SINGING PRAISE TO THE CRAZED

To lead a national advocacy organization requires a robust constitution and a thick skin. Long hours, hate mail, public opprobrium: it all comes with the job. At best, your work is referred to as "narrow special interests." At worst, in the words of one TV huff-and-puff, you're "crazed militants." And just when the players in Washington have become known quantities, the minuet of democracy begins, and there are new faces and new agendas.

This is the situation in which the advocates for a variety of social causes--women's rights, gun control, legal abortion, affirmative action, abolishing the death penalty and the like--find themselves today. The new president stands in opposition to many of the positions they hold dear. But they have been here before, and they know how to deal.

Their victories over the past 25 years have been so incrementally successful that most Americans scarcely even notice unless they take the long view. Many of the ideals of equality that prompted the creation of the National Organization for Women in 1966 have been absorbed by our culture. Domestic violence has come out of the shadows, and gay men and lesbians have come out of the closet. Once unavailable, then unmentionable, even illegal, contraception is now a given for most American women. Corporations pay lip service to a diverse work force, and some of them even have one. When you consider the social landscape of this country, the advances made by so-called special-interest groups are enormous.

And because of that, the causes they espouse have slowly moved from being considered radical to being mainstream. Many of these are what might be called intimate issues, shaped by individual experience. "I lived in a gated community, and I thought I was immune to gun violence," says Mary Leigh Blek, a lifelong Republican who has taken over the leadership of the Million Mom March and whose 21-year-old son, Matthew, was killed with a Saturday night special. "Little by little we have learned that no family is immune to gun violence. That's how public opinion moves on this."

Many of the other issues these advocates have championed in years past have become so much a part of our daily lives that we act as if it has always been so. Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft distorted the record of a black state Supreme Court justice; the very fact that there was a black justice whose record could be distorted speaks to the accepted successes of civil-rights organizations. Sometimes the irony is rich. Parents who reject feminism drive their daughters to the Little League games that feminist action made possible. Sometimes the hypocrisy is even richer. As the old saw goes, everyone is against abortion until they need one.

The election of George W. Bush, who has embraced the death penalty and easy access to guns, who opposes affirmative action and abortion, has been seen as a setback for these causes. And it is. Where once the advocates hoped to move forward--on contraceptive coverage in health-insurance plans, on moratoriums on federal executions--now many hope simply to hold fast. Kate Michelman, who has led the National Abortion Rights Action League through four presidents, calls President Clinton "a bulwark" for her cause. Esta Soler, the executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund, says that Donna Shalala and Janet Reno were powerful advocates for her issues. But Soler is quick to mention that the sweeping Violence Against Women Act of 1994 had bipartisan support. And Richard Burr, who handles death-penalty appeals, says, "To date, the only member of the executive branch to impose a moratorium is a Republican," the governor of Illinois.

So they will try to build bipartisan support, concentrating on the precariously balanced Senate as well as the White House, looking to the states as well as the Feds. And with the new technologies and the communications boom, they can now go straight to the people to make the critical connection between personal experience and public policy. NARAL sent out 75,000 e-mails about the Ashcroft nomination. Magazine shows, talk fests, feature stories: all these have helped shift public response to the death penalty. The revelations about those wrongly convicted have eroded support and forced politicians to take a second look. Elisabeth Semel, who runs the Death Penalty Representation Project, quotes Thurgood Marshall: "The opinions of an informed public would differ significantly from those of a public unaware of the consequences and effects of the death penalty."

A parade of advocates appeared to oppose the Ashcroft nomination. As usual, they will be described as losers upon his confirmation. And, as usual, they will have been responsible for a significant victory instead. The nomination looked ready to sail through on Ashcroft's reputation as a nice man until senators were confronted, constituents mobilized, records resurrected. The hearings became heated, and as a result, the nominee experienced the most profound confirmation conversion in memory. A lifelong opponent of abortion and gun control, Ashcroft said he would not follow the lead of Republican attorneys general before him and seek reversal of Roe v. Wade, and that he would defend legal challenges to gun measures he opposed as a senator. (Friends say he is a man of his word. Which word?) These hearings have left him either a toothless tiger on the issues the right loves to hate, or a man who will appear in hindsight to have lied repeatedly to get his job.

"They will be the ones who are now outside the mainstream," Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said of those who opposed the Ashcroft nomination. But that assumes a narrow notion of where the mainstream runs, and how deep and how wide it is. If it takes a cadre of crazed militants to stop racial profiling, unwanted pregnancies, wife beating and gay bashing, so be it. The so-called special-interest groups will continue to be demonized and denigrated while little by little, year by year, what they believe becomes, not a political position, but an accepted commonplace. Sure, it's a dirty job. Thank God somebody does it.