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The 2008 Oldest Old Project: Saul Friedman

Posted Oct 02 2013 8:30am

Five years ago, I asked some bloggers and TGB readers who were then at least 80 years old to tell us “young 'uns” how they and their lives had changed in the 20-plus years since they were 60. It was a popular series.

This one is from Saul Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was then writing a weekly column for Newsday. Saul soon came to write two columns for this blog, Gray Matters and Reflections that I was proud to publish.

Saul became my friend and a late-life mentor to me. He died in December 2010 and I keep this photo of him on my laptop where I see it first thing every morning.

Saul Friedman 2006

Here is Saul's 2008 story written for the Oldest Old project.

I was still immortal at 60, working up to 24 hours a day, impervious to pain or weariness, my immune system tossing off illness, my colleagues admiring of my work, my speed on the laptops we carried and my stamina. Also I had reached the top of my craft, journalism, covering, witnessing and writing about the great issues of our time.

On May 31, 1988, I was among the knot of reporters who stood in Red Square with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, and I asked the president whatever happened to the “evil empire?” He replied, in effect, that that era was over. Funny the things that you remember. I remember calling home and learning from my wife, who noticed such things, that the full moon that night would be the second of the month, a “blue moon,” which gave me a perfect lead for what the old cold warrior said and did that day.

The following year, George H.W. Bush, whom I had known since I covered politics and he was the Republican county chairman in Houston, became president. And because I didn’t want to cover a president I had known as a friend, I headed for the job I really wanted, covering foreign affairs and the adventures of James Baker, who I also knew in Houston. And that’s what I was doing at 60, covering Baker and the cataclysmic events on his watch.

In one of Baker’s early meetings with his Soviet counterpart, Foreign Minister Edward Sheverdnadze, the U.S. and we learned that the Soviets would no longer force the eastern nations to remain in the Warsaw Pact, which mean they were free to leave the Soviet orbit. Baker convinced a skeptical Bush that Gorbachev was a reformer. A little over a year later, in November of that momentous 1989, the Berlin War came down and the Cold War came to an end.

I had been there in 1987, when Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate implored Gorbachev to tear the wall down. I have an idea Reagan knew that was coming.

Anyway, the disarmament talks that had begun with Reagan (when we got briefed by a bright and articulate young officer named Colin Powell) and became the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) agreements, which seems quaint now. The elder Bush, a signer, not a destroyer, concluded the treaties.

Then came Saddam Hussein’s surprise invasion of Kuwait and the run up to war as Baker and his press entourage flitted around the world, putting together an unprecedented coalition, including Arab states, that was ready to support the U.S. if it went to war with Iraq. I was there that crazy night in Geneva when a last-minute effort to get Iraq to withdraw failed. No one in my office believed me when I told them there would be a war.

During and after the run-up to war (which other nations paid for), Baker promised the U.S. allies (and Bush agreed) that American forces would not push into Baghdad. He told traveling reporters that the U.S. would become an occupying force in a dangerous environment. Besides, he had pledged to the Arab nations he would pressure Israel to come to a peace conference, which organized in Madrid.

It was to be his last diplomatic triumph, for his old Houston friendship with Bush forced him to quit the State Department to run, without enthusiasm, the elder Bush’s unsuccessful re-election campaign.

And a few years later, when Baker was gone, the Soviet Union was gone, and world affairs were no longer as newsy, I had to find other things to do. I was no longer immortal and that came to me after chest pains from exhaustion and a terrible stomach upset on the way home from Syria.

That’s when I founded my column, Gray Matters (my wife helped name it) as a survival guide for people growing older in a time when their numbers are fast growing, but the hostility of government towards older Americans is also growing.

I discovered quickly that the business of growing older is complex, what with Medicare, Medicaid, long term care, Social Security and scores of retirement and elder law issues. But, like Time Goes By, no subject is ignored.

It was necessary I write this column, for I am a reporter and that’s what I do. And I’ve kept at it for my own survival through a stroke and cancer, which I told my readers about.

Indeed I’ve told my readers, unless you were a shoe salesman hating what you did, keep doing it. All of us can use your experience. There are too many young people on the news who were born the day before yesterday and could not possible know what you and I know. I remember what it was like for my mother and mother-in-law when they got sick before Medicare. Do the young know there were poorhouses before Social Security?

Anyway, after I wrote my first column about a woman who was forced to put her husband in a nursing home and wondered how she could afford to live, I was thunderstruck. I explained her rights under Medicaid. And I got dozens of letters from people asking the same question. It was more mail, by far, than for any of my cosmic stories on war and peace.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dani Ferguson Phillips: Susie MacNamara

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