Giffords on the road to responsibility

Aspen Daily News Staff Report

It’s “really tough … um … really tough,” said Gabby Giffords, Sunday night at the Hotel Jerome in response to Andrea Mitchell, who asked about the difficulty of traveling to promote expanded background checks for buyers of firearms with her husband Mark Kelly.

Giffords, a former member of Congress, was shot on Jan. 8, 2011 at a constituent event by a mentally-ill man wielding a gun with a 33-round magazine.

She’s still recovering from her wounds and speaks short sentences haltingly, but looked radiant on stage in the hotel ballroom, nodding frequently in affirmation as her husband spoke.

After a prompt from her husband that she enjoyed traveling and appearing in public, she also told Mitchell “Yes, enjoy it.”

Aspen is the first of eight towns that she and Kelly will travel to in the next eight days in a push to convince Congress to pass new legislation that will make it harder for criminals to buy guns. Kelly said most Americans support their efforts.

“We’ll get there and I’m hopeful that it will be in this Congress,” Kelly said. “If not, Congress will look a little different in two years.”

Kelly said their new political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions, had raised more than $11 million and had upwards of 500,000 members to help counter the tight grip that the National Rifle Association has on members of Congress.

He said he had spoken with congressmen who support expanded background checks but felt they couldn’t survive politically if they voted in favor of such a bill.

“We just want members of Congress to do what they think is right,” Kelly said.

Kelly stressed that he and Giffords are both gun owners, and fully support responsible gun ownership and handling. He noted that he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.

“We are from the West,” he said. “I served in the military for 25 years. We understand guns. We understand why people have them. It’s part of what we do.

“Gabby doesn’t have a problem with responsible gun ownership,” he added.

He noted that a friend in Texas told him he owned 35 guns and had to do more paperwork to sell a jet ski trailer than to buy any of his guns. And now he supports Giffords’ effort.

Asked about her typical day, Giffords said, “Um … my treadmill, um, um, um, email … music … Neil Diamond … speech therapy, lots of homework!”
Mitchell asked Giffords how she maintains her optimism and spirit, and she replied, “I want to build a better place.”

The audience, clearly moved, applauded. She and Kelly received four standing ovations over two appearances on Saturday and Sunday.

Asked by Mitchell what her five-year plan was, Giffords said “travel around the world with Mark.”

After applause, Kelly looked her in the eyes and asked a follow-up question — “how do you want to do that?”

“On a sailboat,” she smiled.

“Good thing I was in the Navy,” he responded. “Now I have to find a sailboat.”

•••


When House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sat down on stage in the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday, he said he had just driven over Independence Pass and was still “a little light-headed.”

Then, during his interview, he heard people clapping for higher taxes, which may have caused Cantor more light-headedness.

The Republican, who represents Virginia’s 7th District, was discussing the federal debt, and said he was frustrated with President Obama about both health care and taxes.

“The president says we’ve got to do one thing if we’re going to do anything — and that is insist that we raise taxes in order to resolve this situation,” said Cantor.

He paused.


 Chris Janjic/Special to the Aspen Daily News
Retired astronaut Mark Kelly speaks alongside his wife Gabrielle Giffords, former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, during the Afternoon of Conversation at the Benedict Music Tent on Saturday as a part of the Aspen Ideas Festival.

A smattering of applause was coming from one side of the tent.

Cantor chuckled.

Then the applause grew, rippling in seeming defiance across the audience. Soon a wider throng started clapping and actually cheering, some with gusto.

Were people in Aspen really calling for higher taxes?

“You’ve got to send these people the address of the treasury,” quipped moderator Ramesh Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review.

“Ramesh, I would say, that was not the response I was looking for,” Cantor said.

The audience laughed heartily.

And a spontaneous partisan message — of some sort  — had just been sent and received.

•••

Nate Silver, the celebrity statistician whose FiveThirtyEight blog at nytimes.com predicted last year’s presidential election results nearly perfectly, joined veteran pollster and Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn for an Aspen Ideas Festival panel at Belly Up on Friday night.

After an hour of chat about the nature of prediction, the evolution of political polling and America’s shifting demographics, moderator Ron Brownstein of The Washington Post finally asked the pair for the prediction everybody came to hear: Will Hillary Clinton run for president in 2016?

Penn, who presumably knows the answer, played coy and said he didn’t know. Silver, whose analytic wizardry political observers have come to trust as gospel, said he thought so because of her overwhelming support across key demographics.

“Any Democrat would be insane to run against her,” Silver said. “She has incumbent-type numbers.”

Considering the right numbers has improved the ability to make accurate political predictions, Penn said, even when the results are counterintuitive. He recalled advising President Bill Clinton that the 1995-96 government shutdown would damage Republicans far more than Democrats, even as Clinton was seeking re-election.

During the initial national uproar over the shutdown, Penn recalled, the president turned to him and said, “Are you sure this is right?”

Turns out he was, and the president sailed through his re-election.

But, Silver noted, there are some areas — like earthquakes — where we’re no better today at predicting the future than we were a millennium ago: “We still kind of suck at prediction.”

•••

Over the past month, NPR listeners have heard “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep’s daily dispatches from war zones in the Middle East. Saturday night he shared some reporting from his days in Syria and Iran with an Ideas Festival crowd.

He said he found the Syrian rebel groups to be a disparate coalition, ranging from idealistic Arab Spring freedom fighters to radical extremists who are committing atrocities. With news that the Obama administration will provide arms to rebels, Inskeep was skeptical of how effective such intervention may be.

He said he has a hard time understanding “how the U.S. will pick the moderate rebels and leave the others alone.”

In Iran, where he recently spent a week, Inskeep said he found reason for hope of improved relations with America based on the recent election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate. Though throngs still chant “Death to America” at Friday prayers in Tehran, the people’s election of a candidate who called for peacefully engaging the United States demonstrated a clear desire for peace and cooperation there, he said.

“This says they want better relations with the West. … People voted for this guy,” Inskeep said.


(Story by Aspen Daily News staff writer  Andrew Travers and Brent Gardner-Smith, editor of aspenjournalism.com, a nonprofit news organization working in the local public interest.)