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.
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