The Power of the People

Never mind the traditional excesses of Thanksgiving, the horrors of Black Friday or the panic of the pre-Christmas rush. For afficionados of the sport of people-watching, the up-coming holiday season is the best season of the year. With crowds of impatient adults and captive children navigating the stormy seas of covetousness and retail madness from now until New Year’s Day, amusement should be easy to find.

In fact, I’ve already been amused. During a swing through our local Target store, I found myself waiting in the checkout line behind a child and his mother. The boy appeared to be about three, and he was fussy.  Hanging on to his mother’s skirt with both hands, he circled around and around until he found a comfortable spot, sandwiched between his mother and the cart. 

Peeking out from the folds of her skirt, he looked past us to the vibrant displays of candy and merchandise across the aisle. Using one hand to point to something, he tugged on her skirt with the other to gain attention.  Busy sorting through her purse, his mother ignored him while the rest of us started paying attention. Continue reading

The Marketplace of Ideas

I like to think of myself as fairly easy-going, but I don’t cope well with garage sales.

Over the years, I’ve prowled my share and even found a treasure or two, like these mint condition Woolenius tiles manufactured in Berkeley in the early 1900s. But artifacts of the Arts and Crafts movement are hard to come by, and the thought of hours spent pawing through plastic soap dishes and mismatched cutlery no longer appeals. People with growing children in need of clothing or toys, inveterate readers, Ebay resellers or folks with truly limited income no doubt have a different perspective.  But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify my life.  In my world,  garage sales rarely meet real needs. They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and an indiscriminate pile of “stuff”  to be hauled home and squirreled away before being “repurposed” by sending it off to Goodwill. Continue reading

Space, Lemons and Lemonade

So. Houston doesn’t get one of the real space shuttles. Fine.  As a friend with ties to NASA says, “What would you expect from people who can’t even get our most famous quotation right?” 

Of course she’s talking about the film Apollo 13 and the transformation of astronaut Jack Swigert’s, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here” into “Houston, we have a problem”.  The film makers had their reasons for the change, and it certainly didn’t detract from the film or from the space program. Still, a lot of things have been irritating folks since the announcement that Johnson Space Center will be home not to Discovery, Enterprise, Endeavour or Atlantis, but to Explorer, a shuttle replica built with a high percentage of plywood.

Be that as it may, communities surrounding Johnson Space Center have unbreakable ties with NASA. We continue to embody the spirit that enlivened our nation’s space program and we certainly know how to party. This weekend was party-time in Houston, as the city engaged in “Shuttlebration”, a city-wide tribute to the role of space exploration in our lives. Continue reading

The Yard Sale of Ideas

I like to think I’m a fairly easy-going sort.  I get along with most people who cross my path and I’m able to fulfill most of life’s responsibilities without too much grumbling, but there are things that drive me crazy. 

Yard sales (aka “garage sales”, “tag sales” or “rummage sales”) fit that category.  I can’t think of anything worse than spending a perfectly good day pawing through piles of stuff that other people have judged not worth keeping.  I’d much rather be reading or writing, spending a day at the beach or even cleaning my house. 

People with growing children and limited incomes, inveterate readers, quilters and crafters, Ebay re-sellers or folks with a passion for the act of buying have a different perspective, I’m sure.  But I’m not a shopper, and I’m trying to simplify.  In my life, yard sales don’t help meet real needs.  They provide little more than a few hours of distraction and a pile of purchases which need to be hauled home, hidden away and then handed over to the next neighbor who decides to hold a yard sale. Continue reading

All Dressed Up with Somewhere to Go


On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday.  There was cake, ice cream and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers.  On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents and neighbors celebrated an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and later as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying in its accustomed place on the dining room table where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words REVOLUTION IN HUNGARY splashed across the top.  

At that point in my life I never had met a Hungarian and had little idea what a revolution might entail.  But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious to see what required such large print and such a big picture, I paused to look at the paper, only to have  my mind wiped as clean of thought as our classroom blackboards at day’s end. Gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as my first, visceral understanding of a world far larger than my own and far less pleasant began to envelop me. Continue reading

With God on Our Side, Redux


This election night, as I watched MSNBC’s television coverage, followed a few liberals around battleground states on Twitter and read through an assortment of conservative blogs, I began to experience the equivalent of political vertigo.

As the evening progressed, two very different views of Barack Obama’s election began to emerge from the dizzying swirl of images.  One focused on the historic moment, not only celebrating a partisan victory and the election of our nation’s first Black President, but also reflecting on the journey of a nation that once accepted slavery as the norm.  In the opinion of others, Obama’s election betokened the erosion of traditional American values, the economic collapse of the United States, and perhaps the fall of Western Civilization itself at the hands of a nattily-dressed and smooth talking anti-Christ.

Several phrases I encountered last night distressed me.  One was that America is “getting what we deserve”.  It was meant to be a perjorative statement, implying that a misguided, stubborn, and possibly evil nation is being punished by God for our misdeeds and thoughts.  Quite apart from the question of whether God would punish an entire nation of Jobs for the political sins of a few, there’s a certain humor in the thought of Barack Obama as God’s chosen agent of destruction.  

But not everyone is amused.   Some express their frustration with the enormity of our problems and the rapidity of the changes overtaking our nation by saying, “This is not the America I grew up in”.   And they’re right.  It isn’t.  But our parents said the same thing, and their parents before them.  Society isn’t a museum but a living organism, constantly changing in response to the forces that ebb and flow around it.  Romanticizing the past is tempting, but re-creating the past is impossible.  Life moves forward, not back, and our destination is the future. Continue reading

Caring and Thinking: Two Men, Two Styles, One Goal


When William F. Buckley, Jr. died this year on February 27, I was touched by the on-air tribute given him by Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball.  I don’t always agree with Mr. Matthews, and I don’t always appreciate his style, but on that particular evening, he said something important. 

What struck me was not what Matthews said about William Buckley – his writing, his publications, his sailing, his extraordinarily privileged life – but what he said about himself.  As Matthews put it,  “To start out as a young conservative is not–let’s look at the facts–to end up there. But you have to start somewhere. You have to care before you can think, think before you can change your mind…   I owe that start to the man who died today at his desk…”

Those words came again to mind when I heard Tim Russert had died.  Like Buckley, Russert was a caring and thoughtful man, an extraordinary interviewer, and a bridge between worlds.  While Russert made the world of “inside the Beltway” politics more accessible to ordinary Americans, Buckley brought intellect and wit to  television and helped make erudite conversation the newest parlor game in town.  When I listed “good conversation” as my favorite sport on my Wordpress “About Me” page, it’s at least in part a testament to the influence of Buckley’s Firing Line in my life.  On the other hand, when I settle in with a cup of coffee and a printed newspaper or one of the blogs I follow, it’s partly because of a passion for political process that Tim Russert helped engender.

Certainly there were differences between the men: in background, temperament and style. 

The aristocratic and patrician Buckley could be – and often was – insufferable, pompous, or unutterably obnoxious.  He just as often was brilliant, despite his acerbic tongue and impenetrable vocabulary.  Buckley was all privilege, old money, and connections forged over generations.  Born in New York, he lived in Mexico and Connecticut before beginning first grade in Paris and being further schooled in London.  An accomplished harpsichordist who wanted Bach played at his funeral, he attended Yale and graduated into a life that became the stuff of legends. 

Tim Russert, on the other hand, was working class Buffalo, a “just-folks” sort of fellow full of homespun wisdom, compassion and a kindness toward others – even perfect strangers – that was legendary.  As E.J. Dione of the Brookings Institute put it, “Tim Russert knew it was as easy to be kind as to be cruel.”  No harpsichordist, he: it was The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, who played Thunder Road at his memorial service.  Not given to the linguistic flourishes of a Buckley, he was intelligent and insightful, if just a bit uncertain of himself in the beginning.  When he first came to work for Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan recognized his insecurity and gave him a classic piece of advice, saying, “What they know you can learn.  What you know, they never can learn.”

 As these things happen, each man became associated with his own remarkable television phenomenon.

Buckley’s Firing Line was must-see tv for years. After he died, Eric Konigsberg, writing in the February 29 New York Times rehearsed a bit of the history of the show, an hour-long PBS production.   Over the years guests included Louis S. Auchincloss, Alistair Cooke, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Simon.  Politicians weren’t the only ones who showed up.  Malcolm Muggeridge was there, as was Mortimer Adler and Jorge Luis Borges, Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. 

During Allen Ginsbergs appearance, the poet asked Mr. Buckley’s permission to sing a song in praise of Lord Krishna.  According to Richard Brookhiser, quoted by Konigsberg, “Bill was very gentle with him.  He said, ‘Of course’…  Mr. Ginsberg proceeded to play a long and doleful number on a harmonium, chanting along slowly and passionately,  And when he was finished, Bill said, ‘Well, that’s the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard.’ ”

That is pure Buckley, but Russert had his own, equally enjoyable style.  Until Eugene Robinson pointed it out, I hadn’t been aware of some Meet the Press  traditions.  “After each segment, a photographer comes out to take a picture for the archives.  When the taping is done, snacks are brought to the set and the guests linger for a while, chatting with the host about their families, about baseball, about the news of the day and about what’s likely to be the news of tomorrow.  It’s all so civilized that it feels almost anachronistic.”

In this photograph from Meet the Press archives, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, cavorts with Russert, his wife Jackie Clegg and their daughters, Christina and Grace. after a taping at the NBC Washington studios on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007 (AP Photo/Meet the Press, Alex Wong).  There were many reasons newsmakers fought to be on Meet the Press, and while post-grilling socializing wasn’t at the top of the list, it surely played a role in the overall appeal of working with Russert.

It can be tempting to see Buckley and Russert as different ends of the thinking-and-caring scale, with Buckley the thinker and Russert the one who cared, but that simply isn’t so. Both men gave profound thought to the issues of the day and both cared deeply – not only about the issues, but about their life’s work and the people around them. 

Equally important was their passionate care and concern for what they understood to be their responsibility to the nature and development of civility in public discourse.  Whether writing, interviewing, or speaking, whether engaging the public by the persuasiveness of their ideas or sheer force of personality, both men brought passion, intellect and good humor to their love of truth and politics.

Given their dedication and passion, it seems perfectly fitting that both men died at their work.  William Buckley was writing at his desk.  Tim Russert was in a studio at NBC’s Washington News Bureau recording a voice-over.  Men of faith schooled in Jesuit traditions,  both understood the meaning of laborare est orare – to work is to pray – and both left this life wrapped in the mantle of that prayer.  

As I think about these two lives lost in one year, and about their contributions to our public life, I cannot help but ponder the need to maintain balance between caring and thinking.  Thought without care risks becoming judgmental.  Caring without the discipline of thought easily becomes sentimentality.  Finding the appropriate balance between the two is one of our most important tasks.

Though never granted opportunity to know these two remarkable men personally, I value their lives and work, and refuse to choose one over the other.  Like thinking and caring, they seem to belong together – two visions and two voices born of two different worlds which share a single goal: an engaged and informed populace willing to forego platitudes and easy answers in favor of discernment and commitment to difficult decisions.

Whatever their differences, the words of Bessie Anderson Stanley surely apply to both:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of Earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.

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