I have written a good deal about Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a conservative Republican who has broken with the tendency of most in Congress to simply recite talking points.
Chaffetz is a throwback to the House and Senate members of old, who arrived in Washington with partisan attachments and ideologies but not with straitjackets. There can be no doubt of his conservatism, or of his Republicanism. Yet, Chaffetz does not merely echo conventional conservative or Republican wisdom.
He says things. Controversial things.
That makes him a bit of a rarity in Congress: an interesting, and perhaps useful, member.
When a member of Congress is willing to speak boldly on big issues -- as Chaffetz did when he suggested in late November that it might be time to bring the troops home from Afghanistan -- he or she is likely to take some hits.
The congressman was asked recently about reopening an investigation into the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Chaffetz expressed sympathy with the activist from the group We Are Change Utah, which argues that what happened on 9/11 "was a false-flag terror attack, that the buildings came down with internally placed demolition..."
After hearing the activist's argument for an investigation "to find out why it was done and who was behind it," Chaffetz responded: "I appreciate good Americans being vigilent."
Chaffetz also noted that he has met with Steven Jones, one of the leading advocates of the "9/11 Truth" movement. Chaffetz said Jones had done "interesting work."
Here's the actual exchange:
Q: (Do you favor) a reopening into the investigation of 9/11?
CHAFFETZ: Well there's a lot we still need to learn. Of course we want to look into that issue, look at every aspect of it... Who was the BYU professor?... Steve Jones, yeah I've met with him. He's done some interesting work.
Q: Have you given much thought to the possibility it was a false flag terrorist attack on 9/11?
CHAFFETZ: Well I know there's still a lot to learn about what happened and what didn't happen, we should be vigilant and continue to investigate that, absolutely.
The reports of what Chaffetz said earned him quick criticism and ridicule, mostly from liberal bloggers and radio and television hosts.
This controversy is reminiscent of one that, ultimately, forced veteran environmental activist Van Jones to resign a White House position as Special Advisor for Green Jobs at the Council on Environmental Quality.
Before his resignation, Jones was attacked for weeks on television and radio by Glenn Beck for having signed, many years earlier, a petition calling for reopening the 9/11 investigation. Beck said Jones had signed a "9/11 truther" petition and had thus involved himself with "truthers" who he described as "truly disturbed people... a 'destroy the government, scorched Earth' kind of people."
Even when Jones made it clear he was not a "truther," he was still attacked in a manner that dismissed his explanations.
That was unfair.
We should all hope that Chaffetz is treated more fairly than was Van Jones.
That ought to be the end of it.
I have never bought into the notion that George Bush and Dick Cheney hatched an elaborate conspiracy to attack the United States, nor even that they might have "let it happen." As someone who has interviewed both Bush and Cheney, and who has written books on them, I never developed a high enough opinion of either man to even imagine them as evil masterminds. They are mundane mandarins with long histories of bungling their responsibilities in the private and public sectors.
I am quite certain that Van Jones understands this, just as I am quite certain that Jones was mischaracterized and irresponsibly attacked even when he had clarified his views.
I am quite certain that Jason Chaffetz understands this, and I genuinely hope that the congressman is not mischaracterized and irresponsibly attacked now that he has clarified his views.
My sense is that Chaffetz will survive politically.
But I fear that this controversy will cause one of the most outspoken and independent conservatives in the House -- a member who actually thinks for himself and who says what he thinks -- will begin to trim his sails.
That's the problem with the gotcha politics that piles on politicians and public figures who have made controversial or unsettling statements.
Leading activists, White House aides, members of Congress make lots of statements, write lots of articles, sign lots of petitions, attend lots of meetings. Mistakes and misstatements happen. Active citizens and officials evolve their opinions and their ways of stating them.
What is important, when a controversy arises, is that the subject of that controversy be allowed to clarify things. The point is to determine what a Van Jones or a Jason Chaffetz really thinks -- not what they did years ago or said in a quick exchange with a constituent.
The discourses of democracy need to be freewheeling and adventurous. Those involved need to know that they can speak freely, that they can speak boldly, and that they can do so without being mischaracterized.
There are plenty of issues on which Jason Chaffetz and I disagree.
But the congressman from Utah contributes far more to the discourse than most. I don't want him to start watching his every word, like the worst Democratic and Republican politicians. I want him to be outspoken, and so should everyone who believes, as did Thomas Jefferson that "Nothing but good can result from an exchange of information and opinions between those whose circumstances and morals admit no doubt of the integrity of their views."