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An ambiguous legacy: North Carolina's James Forrester



James Forrester did some fine and noble things in his life, and he also took some hurtful, even hateful actions. In those ways, he was like nearly all of us. Ambiguity, humankind is your greatest medium. Unlike most of us, however, people with money and power — like Forrester, a Republican state senator from Gaston County who died Oct. 31 at 74 — have the wherewithal to do really good and really bad things.

The late senator last showed up in these pages when the N.C. legislature passed an anti-gay amendment to the state constitution, which will be up for popular vote in May 2012. I say "anti-gay" rather than "anti-same-sex marriage" because the amendment's wording would also deny legality to domestic partnerships and civil unions, endangering some couples' employment benefits and even hospital visitation rights. Forrester was the driving force behind the amendment and had been trying to get it on the ballot for 11 years before finally succeeding after the GOP took over the General Assembly.

At the time, we gave Forrester the nickname of the Ole Timey Sunday School Marm, so antiquated and time-warpish was his dreadful, anti-gay rhetoric. Around that time, Forrester, who was an M.D., had been accused of lying about his medical career in his online resume. Forrester said the mistakes were inadvertent, but there remained a strong whiff of entitled self-importance nonetheless. By then, he had already raised hackles across the state by spreading his homophobic fears publicly. He falsely claimed that the lifespan of gays was shorter than those of heterosexuals, and even referred to Asheville as "a cesspool of sin" because of its gay-friendly ambience.

Forrester came to the U.S. at age 11 from Aberdeen, Scotland, and soon fit right in to his new Southern surroundings, even paying for his Wake Forest University education by selling Bibles. He apparently also absorbed a way of thinking that was common in the South at that time. It's a mindset I saw at work while growing up in my small Carolina hometown, but the viewpoint goes back to the days of the antebellum-landed gentry — a worldview that mixes an almost sentimental compassion for those in need with a fierce authoritarian bent, particularly on Bible-derived "moral issues."

Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, said he's not sure the mindset I'm talking about is primarily a Southern thing, and he rightly noted that "Andrew Carnegie worked the same way, as well as the Rockefellers and Henry Ford." He can, and did, however, explain why that particular worldview is powerful in the South.

"There's a strong bedrock in this area of folks that are brought up on a way of looking at the Bible stories that supports the notion that 'you need a strong father,'" said Hanchett, "and that you also need compassion for 'the least of these.' It's a view that makes deep sense for people who are raised in that evangelical Protestant world."

Forrester, to this writer, seemed a modern-day representative of those traditional Southern ruling-class attitudes — attitudes that, as Forrester showed, are taking much longer than expected to die out.

As a state senator, Forrester played a leading role in improving health care and the state's Medicaid program, and passing protections for people in HMOs. He also led the way in stopping "drive-thru" mastectomies and deliveries, in which insurance companies would practically push women out hospital doors during a particularly vulnerable time. These were important, even progressive, measures that benefited many North Carolinians, and earned Forrester praise from the decidedly liberal N.C. Justice Center.

A stellar guy, right? Yes, unless you were a homosexual in North Carolina who wanted equal rights; then, Forrester's compassion flipped and its underside of prejudice took over, spewing vitriol that could create very bad consequences for large numbers of N.C. citizens.

Here is where ambiguity piles on top of ambiguity. Yes, it's "understandable" that Forrester adopted the prevalent mindset of the area he moved to as a child, and we can even understand how it led to a very ambiguous political career. At the same time, his over-the-top homophobia — he seemed to delight in insulting gays and lesbians — was reprehensible and, as my country-ish grandmother would say, just plain ignorant.

So, in the spirit of ambiguity, I'll let you pick the way the last sentence in this column is phrased. Both are correct, so either will do.

A. Now that he's gone, we can't ignore the backward, hateful actions Forrester took late in his career, but that doesn't mean we can't also acknowledge that he made some helpful, positive contributions.

B. We acknowledge that Forrester made some helpful, positive contributions to health care for the poor in this state, but that doesn't mean we can ignore the backward, hateful actions that dominated the latter days of his political career.

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