[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
It’s a tad late for these kind of year-end awards, but it’s worth noting that Senator Harry Reid has been chosen by my former blog-residence Times and Seasons as the Mormon of the Year. This was absolutely the right decision on their part–and as T&S is choosing not to open comments on the post, let me explain why right here.
If you care about or follow the business of the Bloggernacle at all, you’re probably already thinking that you don’t need my explanation: I’ve already described Reid as a “Mormon hero”, after all. But that praise had a very specific referent: the legislative act he accomplished–uniting 58 Democrats and 2 independents behind a heath care reform bill that they all agreed with in principle but which contained enough controversial particulars for each and every one of them to have a reason to vote against it–was a remarkable, even heroic accomplishment. (Whether the bill, or the law which will eventually result from it, is remarkable, much less heroic, is a different question, about which I have significant doubts.) More importantly, T&S itself didn’t choose Reid on the basis of his having accomplished anything remarkable or heroic (though no doubt many who read about their award will think that is the case); on the contrary, it chose Reid for one very simple reason: he made news.
Every year people whine about these year-end awards, and reasonably so: people look at Time Magazine’s awards (Ben Bernanke, with Stanley McChrystal, Chinese labor, Nancy Pelosi and Usain Bolt as runners-up), and they see in that an endorsement of a particular approach to the American economy which they either love/hate, or perspective on the war in Afghanistan, or an embrace of globalization, or a comment on reforms in the House of Representatives, or silly affection for the 100-meter dash. Why not whine? It’s all subjective, after all. But in the midst of all those subjective judgments, some invariably stand out, if only because more people, more money, more events, more possibilities are involved. Bernanke was at the heart, for better or worse, of changes in the American economy over the past year. Harry Reid, similarly, has been at the heart of the single largest act of social welfare legislation in more than 40 years. And, of course, he’s Mormon.
Whatever else Big Love-inspired jokes may convince you, Mormons are, statistically, a terribly insignificant minority in the United States; depending on what methodology you prefer, the number of people in America who publicly self-identify as members of the Mormon church ranges from anywhere from 3.1 to 5.7 million people–or, in other words anywhere from a little over 1% to a little under 2% of the American population. Common we are not. The Senate, of course, is hardly a equally representative institution, but discounting such Mormon-rich states as Utah, Idaho, or Arizona, that still makes it surprising that a Mormon–and not just any Mormon, but a Mormon Democrat, which is an even more vanishingly small minority–could rise to the top of the Senate majority…and then lead it through perhaps the most contentious and fraught legislative season in years.
He is, in short, big news: news because of what he’s done, and news because of who he is–a practicing and self-identifying member of a very small church which a political reputation that would seem a much more likely fit with implacable health care reform opponents like Senators Orrin Hatch or Bob Bennett, rather than a desperate and often rhetorically clumsy legislative operator who sees health reform as his crowning achievement. Last year T&S chose Mitt Romney, which was also appropriate: despite having washed out of the Republican presidential nomination campaign by early March, there was no other member of the church who made as much significant news as he did in 2009. This year, by contrast, no other member of the church–no, not even everyone’s favorite new media star/savant/nutcase, Glenn Beck, whose Mormonism is a source of delight to hundreds of thousands of my co-religionists, and a source of embarrassment to a few like me–has had a larger and more meaningful role in American public life than Harry Reid. As he looks forward to what will probably be a very difficult re-election battle (something which a lot of Democrats will likely be facing this November), he should take solace in every award he gets.