Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Keith Burris


Finding the courage to change your mind


U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, right, and his son, Will. Senator Portman recently said he had changed his mind and now favors same-sex marriage. He said his reversal on the issue began when he learned his son is gay.

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Like a lot of other people in Ohio, I am fascinated by Sen. Rob Portman’s change of heart on gay marriage. I read what he wrote about his journey. It is eloquent.

He begins with this simple, authoritative sentence: “I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.” Politicians almost never speak this directly.

Mr. Portman then goes on to discuss his former position on the matter, which he said was based on his faith. But, Mr. Portman says, he has since concluded that the Bible’s “overarching themes of love and compassion” trump all other religious convictions.

Finally, he says, he loves his son. Rob Portman changed his mind.

A recent New York Times article about Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper tells a similar story. Mr. Hickenlooper changed his mind about gun control.

The Democratic governor of a Western state and a sportsman, Mr. Hickenlooper initially reacted to the Aurora, Colo., shootings last summer with horror, but also skepticism. He reasoned that a madman who wants to kill a bunch of people will find a way to do it — if not with a gun, then with a homemade bomb or a Mack truck.

But as Mr. Portman is a sincere guy, Mr. Hickenlooper is an empirical guy. Is it possible, he wondered, to establish best practices in an area of social policy that is so clouded with emotion?

The governor met with scholars and analysts. They told him that while madmen do tend to be determined people, guns are the most accessible and quickest means of mass destruction. They advised that two things could slow or stop a madman: more-comprehensive background checks and a limit on high-capacity magazines.

When the governor learned that 30 to 40 percent of the police officers who have been slain in this nation were killed with the use of high-capacity magazines, it made an impression. When he learned that Jared Loughner, the gunman in the 2011 Tucson shootings, was subdued when he changed his ammo clip, that also sunk in.

Mr. Hickenlooper went from gun control skeptic to advocate. He now champions background checks and magazine capacity limits. He changed his mind.

The governor wasn’t an absolutist in either anti- or pro-gun control incarnation. He wasn’t a zealot, but a realist. Maybe that’s one of the keys to what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called “the courage to change” — an openness to reason, science, changing data, and circumstance. Without this openness, you get dysfunction. You get budget sequestration in place of governance.

When was the last time you heard House Speaker John Boehner say he changed his mind about anything? Asked whether he might change on gay marriage, as his fellow Ohio Republican Mr. Portman did, Mr. Boehner said it was unimaginable.

On the other hand we have Chuck Hagel, the new secretary of defense. Like most of his former colleagues in Congress, he initially backed the war in Iraq. But as time moved along and new evidence was revealed, he began to question and to change.

He became a critic of the war, his president, and his party, and he was hated for it.

Public servants such as Mr. Hagel are the antidote to gridlock.

A lot of us were wrong about the Iraq War. Working as an editorial page editor in Connecticut when the war began, I believed what the president and secretary of state told us all. I bought into the war argument: Sept. 11 had changed things forever, and terrorists only understand strength.

But a friend who was serving in Congress at the time, a Republican, made me think twice. This is not a time for bombs, he said. It’s a time to beef up intelligence and start making friends with some very dubious people.

War in Iraq, he argued, would weaken the United States in the long run. He, and my wife, changed my mind.

Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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