A Tribute to Mickey Leland
MICKEY Leland was found Sunday on a desolate mountainside in western Ethiopia, near the Sudanese border. Surrounded by the wreckage of the two-engine plane lies the body of the Texas representative. Not a typical memorial to a politician. But, as the ever-so-trite saying goes, he was not your typical politician.
Why does Mickey Leland's death bother me so much? What made him different from his colleagues in Washington? Did he work harder for his causes? Was he a visionary, not limited by the traditional boundaries of governmental concern? Did he just care more? Simply put, yes.
When I first heard Leland speak in 1984 to a student group, nothing came across so much as that he cared. He really cared. In the middle of the Reagan Revolution, he tried to convey to a bunch of upper-middle class kids the importance of working for others, those who were less fortunate than we were.
He talked to us about poverty and ghettoes and trying to give people a chance. He told us what we could do and what our government could do, but wasn't doing, to help the poor.
THAT was before he travelled to the Sudan, before he saw real deprivation on a societal scale, embodied in one emaciated young girl. Later on, he recalled she was "a skeleton of a person with a thin layer of brown skin on her, who had just a faint breath of life in her."
As he turned to ask a worker about her," she died. I can see her face right now. Every day I see her face."
Leland could never forget her face.
Unlike many of us, who would merely file such a memory away under the heading "Tragedies Witnessed," Leland decided to do something about it. Despite the apathy of his fellow representatives, despite the chronically poor relations between the United States and Ethiopia, he formed the Select Committee on Hunger in the House and managed to appropriate $800 million for famine relief in that African nation. How many lives that $800 million has saved is unknown, possibly tens of thousands, but that was still not enough for Leland, who continued looking for solutions to the global problem of hunger.
Because of Leland's universally admired humanitarian work, accolades for him have cut across ideological barriers. President Bush said Leland was "engaged in a noble cause--trying to feed the hungry." Sen. Ted Kennedy said, "Mickey Leland died as he lived, on a mission of mercy and hope for victims of poverty, injustice, racism and hunger. Wherever suffering people existed on our planet, Mickey Leland wanted to be there to help. He represented not only the people of Houston, but the best in America and all humanity."
Larry Irving, a former aide, said, "He could not see kids anywhere in the world and not try to better their lives. You remember and I remember all the hoopla about Ethiopia four years ago.
How many people are still focused on Ethiopia? How many people are going to spend a week of their only extended vacation trying to save some lives? But that's Mickey."
RECENTLY, and seemingly always, Congress has drawn criticism for its lack of principle. From one scandal to the next, the institution has lumbered along, completely out of touch with the values of the people.
In such a dismal setting, it is easy to overlook someone like Mickey Leland, who was not molesting children or lining his pockets or taking funds from the public coffers for pork-barrel projects back home.
But because there are so few like Mickey Leland, we should never forget him.
In responding to critics who charged he didn't care about domestic concerns, Leland said "I am as much a citizen of this world as I am of my country. To hell with those people who are critical of what I am able to do to help save peoples' lives. I don't mean to sound hokey, but I grew up on a Christian ethic which says we are supposed to help the least of our brothers."
That's why he was going back to Ethiopia for the second time this year-- to save more lives. For him, there were no domestic concerns or foreign concerns, there were only human concerns. These human concerns drew his attention, to fix, to solve, to alleviate, to help.
And he would have continued to succeed in saving lives, had he lived.
ABOUT this time a year ago, when it looked like Lloyd Bentsen would be the next vice president, other representatives started calling him Senator Leland. He laughed when they did, knowing he would have to defeat two dozen other contenders for the vacant Senate seat. Yet, he stood an excellent chance, and his colleagues knew it.
I can only imagine what he might have accomplished. He was young, only 44, and an inspiration to me and so many others in a field which seems distinguished often only by its very venality. If public service is the noblest calling, Mickey Leland surely was one of the noblest called.
Just as he could never forget the face of the little girl whose tragic and unnecessary death he witnessed, I don't think I ever will forget the representative whose tragic and unnecessary death was a blow to all who work for human compassion and against injustice. May his memory inspire each of us to work for social justice and human dignity everywhere.