The biggest problem with U.S. Rep. Charles Canady is this: He's a nice guy. The Democratic gadfly from Massachusetts, homosexual-rights proponent Rep. Barney Frank, complained last August, "When you have cause to disagree with someone across the aisle, the loonier the advocate the better." But Mr. Canady, Florida Republican and shepherd of bills to prohibit partial-birth abortions and restructure affirmative action, just doesn't look like a kook. He's gentle and open-faced, clear about his convictions without flying into bombast.
Apparently this was giving Mr. Frank fits. His best spin on the problem: "What we're finding with Canady is that you don't have to yell and scream and jump up and down to be extreme." No matter the pleasant demeanor, Mr. Frank implied, anyone with these views is an extremist. "Can't get used to soft-spoken extremists," Mr. Frank said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Frank has discovered that even an "extremist" can be useful. The two unlikely allies combined forces to keep debilitating amendments out of a lobby reform bill, breaking what Mr. Canady calls a "gridlock" that had stalled Congress for 40 years. A framed assemblage, including a copy of the bill, a photo of President Clinton signing it, and a presidential pen, hang on the wall opposite Mr. Canady's desk, and he proudly points it out to a visitor.
It was the way in which Mr. Canady worked on the cause of keeping the lobby reform bill clean that co-workers say is his most distinguishing characteristic: He worked hard. Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, agrees. When shipped a thick stack of medical documents relating to partial-birth abortion, Mr.Canady read them closely enough to phone Mr. Johnson back with questions about a possible contradiction he'd spotted. Mr. Canady "really wants to get his facts straight," says Mr. Johnson. It's a degree of diligence-and reasonability-not expected of extremists.
On a recent visit to Mr. Canady's office no bomb-making apparatus or Klan banners were in sight. The congressman appeared so consistently nice-responsive, thoughtful, open-that the frustration of opponents seeking kookiness could be easily understood. We began with a question about typically "extreme" legislation introduced by Mr. Canady, a bill to ban a form of late-term abortion, in which the abortionist uses a tube to literally suck the brains out of a living partly born child. Mr. Canady's bill to ban this procedure passed Congress, then was vetoed by President Clinton on April 10. At the time of this interview, the vote to override the veto was still unscheduled.
In the meantime, Mr. Canady and his colleagues are working to correct pro-abortion "misinformation" about the grisly procedure concerning "the supposed impact of anesthesia administered to the mother on the children in partial-birth abortion."
WORLD: Were they still claiming that it kills the baby first? I thought that had been refuted.
Canady: Oh, it has been refuted, but so far as I can tell a forthright correction has never been issued by the people who made the false claim. One of the interesting things about that particular misstatement is that it raises a real question about their loudly proclaimed concern for the health of women. By disseminating that false information, they endangered the health of women, because it's quite understandable that women who heard that the administration of anesthesia to a pregnant woman could kill the unborn child would be reluctant to undergo any medical procedure requiring anesthesia while they're pregnant. And then when the falsehood was pointed out to them, they did not think to recant the lie. But that's par for the course in the abortion debate.
WORLD: By delaying action on the veto override, do you feel that time is on your side?
Canady: I think the more people focus on this, the more public opposition will grow to it, and the more support will grow for the bill.
WORLD: Does it surprise you that abortion advocates didn't cut their losses and renounce this procedure?
Canady: They support partial-birth abortion because they have an unwavering, absolute, ideological commitment to permitting abortion under any circumstances, for any reason or no reason, and using any procedure imaginable. The believe that abortion should be given that kind of sacrosanct status in the law and they are unwilling to do anything that will impinge on the absolute right to abortion in any way.
I think this is strictly driven by ideology. The truth is, this is a procedure performed by a handful of people-we don't know how many-but it's not a procedure that most abortionists use. It's by no means a mainstay of the industry. But it's their concern that if one procedure is restricted in any way, other restrictions will follow.
WORLD: That's a big logical jump. They have tremendous confidence in the power of the pro-life movement.
Canady: More than I do! There's almost a paranoid attitude on the part of some of the pro-abortion movement. If you listen to them, you would think that with the passage of the partial-birth abortion ban we would see the whole legal edifice based on Roe v. Wade and Casey disintegrate. Would that it were so, but that is not gonna happen. Our progress on this issue will come over an extended period of time, and it will not be easy.
WORLD: You've recently joined the board of CareNet, a chain of pregnancy care centers. Why are you interested in that mission?
Canady: I think that the pro-life movement has to focus a large part of its energy on saving babies directly through crisis pregnancy ministries. We're never going to change the law on abortion in this country unless we convince more Americans that the destruction of unborn children is unjust. I think that's a task we have to go about one by one, and we can do that through crisis pregnancy ministries. It answers a problem by affirming life, rather than destroying life. We have to recognize that there are problems, but the answer is not to kill a child, but to provide support.
WORLD: Some people suggest that this cultural approach should be the only approach, that the Republican party platform should be changed and essentially back off looking for legislative reform. What do you think of that?
Canady: I don't agree with that. I think we need to approach this issue on as many fronts as we can find. The law that's in place today results in the wholesale destruction of unborn children, and we have a responsibility to speak out against that injustice. We have a responsibility to do other things, but we cannot abandon our responsibility to stand up for a legal order that respects the sanctity of life. That is one of the main reasons that we have government, so that we can have a structure of order and safety and peace. That structure is being disrupted by the wholesale destruction of unborn children.
WORLD: You have a bill to reform affirmative action. Would you categorize the current state of law in that area as an area of overreach?
Canady: I simply think it's wrong for the government to sort and classify its citizens by race and gender, and then award and deny benefits to individuals because they are in one race or gender group or another.
WORLD: Don't affirmative action laws compensate for things that have been out of balance?
Canady: I don't think so, because the system of preferences based on race and gender is a system which rewards people who cannot demonstrate that they have suffered from any act of discrimination, and penalizes people who have been guilty of no wrongdoing. There is no remedial purpose that is tied to the way the program is implemented. What we need to do is focus on treating people as people rather than dividing them into groups.
WORLD: You would classify yourself as favoring integration and opposing segregaton.
Canady: Absolutely. I think it's important for us to recognize that we have a shameful history in this country of racism and discrimination. Going back to slavery and the aftermath of the civil war, we have much to be ashamed of. However, we also have to recognize that in recent years we have been making progress, and have been moving forward in overcoming the prejudice and discrimination that has been part of our history. The question before us is, how do we further advance that goal? I simply do not believe that we will advance the goal of eliminating prejudice and discrimination by having the federal government in the business of dividing us up into groups based on race and gender.
The system sends a message, sometimes not so subtle, that individuals in the favored groups can't quite measure up to the standard that other people have to meet. That is a terrible message for the government to send to anyone.
WORLD: You're known as a committed Christian. How does your faith guide and sustain you in this difficult job?
Canady: One of the things that's been a great encouragement to me is the fellowship of like-minded people. There are many believers in the Congress, and I've found that to be a real source of inspiration and encouragement. It helps us keep our perspective in the midst of the whirl of activity around here. There are a lot of groups like this around here; I'm a member of a group of four that meets Wednesday mornings at 7:30.
WORLD: Any specific incidents where something you've talked about in the group, prayed through, or a Scripture you studied, guided your decisionmaking?
Canady: We talk about that, although more frequently we focus on what we need to do to perform our jobs in a way that's consistent with our beliefs in terms of the way we treat people, the way we react to situations-sometimes those are more difficult than the policy issues. We're here to encourage one another to live consistent lives; that's a struggle for us just as it is for everyone. This is a highly charged environment, and there are pressures here that aren't unique, but can be intense.
WORLD: So most important is how you treat people every day, whether you respond lovingly to an opponent who's being unfair and lying.
Canady: That's an ongoing task, and for us to be effective on the policy issues we need to be effective in the ways we deal with each other, and we need to be good people.
Which brings us back to the beginning. Rep. Canady is going to go on driving his opponents nuts, but not because of his "extremist" legislation. His real weapon is this: prayer and fellowship aimed at cultivating the ability to behave like "good people." Mr. Frank's worst fears are valid: "Nice guys" who pray and fight fair can turn the world upside down.