We, in Our Wisdom, Elected Them.'

My annual calendar has two special days, each celebrating a special form of courage. Both, environmentally appropriately, are in the spring. One, in late April, is the Goldman Environmental Prize, recognizing the courage that comes from not flinching when a tank rolls at you. Sadly, too often the tank keeps rolling -- but when it doesn't, the world pivots.

The other form of courage is when all your adversary wants is for you to remain crouched down, waiting for the attack -- while he rolls up the territory he has already grabbed. That kind of courage -- the courage to attack when it is easy to stand-pat -- is the theme of the annual June Solidarity PAC lunch, nominally honoring George Miller but really the gathering of his friends. Since George is retiring after 40 years in Congress, we have been warned this will be our last chance to gather -- but Leon Panetta, the speaker of honor, throws cold water on that idea: "If you think this is really your last chance to support George, you are truly foolish."

My headline quote is from one of the speakers -- honoring Chatham House rules; I won't say which one. But it's so telling. How much grit does it take to get up every morning, and walk into the well of the House of Representatives where Eric Cantor is now viewed as a Republican in Name Only, and still try to get things done? The emotional high point of Miller's remarks is the tribute he pays to Congressman Mike Thompson for his unwillingness to give up on the idea that ending gun violence is an important American project. Miller says the days after Isla Vista were his low point in the House. Miller says the days after Isla Vista were his low point in the House: "People keep dying. We keep having moments of silence. I am tired of moments of silence." But Thompson keeps fighting.

And it's revealing, and utterly immiscible with the current D.C. echo chamber, that Miller closes out 40 years first with a tribute to his family, and then with a tribute to the deeply blue Northern California Congressional delegation for their dogged work for veterans. He goes on to honor his mentors -- his father, who was a California State Senator first, and told him that a politician's job is "to keep killing the snakes," then California Senate Pro Tem and later San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, who gave his life as part of America's social revolution, and finally San Francisco Congressman Phillip Burton. Burton once sent Miller to find out why a liberal Democratic Congresswomen from a strongly pro-labor Midwestern City had voted against one of Phil's bills. Miller talked to the Congresswomen, and asked her to think it over. When she did, she told him, "I had a dream last night. Jesus was talking to me. He said I should vote for Phil's bill -- once I got the funding for my day care center."

She got the funding. That's what today was about.

Panetta gets the "fire them up" role. He relishes it, calling for "An American Renaissance," and saying the choice remains ours: "You just can't give up. That's the essence. You can't give up." And he goes on to make a very telling point, one that few of the Democratic Presidents of my lifetime have mastered: "In a democracy, you either govern with leadership or by crisis. Crisis works. But ordinary people pay the price."

It's a more complex form of courage than the sort that led Ken Sara Wiwa to stand up to the Nigerian military. But in ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary times, it may be more important. Getting off the defensive when the odds seem against you may be harder than standing your ground when the only alternative is to flee.


A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."