Jewish World Review August 30, 2005/ 25 Av 5765

Wesley Pruden

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Guarding the rights of the states | PHILADELPHIA — The Dixiecrats were born in the shadow of the Liberty Bell, so Pennsylvania is the last place you might expect to find a states' rights Democrat. Nevertheless, that man speaking in the unaccustomed accent is the governor himself.

Ed Rendell, a popular Democrat, went into U.S. District Court here last week to press his case that closing the Willow Grove Naval Air Station, thus shutting down the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard (and depriving the state of 1,200 jobs), is unconstitutional.

"I think it's a very important states' rights principle," the governor, whose liberal Democratic bonafides are so robust that John Kerry considered taking him as a running mate last year, told reporters on the steps of the courthouse in Philadelphia. "But we're not trying to make law here, we're looking to save jobs and save the capacity of the state of Pennsylvania to provide for the domestic security of its citizens."

The governor's strenuous efforts — he even sat through the tedious 90-minute minuet between the lawyers and Judge John R. Padova — mirror efforts in several other states to preserve military bases against what the states clearly regard as depredations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the Pentagon panel empowered to recommend whose military bases are shuttered. Some of the nation's most familiar landmarks, including Walter Reed Army Hospital in the nation's capital, are to disappear. Thirteen sites were targeted in Pennsylvania alone.

But none of the efforts are more dramatic than Gov. Rendell's declaration of war — well, a skirmish, anyway — against Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. The constitutional issue rumbles like a muted clap of thunder from a storm receding across distant hills. He wasn't arguing with the federal government's right to close Willow Grove, Mr. Rendell says, only the attempt to shut down the fighter wing: The National Guard is the state militia, and the feds have no right to shut it down without his permission.

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Judge Padova agreed. "Deactivation would deprive the governor of nearly one-fourth of the total strength of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard," he said. "This would hurt the state's capability of addressing the homeland security of southeastern Pennsylvania."

This clearly startled the feds, who are accustomed to getting their way through huff, puff and sheer size, if by no other method. Earl Long, the late governor of "the gret stetof Louisiana," framed the stakes years ago, silencing a firebrand state senator who wanted him to stand in the schoolhouse door to preserve public-school segregation in the way of George Wallace in Alabama. "It's too late," the Earl of Louisiana told him. "The feds have got the A-bomb."

In the wake of his victory, tactical though it may turn out to be, Gov. Rendell sounded testy if not feisty, saying the state could operate the planes without federal help. "If the Department of Defense comes and asks for the planes," he said, "the state will say no. The base will be operated as an Air National Guard base."

The Pentagon was rattled, but not dazzled, and after a recess took Willow Grove off the closure list — but said it would retrieve the planes, 15 A-10 Warthog attack fighters, leaving the chief with his Indians but no tomahawks. "They didn't deactivate the 111th," said the dazed chairman of a regional chamber of commerce committee assigned to doing what it could to keep bases open. "But they gave away the airplanes. Now the question is, do they still have any funding?"

Willow Grove, off the Pennsylvania Turnpike 20 miles north of Philadelphia, was built by Harold Pitcairn, an early aircraft designer who set out in 1926 to build something to persuade the public that flying was more than just a sport for daredevils bent on suicide. He built several models of the Autogiro at Willow Grove, which didn't last but contributed elements of design to the modern helicopter. Harold Pitcairn contributed the field, then surrounded by farms, to the war effort in 1942. Willow Grove has been a naval air station since.

The closure is part of the Pentagon's effort to restructure the National Guard — to render it unrecognizable, in the opinion of many Guardsmen — and Ed Rendell's challenge is only one of several. Lawsuits have been filed in Kentucky and Tennessee. The state militias are the nation's oldest military organizations, and Don Rumsfeld isn't the first service chief who wanted to cut them down to size. Everyone expects a good fight.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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