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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Staying grounded when life is fragile

When Tulsi Gabbard spoke at the annual Washington Policy Center dinner Friday evening in Spokane, it wasn’t a traditional keynote speech. The informal format suited a nontraditional politician.

Gabbard, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and former Congresswoman from Hawaii, appeared with former Republican Washington state legislator Melanie Stambaugh in a conversational setting for a gentle grilling.

If you read the Saturday online edition of The Spokesman-Review, her remarks were well-covered by Garrett Cabeza’s excellent front page reporting. I apologize to faithful newspaper readers for the overlap, but this was an important conversation crossing the political divide.

Gabbard has demonstrated a determination on a number of issues to ignore Democratic National Committee talking points and walk her own path. Stambaugh asked her how she kept her bearings in Washington, D.C. Gabbard, who enlisted after the 9/11 attacks and is still serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, credited her background in the military and experiences during three deployments. She described the sign on the gate of the compound during her first Iraq assignment, the last sign a unit would see before stepping out of the relative security of the medical unit compound. “Is today the day?” Life is a gift in a combat zone.

“Every single day serving in that medical unit, (I) was frankly confronted with the fragility of life and the human cost of war,” she said.

“Going from that experience and having that perspective on life and death, frankly, kept me grounded and focused in Washington, where unfortunately priorities are often pretty screwed up,” Gabbard continued. “Where people are placing a level of importance on really stupid things like, ‘Did I get invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner?’ ”

Since I wasn’t writing for a Friday deadline, I took the opportunity to chat briefly with Gabbard after the event. How many of today’s senators and representatives have that visceral understanding of the fragility of life and the human cost of war? Did the shared experience of World War II service, with or without combat, contribute to congressional civility in the 1950s and 1960s? Combat veterans like John F. Kennedy, Daniel Inouye, George H.W. Bush, Edward Brooke, Robert Dole and George McGovern knew the fragility of human life. Is there a connection between lack of military service and the dysfunctional Congress of today? Gabbard answered the question before I even finished speaking.

“Oh, yes, 70 to 80% of Congress had served in the 1950s, now it’s about 11%. Definitely makes a difference.”

It’s more than feeling mortal, it’s the ethos of service and an understanding that patriotism means being proud to wear the uniform even as politicians need to be held accountable. It’s about being willing to wade into battle in defense of an imperfect but optimistic country, with weapons or words.

And Gabbard has caused controversy with a number of her words over the past decade.

Asked about her endorsement of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 race, she described it as a protest to the “warhawk establishment led by Hillary Clinton” and a rebuke to the DNC. It became clear to her, then vice chair, that the DNC was playing favorites despite ostensibly having policy of neutrality in the primaries.

In 2019, Gabbard answered a presidential debate question with this: “Abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” Keeping abortion rare used to be a mainstream bipartisan position. Now toe-the-line Democrats, like Sen. Patty Murray, are pushed by extremists in control of the party to support legislation like the so-called Womens Health Protection Act, written to support nearly unlimited abortion with no rarity in sight.

When she tweeted in support of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law, she was jumped for supporting a Republican-sponsored bill. “Families are the foundation,” said Gabbard on Friday, citing the erosion of our moral foundation as the cause of the problems we keep putting Band-Aids on. She noted the controversy as a sign of the imbalance of power between government and the individual. “The fact that stating parents should raise their children, not the government, is a controversial statement in this country today is both hilarious and devastatingly frightening. Truly,” Gabbard said. “If we don’t take ownership and responsibility for our family, our community and our country, who will? We have to make our government reflective of our interests.”

The enthusiastic crowd appreciated her frankly unspun answers, but there was one question that wasn’t asked. Why is she still a Democrat?

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at

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