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Pete McCloskey: Leading from the Front

Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by Robert Caughlan
Directed by Robert Caughlan
DVD, color, 56 min.
Sr. High – Adult
Biography, Environmental Studies, History, Political Science

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 1/7/2011

Over frightening images of the 2003 Rumsfeld shock and awe bombing of Baghdad, a calm, measured voice: “I don’t think you can impose democracy or any system of government through the barrel of a gun without people resenting what you’re trying to impress on them. [Splice as we hear through the barrel of a gun to a fully equipped G.I. looking down … the barrel of a gun.] The hypocrisy of that as it must appear to the rest of the world – yeah, we want democracy and we want freedom, but on our terms.” The evident truth of those words, so plainly articulated as to seem axiomatic, hovers over this film like a pain, and we see instances of it taken in vain – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – and at terrible cost, to the U.S. and to the countries the U.S. purportedly aimed to rescue. The speaker of the words and the subject of this riveting film is Pete McCloskey, Korean War marine veteran (where he led more bayonet charges – hence the film’s subtitle Leading from the Front – than any American soldier since the Civil War, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star); Republican Congressman from California for seventeen years (1967-83); passionate environmentalist (co-chair of the first Earth Day, 1970); initiator of impeachment proceedings against a president of his own party (Richard Nixon, over the secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War). Robert Caughlan’s film (narrated by the late Paul Newman, to whom the film is posthumously dedicated) provides a fascinating, never-flagging account of this remarkable man. McCloskey who, in the numerous occasions in his public life where he had to choose between his political career and his taking a position he believed in but would be doing damage to that career, invariably chose conviction over self-interest. And the convictions more often than not appear on the historically just side despite their political fragility at the time he proclaimed them. True maverick McCloskey was one of the earliest advocates of the two-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He was and is a staunch environmentalist/preservationist, fighting against profit-minded corporate interests, damn the collateral cost. He effectively sabotaged the 1988 presidential chances of then popular hawkish televangelist Pat Robertson who hid the fact that he used political influence to avoid being sent to a war zone during the Korean War and lied again and again about it. (Robertson sued McCloskey but then sheepishly withdrew the suit and had to admit in court that what McCloskey claimed was true.) Later in life, in 2006, he worked to engineer the election defeat of incumbent Republican Congressman Richard Pombo, who appeared ready to sell National Forest land (one forest ironically named after the father of the preservationist movement Teddy Roosevelt) to real estate interests for development. McCloskey emerges from the film – he is movie-star handsome even into his 80’s (he was born in 1927) – as a wholly admirable figure, a man of moral courage, profound integrity, wise judgment, and of action, ready always to fight for the causes he sees as important and just. Finally, having managed because of his stands to alienate all the political powers that be, McCloskey in retirement followed Voltaire’s advice and took to tending his garden – a farm in Northern California, the state where he was born. The film leaves us with another memorable McCloskey observation: “Military force is the last thing to use. Restraint of power is as important as its exercise.” An exemplary, larger-than-life life. A film more than worthy of its extraordinary subject.