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ELECTION 2002: Mark Twain for Congress | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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ELECTION 2002: Mark Twain for Congress

Mark Twain was no fan of war, which he described as "a wanton waste of projectiles," and he nurtured a healthy disdain for anyone who suggested that patriotism was best displayed through enthusiastic support for military adventures abroad. The phrase "our country, right or wrong" was, he argued, "an insult to the nation."

But Twain's deepest disgust was reserved for politicians who played on fear and uncertainty to promote the interests of what would come to be called the military-industrial complex. Describing how Americans were frequently goaded into war by their leaders, Twain recalled: "Statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception."

Twain, a longtime leader of the old Anti-Imperialist League, uttered those words a century ago. But for opponents of George W. Bush's election year efforts to justify war with Iraq, they ring truer than most of what has been said by Republican or Democratic candidates in Tuesday's congressional contests.

So much truer, in fact, that some antiwar activists have decided to vote for Twain.

Never mind that the author of "The Innocents Abroad," "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" has been dead since 1910, nor even that "Mark Twain" is merely the pen name for the prolific Samuel Clemens. Voters in western Wisconsin will be casting ballots Tuesday for Mark Twain for Congress.

The Twain campaign was started in the old Mississippi River town of LaCrosse, where activists with the La Crosse Coalition for Peace and Justice were upset with US Representative Ron Kind, a Democrat who voted in October for the House resolution authorizing George W. Bush to wage a unilateral war against Iraq. Kind, a co-chair of the New Democrat Network, the congressional arm of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council, was the only one of five Democrats in Wisconsin's House delegation to vote in favor of the resolution. In fact, a pair of Wisconsin Democrats, Senator Russ Feingold and Representative Tammy Baldwin, were among the most outspoken congressional foes of the resolution. Baldwin was one of the chief organizers of opposition forces before the House vote on the Iraq resolution, which saw a majority of House Democrats oppose the president's position.

But Kind voted with a minority of House Democrats to give the president what Constitutional scholars have described as "unprecedented" war-making powers. Kind has said that, while he shares many of the reservations expressed by his constituents in regard to launching a war against Iraq, he thinks Congressional support for the president's position could cause Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to be more cooperative – thus making it possible to avoid war.

Kind's explanation has not gone down well with all his constituents in a sprawling district where antiwar demonstrations and meetings have been held in a number of communities. But Kind's foes in this fall's contest did not exactly wow peace activists. Republican Bill Arndt is a pro-Bush, pro-war conservative, while Libertarian Jeff Zastrow offers little in the way of a progressive alternative to Kind. "We didn't see any competition for Kind, and we wanted to let him know we are disappointed in him," explained Daniel Poler, a Coalition for Peace and Justice member.

So the peace activists decided to launch a write-in campaign for Mark Twain. "It's a protest against the government and candidates, Kind in particular, for not listening to those of us against a war in Iraq," declared Poler. In the local newspaper, he explained the simple logic of the campaign: "A write-in vote for ‘Mark Twain' will send a message to our representatives that we are very disappointed that our voices were not heard."

In a sense, Twain was a natural choice. The author visited towns on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, and wrote of them in his classic book, Life on the Mississippi. He even praised LaCrosse's "stately red brick buildings," a fact frequently mentioned in a city where the downtown is still made up of stately red brick buildings. Besides, Poler explained, in a city that prides itself on its river heritage, "(Twain's) name is easy to remember."

Kind is not exactly sweating the challenge. The congressman is confident that he will best the author and all other comers. And for good reason. LaCrosse is a reliably Democratic city, and Kind, a three-term incumbent, is popular in the surrounding rural counties that make up Wisconsin's Third Congressional District. Yet, the region has a long history of peace activism, going back to the days when it was a hotbed of support for former US Senator Robert M. La Follette and the Wisconsin Progressives who opposed World War I.

After the House vote on Iraq, a local activist paid $1,800 for space on a prominently placed billboard, which now reads, "No War with Iraq. Ron Kind Should Resign." And the LaCrosse Peace and Justice Coalition has organized a number of antiwar demonstrations, including one at a downtown park on November 2, where the Twain candidacy was promoted. Write-in campaigns rarely yield big tallies on election day. But the Twain campaign seems to be connecting with some voters; a pre-election letter to the editor from LaCrosse resident John Schaldach criticized Kind's vote on the Iraq resolution and noted that, "A friend e-mailed me today about a grassroots campaign to write in Mark Twain for the 3rd congressional district in protest of Ron Kind's vote on the resolution. In that (Kind) is facing extremely weak opposition, this seems like a safe year to register a protest vote."

Thus, Schaldach concluded, "On Nov. 5, I will vote Mark Twain."

Despite Schaldach's commitment, the Twain campaign remains an uphill effort. That's probably for the best, as the author never showed much interest in winning a place in the US Capitol. It was Twain who observed that: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress."

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