“I worried about silly things like keeping my saddle shoes straight, what am I going to wear today. Things that a fifteen-year-old girl worries about. But also, which part of the hall to walk in that would be safest, who’s going to hit me with what? Is it going to be hot soup today? Is it going to be so greasy that it ruins the dress my grandmother made for me. I mean, how’s this day going to do?”
—Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine. PBS, The American Experience
The calendar can’t flip on a new day before I tell you about my grandma. She wasn’t like many grandmas.
She’d get the giggles and couldn’t stop. She’d have us all crying around the dinner table, less that we even understood the original punchline and more that her glee was infectious. I remember many moments of childhood mortification, like when she danced the hula on her return from Hawaii, along with the out-of-tune humming of the appropriate tune. Now the memory makes me proud. My grandma was an imp.
Her family was so much like most American families. We all have our odd birds and crazy uncles. We have our disagreements. We still rush right over if there is a phone call in the middle of the night.
Her father built bridges in Pittsburgh in the industrial revolution. He was conservative. My mother just told me a family story about my grandma’s cousin who played a joke on her dad one day. Her dad hated FDR so much, she thought it would be just the thing to welcome him home one day with a Life Magazine FDR photo gallery splayed around the house. She said he was so mortified that she thought for a moment he’d – literally – have a heart attack.
My grandma was fairly apolitical until she found herself living in Georgetown for a year in 1964 because of my grandpa’s work. By then she had raised her children and I suppose wasn’t your standard housewife (remember she was an imp). She whiled away any spare time sitting on Capital Hill watching Congress in session. She decided then that she was a Democrat (she told her grand kids this story: “I decided the Republicans were just against everything, so I was a Democrat.”) I can’t tell you what she’d think today, I can only tell you that, just as her Republican father would love her no matter what, her granddaughter would love her no matter what. It’s the kind of love you have when you live in a family.
All of our families are a hodgepodge of ideas, crazy uncles and disagreement. But it’s our American family.
We’re in a tough place right now as a family. We’re two days away from the the eighth anniversary of September 11, which shook us to our very core. We don’t seem to agree with each other any more, but maybe it’s because we’re not even talking (except through people who get a lot of money if we keep the TV tuned to them). There is a lot of anger on the right in America’s family, with many expected to march on September 12 to ask that we return to the spirit of that day.
I couldn’t agree more (please look at our founding thesis here). We should return to the American family that we all felt that day, the one where we disagree with each other, the one where we sit around the Thanksgiving table and deal with each others’ quirkiness, the one where we roll eyes, the one where we love each other despite it all. I think that anyone who tells you that the legacy of September 11th is that we should hate each other more is just wrong.
To my grandma. And to yours. Grandmas would tell us to mind our manners. So let’s roll up our sleeves and disagree where we need to. But let’s be partners in the disagreement, because we will sink or swim together. Let’s really listen to each other and speak respectfully. Let’s be an American family again. And when you’re feeling the impulse to hate, remember that on the other side of the aisle is undoubtedly someone who – no matter what – you’d rush to in the middle of the night.
Happy 100 years grandma. (And for goodness sakes, keep them hula dancing up in heaven.)
Florida State Senator Dan Gelber wrote this morning about his father Judge Seymour Gelber’s 90th birthday. (Judge Gelber was also formerly the Mayor of Miami Beach). Anyone who follows us knows we find a lot of wisdom in the way things used to be and we just love knowing each other as neighbors, so I was a sucker for this story. I’ll let Senator Gelber take it from here:
My Dad has always believed that the mark of a great public servant was accepting that anything truly good you do will come to fruition when you are long gone from public life. In the age of constant media cycles and focus groups, his views might be considered outdated or quaint. But today as Florida faces so many challenges borne out of short-term thinking and shallow policies, I think my Dad and his bowties are still pretty fashionable.
Please take a moment to read a son’s 90th birthday tribute in its entirety. As we trade fire in the partisan wars, we might do well to remember dads like this one.
And Happy Birthday, Judge Gelber.
POSTSCRIPT: I googled Senator Gelber’s dad and found this wonderful YouTube video that speaks volumes both to his character and his ability to wear a bowtie.
These clans of African tribesmen, managing the sometimes tenuous relationships between clans, solved their civility problem by marrying into the other clan. This sociological pattern stabilized their society so that the normal conflicts involved in life – whether it’s life in Philly or in sub-Saharan Africa – didn’t escalate to unmanageable levels. With these marriages, people were then connected to each other in multiple ways. You might have a bone to pick with “them” because of tribal identity (maybe literally “a bone,” in tribal Africa) but since “they” were also your in-laws, there was only so far you were ever going to push the disagreement.
This edifying story comes to us via Bill Bishop in his book “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart” that describes the need for us to have “cross-cutting” relationships with each other. (This book is required reading and John Marks is most notably NOT exempt.) A healthy society has relationships where you change who is your “friend” and who is your “enemy” inside of different contexts. My husband might be my friend in most every way, but he is also my enemy when we root against each other’s alma mater in football or, in my parents’ case, when they reported dutifully every election day to cancel each others vote out.
Back in the day, mom and dad would nearly always joke about it as they both wheeled out of the driveway in the midst of their crazy-busy lives to cast their precious vote that meant exactly ZERO given their difference of opinion. (You’ve got to love this concept of democracy that makes otherwise sane people do such an insane thing in service of high principle when they could have just sat back in marital-collusion and had a glass of wine instead.)
Crosscutting connection is the same wisdom practiced by feuding European nations looking to make peace by offering up a son or daughter to an arranged marriage. Of course we know in hindsight it didn’t always work, but that’s a story for another day (and The Village Square gives them an “A” for effort).
Problem is, crosscutting relationships are so – well – yesterday. As we discussed last week, everything is trending in the direction that we find ourselves in groups of increasingly like-minded people. When the same “enemy” is always on the “other side,” the relationship is no longer crosscutting and doesn’t stabilize anything. Fact is, when relationships don’t cross- cut, given the distinctly imperfect nature of human beings, relationships can be pretty much incendiary. You get consistently and increasingly angry with the same people (ergo, fistfights and swastikas at town halls).
We live in a time when we look at Mary Matalin and James Carville and think that there is simply no explanation but that it is a loveless business-relationship-slash-publicity-stunt to get them booked on Meet the Press. (While I’m using them as a rhetorical tool here, you still can’t convince me they like each other in the slightest and the stunt has certainly worked on the MTP front.)
Bishop writes: “One of the tenets of democratic faith has been that direct, face-to-face contact between groups on different sides of an issue defines a self-governing people.” Perhaps if we agree on nothing else, we agree that we’re not doing so well on self-governing by this measure – unless “face-to-face” includes flinging Hitler posters to and fro.
So what can we make of this entrenched overwhelming division currently on America’s plate? Despite the complexity of the problem, the solution – potentially – is as simple as a few dinners out (at the “potato salad school of diplomacy”).
Liz Joyner is the Executive Director of the Village Square. Reach her at email@example.com
Its no use trying to separate Cronkite’s history from America’s history, him being right there with so many of us during the moments we’ve marked our lives by. The glowing eulogies are deserved and they are far more equipped than I to capture the measure of the man. In their remembrances there’s a melancholy that says we think Cronkite’s brand of journalism has forever died with him. Surely, he will not be at peace with that epitaph.
It is odd that Cronkite is still unmatched in our esteem, because since his heyday, we’ve experienced technology’s jaw-dropping explosion that beams images across the globe near instantaneously – surely a leg up for today’s press corps to achieve. We now have 24-hour cable news, which (if nothing else) provides journalists with many, many hours of practicing their trade. Yet in our estimation this man working with near stone-age tools, relatively speaking, beats our current crop of journalists hands-down.
Suppose that says far more about us than it does about Cronkite or journalists? More specifically, maybe it speaks to who we were as a society when we tuned into Walter Cronkite. And boy do we ever miss the old us.
Cronkite’s America found us sitting around one television set, watching one of two newscasts, distinguished from each other more by personal preference than by ideology. Things didn’t change as fast in the days we spent our evenings with Cronkite, so I suppose there really wasn’t as much to disagree about. But back then we still made lots of room in our lives for people who differed from us politically because they were our neighbors, they were in our bowling league or in our garden club. Heck, we even married them.
Today the bowling league is gone and we’ve got little tolerance for just how wrong we think other people are. Our every information wish is our command as we flit around the dial finding our tribe, and then settle into our favorite armchairs with our favorite beverage to sing an alleluia chorus, free from pesky facts that might soften our views. We have so much comfort in our lives; the discomfort inherent in the disagreement of good citizenship that keeps democracy’s marketplace of ideas alive is just so been-there-done-that. It is just so Walter Cronkite.
There’s always been fighting in democracy. But now when we do it, we fight as if we’ll never need each other.
Even as we step inevitably into smaller and smaller hermetically sealed echo chambers of complete agreement, at some intuitive level we know it was our better selves who showed up to sit down in the living room to watch Cronkite together.
Bill Bishop writes about this phenomenon in “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart,” documenting demographic trends that have found us increasingly segregated by ideology since the mid-sixties. “As the nation grows more politically segregated,” writes Bishop, “the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups.”
And we are nothing if not self-righteous. A hundred years of social science research confirms that like-minded groups grow more extreme in the direction of the majority.
Witness where we are.
If we’re honest enough with ourselves to realize the mucky stall we’ve found ourselves in, the remedy is oddly simple, requiring only the mildest of human effort to reach out and remember how much we still have in common. While we’re at it, America is plunk in the middle of a world that really needs us to lead in the kind of civil citizenship that is wonderfully and uniquely in our very DNA as a country. One wonders what can be achieved without a single shot fired if we only steadfastly live up to our very own ideals, the kind of ideals that by their nature quietly shine a light into the darkest corners of the globe saying, “this is democracy, this is what free people can do together.”
We will miss Walter Cronkite badly. Maybe the most fitting eulogy to Cronkite might be to simply remember who it is we were when we were last with him.
On tonight’s Hardball, Chris Matthews, when discussing Judd Gregg bowing out of consideration for Commerce Secretary, referred to former New York Mayor John Lindsay (R), who according to Matthews said “there’s no Republican way to collect garbage.”
A wise man clearly ahead of his time.
(To my dear friend Anne: 1. Fact check, just like old times 2. More wise John Lindsay quotes 3. I remembered I always got the Ann vs. Anne wrong so I worked hard to get it right)
A dear friend of mine just turned 50. She has a big job at a major daily. I want you to think about the last time you said something snippy about the media, and I want you to consider it while I tell you about my friend.
First, she comes from a solidly conservative family, despite the fact that she has to regularly field many complaints about liberal bias and probably a few about conservative bias, and lets just say some of the complaints aren’t polite. She takes them very seriously though. Her vision in assessing the complaints has to be wide, not tunnel (as you and I have the luxury to have when we’ve got a bone to pick).
There wasn’t ever a time when I went to her house as a child when there weren’t ideas being flung back and forth at 100 miles an hour. I credit our friendship and my semi-child status with her parents for my interest in the public square, in the business of America. These people were real citizens of this country, and they had the rolled-up sleeves to prove it.
They were also real writers. They sometimes kept a manual typewriter (yes, this was a looong time ago) sitting with a sheet of paper in it with a couple of seed sentences to start a story. Someone else would come along and add a couple sentences of their own, and so on.
She is smart as a whip and somehow manages to put up with my trailing a few seconds (ok… sadly, minutes) behind her.
Please think of something you know about recent events. Did you learn it because of journalists like her? Some of them put themselves in harm’s way just so you can know.
This business of journalism annoys people. It kind of has to. This business of journalism has a lot to do with keeping us a free country, of keeping the powerful accountable to us little citizens. Sure, at times they do it imperfectly (a little thing we humans bring to everything we undertake). But look at where there isn’t an independent press to rankle and I’ll show you people who “yearn to breathe free.”
Journalists are the unsung heroes of democracy, in a business that’s tougher today than it was yesterday. And despite all that, they’ll get up again tomorrow and take your abuse and mine because they believe deeply in free speech, a free press and this little thing called democracy.
Thanks to my friend for spending her years doing something really really important. And Happy Birthday.
In high school I had the most amazing and unexpected cheerleader sponsor, also an English teacher who knew Shakespeare and Chaucer like the back of her hand. She also taught us Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. To be honest, much of the meaning of the prose escaped me at the time. The thirty years since has a lot to do with getting it now. And I am grateful for having had the chance.
So here’s to the wise and wonderful Miss Mask, who gave me so much. And to my friend who might be able to use a verse or two for herself right about now.
Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
**PS… On a Village Square note, I should say that I have zero idea whether Miss Mask was a Democrat or a Republican. Nor do I care.
Upon yesterday’s news of the passing of Mark Felt, Watergate’s famous informant dubbed “Deep Throat,” it seems a fitting time to consider the Nixon legacy vis-a-vis The Village Square and the partisan divide:
Hardball’s Chris Matthews: “What’s the impact of “Nixonland” on the world we live in?
Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland: The Rise of the President and the Fracturing of America: “One of the big political strategies that Nixon had going was to create as much division as possible in the political process. Make the cacophany, raise it up to a fever pitch so then he could present himself up as the political savoir who was going to make it better. So he had a vested interest in political conflict.”
It’s interesting how easy it is to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” through the prism of history, hindsight and the loss of the detail through time. We conveniently shave off the details that violate the categorization we’ve chosen for someone, whether it’s the good off a “bad guy” or the bad off a “good guy.” The recent release of new Nixon tapes makes it infinitely clear which camp history has assigned Nixon to.
But our wonderful discussion with Bud Krogh, former Nixon administration official who went to jail for his role in Watergate, made it abundantly clear that such labels defy reality and are very hard to assign in real time.
Bud told stories of Nixon that revealed humanity and decency, and he told stories of himself that confirmed human flaw, even as they revealed profound character.
As Bud has wrestled with these truths over the years, he’s given those of us struggling with life choices in real time the gift of The Integrity Zone, a model for moral decision making.
Mark Felt apparently kept quiet about his identity as Deep Throat for so many years in part because he wasn’t at all sure whether he was a hero or a villain in the story – and probably for good cause in a situation with a complex stew of events and loyalties. It was only after he told his children of his identity and they convinced him that the prism of history had clearly determined him to be a “good guy” that he stepped forward.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Felt.
And rest in Peace, Mr. Nixon.
BILL MOYERS: We were abroad these past two weeks trying to cleanse our journalistic pipes, so to speak. We thought we could put American politics out of sight and out of mind for a spell. We were wrong.
Everywhere we went people wanted to talk about America. The Greeks, Sicilians, Sardinians, Tunisians, Algerians, and Spaniards we met, were euphoric – cab drivers, guides, waiters, hotel clerks, bank tellers. They expect miracles from America. Their own economies are imploding: layoffs, budget shortfalls, failing banks, fear spreading among the populace. They want to believe that somehow the long arm of America will pull them back. I tried but I didn’t have the heart to tell them just how much trouble their rich Uncle Sam is in.
Maybe I was wrong not to dispel their illusions about America; after all, they live on top of the ruins of long-gone empires, whose rise and fall is a far more familiar and consistent theme of history than democracy’s success. I did my best, to say that America is trying very hard right now to put our own house in order.
That self-correcting faculty, even in the darkest hours, is the best thing we have going for us. That and the knowledge that nothing we face in the months ahead is more than was asked of our parents and grand parents in war and depression.
This giant of a country is bleeding badly from savage self inflicted wounds, but what happens next is still our story to write. We can be thankful for that.
As the ugliness and emptiness of campaign ads does a final 2008 ramp-up, it’s time to re-run a favorite post:
Do you remember when candidates used to appear in their own commercials? Many of them seemed a little stiff wearing a sober suit and white shirt framed by an American flag, a bust of Lincoln and family pictures as they made obvious, irreconcilable and insupportable promises.
“I will improve schools, hire more police, teachers and trash workers and lower taxes, create jobs, and get snow, guns and homeless people off the street by being tough, fair, generous and stingy to all of our citizens , regardless of race, creed or hair color, the number of toes they have or whether they were ever stupid enough to vote for my opponent. I welcome your support.”
I miss those ads. At least they gave you a glimpse of the candidate talking about issues, even in hilarious non sequiturs. These days candidates hire consultants to publicize the names of their opponents just so they can splash mud and slime on them. It’s as if Coca Cola bought ads just to show people taking a swig of Pepsi Cola and spitting it into a gutter.
The candidate used to at least risk rejection by asking, sometimes pleading “vote for me” in his commercials. Now they hide behind hired voices who ask “you aren’t really going to vote for that guy, are you?” Then have the candidate mutter at the end like some nine-year-old being forced to admit that he hit the baseball through the window “I approved this message.”
There’s an old Madison Avenue adage: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Many current campaign commercials don’t even try to sell sizzle, they just hurl sleaze. People who create them are using the expensive power of articulation to produce messages that are just about as mature as kids razzing each other on the playground.
Look, I’m from Chicago, I love covering politics there and still follow it like a contact sport. I know, as the old Chicago columnist Findley Peter Dunn wrote in 1898, “politics ain’t beanbag.” It has always been rough because the stakes are high. I am not one of those people who says “I wish we had a high-minded political system like they have in Canada.”
The sad fact is that candidates and soft money groups run vicious ads because the evidence is, they work. We might be appalled but we often follow through.
When ads become so personal, intense and insulting it’s difficult for the candidate who survives, I won’t even say “wins,” to climb atop the ooze and act like a human being, much less a statesman. And difficult for voters to respect or trust who they’ve elected, in spite of what they’ve been told. These ads may help candidates win the game, but they also risk tearing up the field and burning down the stadium.
By the way, my name is Scott Simon and I approved this message.
“History at its best is about telling stories. Stories about people who lived before, about events in the past that create the contours of the present. By studying the lives of others, we hope that we – the living – can learn from their struggles and their triumphs… We have lost the art of letter writing, the discipline of keeping a diary, but as Tim showed, we have not lost the capacity for talking; for sitting around a simple table and conversing – in a civil and illuminating fashion about the most important issues of the day… ”
–Doris Kearns Goodwin, Historian, author of Team of Rivals, as delivered at the memorial service for Tim Russert