Thursday, August 27, 2009

Call of the Lion

Much has been said and will be said about Sen.Ted Kennedy, called by many "the Lion of the Senate." While I did not always agree with his policy positions I had the upmost admiration for him as a person and as a leader. I got to meet him on a few occasions and I found him warm and approachable.

Once I was in his office with the president of my organization giving him a plague in recongnition of his servcie to education. It was in late fall and while we waited for him, we noticed a boxed flag behind his desk. We asked his aide if by any chance that was the flag from President Kennedy's coffin that we have all seen in newsreels. She indicated that it was and that every year between November 22, the date of JFK's death, and Christmas, the Senator kept the flag in the office. She said during that time he is never quite himself--sad and somber. After Christmas he removes it and his mood lifts. He came in and there was, indeed, a sadness in his eyes. It struck us that few have seen the highs and lows that this man had seen--being a revered Senator, brother of a president and another senator, born to wealth and priviledge, and yet enduring tragedy after tragedy and taking on the burdens of his extended family and by even greater extension the family of man that he fought so hard for thoughout his career.

I told him I had grown up in West Virginia and one of my great memories was seeing him and his two brothers on the steps of the courthouse in Huntington, West Virginia during the 1960 primary. He talked about what a tough race that was because of his famiiy's religion and how my native state was not very Catholic. Then he told a story about JFK meeting in Wheeling, West Virginia with a group of protestant ministers who had been opposing his election. JFK talked about his brother Joe who had been killed in World War II flying a military mission. JFK pointed out that the other person killed in the plane was a young man who happened to be Baptist and who was from Wheeling, West Virginia. JKF had told the congregated ministers that as they boarded that plane neither his brother or his compatriot had asked each other which church they went to on Sunday. They were just two American boys going off to fight and die for their country. It is easy today to forget the various prejudices we have overcome in this country and yet, watching the news we can see how much further we have to go.

My other memory of Teddy was when I was invited to speak at a weekend study retreat for the Democratic members of the Senate. It was held at a beautiful resort in western Pennsylvania. I had been able to have lunch with the Senator and got to talk extensivly with him at the reception before the barbeque dinner. After dinner the Senators had a square dance, something my hillbilly roots could relate to. What I was not prepared for was who they ask to call the dances--Senator Edward M. Kenndey of Masschusetts. It was a Zen experience to hear that boomng baritone, with the thick New England accent, yelling out to "dosie doe your partner." He did a great job but the joy on his face and the joy he spread with his colleagues was priceless. One of the calls in a square dance is to "go back home." He has and we shall all miss him.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Don't Just Do Somethng, Stand There--And Yell

America has been built upon it's "can do" spirit. We excelled as a country because we believed we could do anything and be anything. Our deepest values revolve around being a land of the free and the home of the brave. I don't know about you but lately that has seemed to change. We are becoming a land of the mentally constipated and the home of the fearful. "Can Do" has been replaced with "Can't Do." And the soaring motto of President Obama's campaign of "Yes We Can" is being usurped by a sense of "No We Won't."

It is hard to know where and when the shift to fear and helplessness started but certainly the horrific events of 9/11 put a sense of unease across the land. This was accelerated by the Bush administration that played on the fear and magnified it with a society reduced to color codes telling us how afraid to be. We were surrounded by those who wanted to destroy us for our freedom, so we capitulated and surrendered our freedom so we could stay free. This cognigive dissonance has led us to where we are today. We want what we are unwilling to make happen.

Meanwhile, the election of a vibrant, articulate, Black president was viewed as hope my many. He becme the Great Black Hope for people of all races. He told us that "Yes We Can" and we saw the possibilities of being n control of our lives and our fortunes. Fate intevened in the form of an economic meltdown and much of that hope was put on hold. meanwhle we thought we had emerged into a "post racial" world, but really we just crossed into a "post racist" world. Fear of the "other" rose in the land and some even were fearful of a "wise Latina woman" sitting on the Supreme Court. Some claim our country has an illigitimate president who could only produce the standard birth certificate to prove he was American. As an aside, my own birth certificate is so old and faded I am not even certain I was born anywhere. Obama's election was called into question--by those who were perfectly happy to see a president voted in on a 5-4 vote in the Supreme court. Then those who were on the losing end were told to shut up and sit down. Probably not a bad policy in today's climate. Old ideas and predjudices die hard and change does not come easily.

Today we see politicians of both parties, but I would have to say more Republican than Democrat, who see "No" as the answer to every question and fear as the motivator of human expression. We were told by some only a few months into Obama's administration that he had failed, or others who said they they wanted him to fail not understanding that his failure would fall on all of us, red and blue alike. While I like Obama personally, I certainly don't agree with all his policies. I didn't like George W. Bush, and the longer he was president, the less I liked him. But I can honestly say I never once wanted him to fail anymore than I want to see Obama fail. When you are in a fragile boat, punching holes in the bottom to spite the captain seems foolish.

In the last few days we saw the return of two of our citizens from captivity in North Korea and were told by the conservative talking heads that this wa a sign of weakness on our part for even going after them. And we have seen a piece of the stimulus package (which had been soundly criticized by talk radio, Fox News and Republican leadership) run out of money in one week because so many people were turning in their gas guzzling cars and buying new ones, which helps our flagging auto induntry and improves the environment. Since it was a win all around, what do the "Nattering Nabobs of Negativism" (to borrow a phrase of an earlier political period) have to say? That the Obama administration had screwed up because they had not planned for it to be so successful. My mother always told me if you can't say something nice about someone then don't say anything. Rush "Dimbulb," Bill O'"Really?", Sean "Vanity" and Glen "Blech!" apparently were taught something else by their mothers.

"Birthers," "Deathers," and screaming mobs who want to protect their Medicare from government I am still not sure how that works!) are not the problem--they are the result of the problem. Leaders in the media and politics need to understand that while they are scoring political points, they are undermining the one thing that holds us together as a nation--our ideals. When that is gone, we will really have cause to be afraid--very,very afraid.