Let’s Talk about Political Courage: Governor Bullock and Barry Beach

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In a week that has provided us instructive examples about the nature of political cowardice, it’s worth taking a moment to mention an act of political courage: the decision by Governor Bullock to issue clemency to Barry Beach after his long, strange journey through the Montana judicial system.

Bullock’s act was an increasingly rare one in a world in which governors seem unwilling to issue pardons or give clemency because they’re afraid of potential political backlash. According to Governing, the trend in the United States is against clemency, and primarily because of political calculation:

By and large, the reason for the drop in the number of governors’ pardons since the 1960s is political, argues P.S. Ruckman, a professor of political science at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois, and author of the blog, Pardon Power. “Some governors think, ‘why should I do this? It won’t benefit me politically and it might hurt me.’ There’s some very crass political calculating going on,” says Ruckman, “and people suffer because of it.”

It would have been easier for Governor Bullock to follow that pattern, and to either refuse Beach’s request for clemency or wait until the end of his term in office to grant it. But the right thing and the easy thing are rarely the same, and Governor Bullock should be commended for his decision to free Mr. Beach.

And it would be a mistake to argue that granting clemency to Mr. Beach was a move that won’t hurt Governor Bullock politically. While the evidence seems to suggest that Mr. Beach was probably not guilty of the crime he was sentenced for, and his life outside of prison made it clear he is unlikely to break the law now, comment sections online are filled with attacks on Governor Bullock, and you can be certain that the Republican proxies will use his human, some might say Christian, act of generosity to attack him. Witness this strange Tweet from the Montana Business Leadership Council, which ostensibly exists to educate Montanan’s about right-wing perceptions on business issues:

I can almost already see the ad released from the increasingly desperate Gianforte campaign sometime next October, claiming that Governor Bullock coddles murderers. Republicans, who are long on claims of fiscal responsibility and Christian piety, are short on understanding the flaws of a penal system that punishes beyond reason and costs beyond measure. I’d like to hope that the release of Mr. Beach is the beginning of long conversation sorely needed in this state about the number of people we keep in prisons and jails for so long, and I think it might just become the catalyst for that discussion.

Some politicians in Montana bloviate endlessly about their own personal “leadership.” Thanks, Governor Bullock, for demonstrating it, not just talking about it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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Son of AnarchyDon PogrebaCarol StahlJC Recent comment authors
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JC

Comments like this: “Some politicians in Montana bloviate endlessly about their own personal “leadership.” Will assure that a needed conversation like this: “I’d like to hope that the release of Mr. Beach is the beginning of long conversation sorely needed in this state about the number of people we keep in prisons and jails for so long, and I think it might just become the catalyst for that discussion.” Will never happen. Dragging the Beach discussion immediately into a political debate will assure that nothing happens, but for the politicians to make it into another wedge issue. (If people see… Read more »

Carol Stahl
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Carol Stahl

With you all the way on this one, Don, and thank you for writing it.

Son of Anarchy
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Son of Anarchy

Such a good Gov. that he’s now searching for his third LT. Governor? This might be an easier win for Greg G in 2016 than I expected.

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