Saturday, December 3rd, 2011...1:28 pm

Guber Alles: A hot, wet, steamy pool of brownback

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Twenty years ago I drew the ire of the governor of Virginia.

I was an instructor at a public community college (the second lowest genus on the higher education food chain), and L. Douglas Wilder was the governor. Virginia’s economy had slipped into recession, and the US was in the midst of a presidential primary campaign. The Great Wilder, testing his presidential prospects, was traveling around the country making “policy” appearances using travel resources of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I wrote to the governor from my home address telling him that I had voted for him and that I looked to him for fiscal leadership when the state treasury was strapped, but that his travel for personal political purposes did not strike me as leading by example. A few weeks later I received the usual and accustomed letter thanking me for sharing my views.

But then several months later at a college picnic, the college’s president, a man of integrity and courage, chatting with me said, “Oh, by the way, Tom, your letter to the governor caused a bit of a stir in Richmond.” He went on to explain that the secretary of education for the commonwealth, James W. Dyke, Jr., called him to ask, What are you going to do about this employee?

My college’s president asked the secretary of education if I had written on college stationery (I hadn’t) and asked if I had written anything threatening (I hadn’t). So the president said, It sounds to me as though Mr. Long is exercising his constitutional right to free speech, and there is nothing that I am going to do about him.

I learned an important lesson: that speech, though free, may have a cost, as well as about the difference between one executive’s courage and integrity on the one hand, and another’s thin-skinned vindictiveness on the other hand.

I’m reminded of this event in my own life two decades ago (but under very similar circumstances as today) by the story of Emma Sullivan. Ms Sullivan, a high school student in Kansas, infamously tweeted on her Twitter account after a field trip to the state capital of Kansas. It is phrased in the usual vulgarly snarky idioms of adolescents and young adults: “Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot.” (I don’t know what she actually said to him or if she said anything to him at all; this tweet may just be the usual trash talk to impress friends.)

Brownback’s official court minions, ever vigilant, monitor Twitter, and finding this tweet, contacted Ms. Sullivan’s Shawnee Mission East High School Principal Karl Krawitz, who called her into his office to reprimand her. According to Ms. Sullivan in the Huffington Post, the principal “laid into me about how this was unacceptable and an embarrassment . . . He said I had created this huge controversy and everyone was up in arms about it … and now he had to do damage control.” She also told NBC Action News that she was asked to write the governor a formal apology. Subsequent reports indicate that she has been the object of bullying by fellow students.

The Kansas governor’s director of communication, Sherriene Jones-Sontag, is charged with the daily monitoring of any negative comments about Brownback on social-media websites. Having rid the high schools of science, this is where Kansans spend their education time and energy.

I imagine that Ms. Sullivan has learned an important lesson about adults: We are often feckless, and will devour our young to save our skins.

My hope is that “brownback” will become a common noun as “santorum” has done: brownback, (noun): the liquified fecal discharge of the gutless , usually when scared (see colostomy, colostomy bag).

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