Aging into Sentimentality
What Not to be Thankful For

REFLECTIONS: The Long View

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthlyReflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.

Category_bug_reflections The quiet passing of a date and something an interviewer told me stirred these reflections like leaves fluttering from the trees in an autumn breeze. The date was November 22, the 47th anniversary of the murder of John F. Kennedy; when the nation lost what was left of its post World War II innocence.

And the interviewer, listening to my argument that the best of newspapers will survive this recession and the internet as it has other downturns and television, noted my age (80) and told me I had the “long view,” which I took as a compliment.

Kennedy’s murder was not widely observed because journalism tends to mark the first, the fifth or the tenth of an event, but not the mundane 47th. But I do have a view that stretches back over those years.

Some years ago on a November 22, I asked the news room at large at New York Newsday who knew the significance of that day. Only my legendary colleague, Murray Kempton, then in his seventies, raised his hand. He had the long view.

Because we persons of age have a “long view,” i.e., looking backwards, does not mean we don’t look forward. I suppose, that we are not attentive to predictions 50 years hence. And neither are we such cockeyed optimists that we would buy an annuity that doesn’t pay for ten years. But we do look forward for the short view; we care that the nation should expand health coverage and Medicare now to those who don’t have what we have.

We care that young men and women are dying in pointless wars. And we know that because our longer view recalls the idiocy of Vietnam and the war against Nazism that had a point. We are interested in the short run, which is why we read newspapers more thoroughly than most, write letters to editors, hassle legislators, go to concerts and plays and vote in greater numbers than younger people.

Let me say again, we care about and can make judgments about the present and the near future because we have the long view, which supplies perspective that my interviewer and most contemporary reporters and those breathless, rapid-reading TV types don’t seem to have. An editor has called newspaper journalism “instant history.” But there is history preceding that “instant.”

I have been very fortunate to have lived through and reported on some of the most extraordinary events and movements of the latter half of the 20th century. I covered John F. Kennedy’s last formal speech, at a Houston dinner, the night before he was killed. I had written a piece for The Nation warning that the right-wing nuts in Dallas, including the local congressman, were making his visit dangerous. A wanted leaflet with Kennedy as the target was circulated. Little did I realize that the killer would be an ersatz left-wing nut.

A few days later, covering a meeting of oil and business executives in Houston, I stepped out of my reporter’s role and protested loudly and unprofessionally when one of those oilmen expressed satisfaction that Texan Lyndon Johnson was in the White House and that “bushy-haired bastard from Boston” was no longer president. I learned, as the nation has not yet learned, that ideological nuts come in all sizes and flourish like viruses in the sour ferment of hatred and ignorance.

I covered much of the great civil rights movement, from Houston in the Fifties to Washington in the Sixties, from Montgomery to Jackson and Selma to the Poor People’s March and Memphis. I got to know Dr. Martin Luther King and when he died, I likened it to a crucifixion. Within a few months of each other, in 1968, he and Sen. Robert Kennedy, were murdered by nuts of vague ideologies and inchoate hatreds.

As the cliche goes, we have come a long way in righting civil wrongs since then. But the war in Vietnam that they opposed is being fought again in different places, and the poverty they decried has not subsided.

Black people and Hispanics still suffer disproportionately. Immigrants (there are no such things as illegal humans) have become targets for the bigots. And the nuts persist, in the Congress and the old Confederacy, still fighting the Civil War, who would cripple the federal government and reverse all that King and Kennedy stood for.

And too many journalists and political leaders are without the long view, or the sense of outrage, to call out the nuts and their twisted religious, Taliban fundamentalism for the dangers they represent.

I also covered the birth of what became the consumer movement in 1966 when I was a reporter for the Detroit Free Press (a Knight-Ridder newspaper) and a young lawyer, Ralph Nader, challenged the auto industry in general and General Motors in particular, calling their new rear-engine compact, the Corvair, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

Nader challenged the conventional wisdom (of the National Safety Council, among others) that the driver was at fault in accidents. Nader demonstrated that Detroit’s autos were death traps. His efforts created the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency and autos became more crash worthy with safety belts, collapsible steering wheels and air bags.

But more than that, Nader began a new kind of Washington journalism where news was made by citizen consumers and activists – anti-war, environment - and not just political officials.

That sort of activism continues, with blogs, demonstrations and good journalism and much of it to strengthen regulation and use government for the sake of people who need its help. This citizen activism that began more than 40 years ago, has given us the possibility of improved health care or dealing with climate change. These activists have sought to enhance and increase responsiveness in government.

But activism also has been perverted lately by ignorant nuts, even those in government who seek not only to tear down the nation’s institutions from which they take salaries, perks and health care, but to deny the science of global warming as well as human evolution. They are the new “know nothings.”

During my reporting days I covered to one extent or another, every president from Johnson through George H.W. Bush, with whom I had become friendly in Houston, when he was the Republican County chairman and later a congressman. Despite the flaws in every one, for they were all human, most of them cared for government and its institutions.

Johnson, as you know, gave us Medicare, Medicaid and the basic Civil Rights laws; Richard Nixon gave us the Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Cost of Living Adjustment; Jimmy Carter brought peace between Egypt and Israel and Jerry Ford gave us calm after Watergate.

Let me digress a bit by pointing out that lawmakers of both parties, such as Senators Sam Ervin [D., North Carolina], and Howard Baker [R., Tennessee], chose to end Nixon’s travesties demonstrating a kind of responsible, statesmen-like politics that is long gone.

Ronald Reagan, a decent, inclusive man who would have been appalled at the right-wing haters today, fixed Social Security for 75 years and all but ended the cold war by dealing with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and setting the stage for unprecedented arms reduction treaties that are still in force. I was there, incidentally, when Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987, implored Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, knowing it would happen.

Finally, because the elder Bush was a friend, I transferred from the White House to report on the State Department and the more exciting Secretary James Baker, who I also knew from Houston. My first assignment in late September 1989, was covering Baker’s meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the then-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It turned out to be momentous, for as the two men flew to Wyoming from Washington, Shevardnadze acknowledged to Baker that the Soviet state was collapsing from within, as Reagan had predicted.

Shevardnadze not only agreed to sweeping arms reductions, he made it clear at Jackson Hole that the Soviets were ready to set the nations of Eastern Europe free of the Warsaw Pact. Within six weeks, on November 9, the Berlin wall came down and the State Department press corps began a wild ride with Baker through the newly freed countries of the east, the former Soviet republics and a visit to one of Russia's most secret missile testing facilities. The world was turning right side up.

Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The press traveled with Baker to Moscow, where his friendship with Shevardnadze gave the U.S. Russia as an ally in the effort that took us to dozens of counties in Europe and the Middle East to fashion a coalition of nations – including Syria – to wage war and throw Saddam Hussein and Iraq out of Kuwait.

Bush succeeded and he and Baker wisely avoided sending American forces to Baghdad to get bogged down in an endless Middle East war. Theirs was the long view. But their successes and Baker’s frequent visits with the Arab world, gave him credibility to press Israel as it had not been pressed since making peace with Egypt, to stop building settlements, and meet with the Arab world in Madrid.

Baker told a stunned congressional hearing that if Israel wants peace, “when you’re serious, give us a call.” Baker, with his persuasive powers born of years serving presidents, convinced even Syria and the Palestinians to talk peace with Israel. That helped set the stage during Bill Clinton’s presidency for a White House meeting between PLO leader Yassir Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin, and a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan. A right-wing nut ended Rabin’s life and that flickering hope for peace.

I saw and wrote about these events. And I can tell you that all these men, whatever their parties or flaws, were public servants of substance using government to form a more perfect union.

In 1995, however, a brash band of right-wing, Republican zealots wrested control of Congress and have taken the short view, along with the triangulating Bill Clinton, to end comity in government. They demeaned government except for their own purposes, abolishing the regulation of banks, Wall Street and the drug industry, retreating from the works of more pragmatic White House predecessors.

That set the political stage for the Bush family bad seed and a gang of very near-sighted outlaws who could not protect the nation from a well-telegraphed attack. They made up for their malfeasance by taking over the Constitution and unleashing the mad dogs of endless middle east wars. And they encouraged their ragtag army of fundamentalist nuts carrying crusader crosses, screaming their hateful nonsense at a president who is seeking to restore government as a friend.

I doubt these wackos know or care or even mourn what happened on November 22. Nor do they know what happened on November 9, 1989. That takes a long view.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: A Mind Gone Astray


Comments

It is nice to hear moderate words that do not pigion-hole people based on their philosophies but hold people accountable for their actions. I am hoping that the pendulum swings back before my long-view comes.

Let's hear it for the long view. It is, after all, the only one that matters.
XO
WWW

I mourn what happened on Nov 22 and hold the long view you advocate. It's so important that we bring our view and voices to the issues of the day. Thanks for your wisdom.

Tho I still care, I'm fading. I'm letting others rant about not learning the lessons from the past. I continue to despise Nixon as I, and friends, still suffer fallout from being on Nixon's "student" bad guy list. Most of all I suffer when I see the "fence" we are building along our southern border. I suffer when I see we didn't learn the lessons of Vietnam. But I'm fading......

My parents very much disliked Kennedy. They felt he had stolen the election. I was in 6th grade. When I heard he had been killed I assumed they would be pleased. In hind sight it is amazing what kids take from what adults say. My parents were not hate mongers they were typical right wing Republicans. But I learned a big lesson about our American system that day. He was our president and of course we all mourned. I learned that no matter how much you hate some one politically. Politics is where it stops.

Not only have the right wing fundamentalists taken over the Republican party, they have unleashed the dogs of war. And a complicit press has allowed their lies to become facts in the minds of the gullible.

David Sirota has written an excellent expose about the misleading and dishonest cost of health care reform. It will save billions, but you wouldn't know it from the rants of the Republicans and their minions as they lie about the "trillion dollar cost" of reform.

I so enjoyed this post and savored it by reading a few paragraphs at a time throughout the day. The day is closing now... . Thank you. And thank you, Ronni, for bringing you on board as a columnist. Your real-world experiences and fearless writing make your contributions comforting in a weird way. You are like so many other sage creatures, a Cassandra in such times as hers and ours. Depressing and scary.

What a simply wonderful, provocative, yet timeless piece. Kennedy's death, Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev, Nader and the auto industry, Viet Nam and Iraq - all thoughtfully woven into the rich tapestry of our time. Well done!

What an exciting life you have lived!!!

Speaking of age, I am 89 and also look forward. One is supposed to live in the moment but if I didn't have the future to look forward to I would be sitting in a rocking chair dreaming of the past.

The president can do nothing that Congress hasn't already prepared for the president to sign. It helps a president to have a forward looking Congress during his/her presidency. (Sorry, no female president in this country as yet.)

President Gerald Ford put a damper on equality when he refused to integrate the Boy Scouts. He couldn't imagine his Boy Scouts bowing to legislation to prevent sexist segregation.

Every person has blind spots and personal pet beliefs and since most presidents are male, this skews what presidents have done in the past.

I thought we would see a female president in my lifetime since half the brains and talent of the world is in the bodies of females
and so we have wasted the female contribution at the highest level in this country.

The fact is that the greatest discriminiation in the world is
against the female. Just look around the world and see the cultures that still do not allow females to be educated. Look around at the rape of women still being carried out.

When women are respected and given equal treatment and educated then the world will improve in its ability to nurture all humans equally.

The long view that Saul Friedman espouses also informs me of this unbearable truth: When power is at issue, humans appear doomed to repeat the errors, the tragedies of the past. With that in mind, I look forward with dread to President Obama's explanation of why the United States must continue, even escalate, the war in Afghanistan. Will he mention Vietnam? And if he does, will he explain to those who remember its lessons, why it's different this time? Unfortunately, the long view tells me that when Americans work hard to elect a leader in whom they place all their hopes and dreams, the leader will make political compromises that will surely disappoint them.

Thanks for all the comments from all perspectives...It helps

Truly appreciate this recap of American history events I recall happening during my lifetime. I certainly share the long view with you. I have been greatly concerned for some time that so many people lack knowledge of history, seem not even to be interested in same, and mindlessly repeat mistakes that probably could have been avoided had they learned from the past.

I also recall the Corvair owned by the man who later became my husband. He said he had finally decided to give up his Oldsmobiles for a smaller car like a friend who purchased a VW. What a major mistake the Corvair was, he realized all too soon. Later, when we wed and took any driving trips, including from the east to west coast we drove my new medium-sized Chrysler product. He soon rid himself of that Corvair and drove Olds of one kind or another the rest of his life.

I welcome the future but am wary of what actions all variety of extremists resort to misguidedly perpetrating. I miss a press, except for a few, that more nearly fulfills their professional reason for being.

Thanks, Saul, for your literate and toughtful commentaries. It gives me some hope to know that there are people who can voice the long view and remind me that the present needs the context of the past to make sense.

Harriet Liebow

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