Politicians and decency usually go together like outer space and gravity. Usually there is a near absolute absence of one in the other. Sometimes though a tiny sliver of anomaly leaks through. Planets, stars and other objects provide positive attraction in the otherwise empty void of the heavens. Likewise, sometimes a real man strides into the rodent’s nest of Washington or some other political place.
Leo Ryan was such a man. He was a man of conviction who was actually willing to give his life for those he represented. This, in short form, is the story of his greatest contribution to civilization and freedom.
Ryan represented the 11th Congressional district of California from 1973 until 1978. He was a Democrat. Today Ryan would not be welcome in either political party – he actually cared about people and took direct action to help them.
In the 1950s he worked as a high school English teacher. A school field trip to Washington D.C. in 1961 inspired him to seek elected office. He was subsequently elected Mayor of South San Francisco and later to the California legislature.
While serving on the California Assembly Ryan demonstrated he was not above getting his hands dirty researching social and political matters. Following race riots in the 1960s he posed as a substitute teacher in Watts. This experience allowed him to see things on the ground as opposed to from the ivory tower in Sacramento.
In 1970 he took his investigative tactics to a new level. While chairman of the committee on prison reform Ryan had himself arrested and booked into the system. He spent time at the notorious Folsom Prison in order to observe inmate conditions.
Once in Congress Ryan continued to champion the weak and the forgotten. He battled powerful forces in defense of unpopular causes. His most daring feat might have been his criticism of the CIA. It turned out otherwise in the fall of 1978.
In the midst of his successful 1978 re-election campaign Ryan began to hear horror stories about Jim Jones and his cult in Guyana. Jones read and listened to reports from relatives of members of the Peoples Temple. He wrote to the government of Guyana urging intervention. He also tried to persuade President Carter to pressure Guyana to investigate reports of cruel (sometimes murderous) happenings at Jonestown.
Unsatisfied with the lack of official enthusiasm Ryan decided to once again take personal action. Defying the State Department, the President, his own party, and conventional wisdom Ryan flew to Guyana to investigate for himself. In the end he received approval for his mission and went as an official ambassador of Congress and one of his appointed committees. He invited other members to accompany him but all were either unwilling or unavailable to go along. Several of his staff, members of the press, and a few concerned relatives did join him. Ryan was firm in his commitments – he declared that if Temple members were being held against their wills, he would free them.
In Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, Ryan negotiated for several days with Jones and with the government. On November 17, 1978 Ryan, his entourage and a representative of the Guyanese government arrived at Jonestown. The next day Ryan interviewed Temple members, many of who desired to leave. Surviving an assassination attempt, Ryan was forced to leave the compound. While he and his group were gathered at the local airfield awaiting transport back to Georgetown various Temple members opened fire. Ryan was shoot repeatedly and died. The next day the Guyanese army arrived to find 909 members dead, victims of the Jonestown Massacre. Ryan was buried in California.
Leo Ryan is the only sitting member of Congress ever assassinated in the line of duty. His actions earned him the Congressional Gold Medal. Leo J. Ryan Park in Foster City, California is named in his honor.
Ryan, a man for the people.
Dallas Times Herald, Nov. 19, 1978.
I have profiled honest politicians before – Ron Paul and Bobby Franklin come to mind. There are too few examples in American politics but I like to give credit where due. Decency and courage are not limited to party affiliation. A brief, concluding example of lesser dramatic import:
A friend of mine owns a cigar shop. Every year he sets up a tent near the main patron’s gate of a PGA major tournament. He’s very political and all politicians know he’s there. Last year three separate pols came by the tent in succession. They help illustrate my point here.
The first is a member of the State legislature. He knows my friend. He’s the common, ordinary politician. He walked up to my buddy and made small talk. When offered a cigar for the links he, a cigar smoker, refused. He said he’d love one but he has an image and all. Typical.
The next pol was our current sitting Congress Critter – a contemptible roden of the lowest order, ready to stab the backs of his constituents at the drop of a hat, or a bribe. This weasel crossed the street and slunk by while looking away. He also knows my friend. He’s lied to him (and to me). We’ll call him the American Invertebrate Weasel, all too common.
Both of these men are Republicans. Rush Limbaugh and my conservative friends tell me Republicans are good and Democrats are bad. The third Cigar tent-passing pol makes a mockery of this idea.
Number three, let’s call him Honest John, made a beeline for the tent. Upon his arrival he said, “Gimme a cigar!” This Democrat is our immediate former Congressman. He’s known to play games but he also has charisma and fortitude. He also did a pretty good job of standing up for the people he represented. Mostly ignorant his people voted him out based on party affiliation alone. They got what they paid for. Honest John, not giving a damn, lit up and puffed off to enjoy the rounds.
Honest John made a small difference on that his illustrative defining day. Leo Ryan made a huge difference on his. Big or small, some men make a difference when in office and leave a positive mark when they’re gone. They at least deserve remembrance.I may occasionally add articles of other statesmen, American and otherwise, who lived and died for their people.