You can call it “fake news” or the subjugation of truth, but when confronted by self-serving diatribes and obstructionist partisan arguments, I saw several witnesses at the impeachment hearings persist and tell the truth — or at least preserve its credibility — no matter how difficult that was for them.
When I was a driver for U.S. Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias’s (R-MD) during the Watergate proceedings, news and politics were different than today. Credibility was everything.
On TV, Walter Cronkite delivered the truth on the CBS Evening News. He was voted the most trusted man in America.
The newspapers never had that power of personality, but they doggedly stood behind their stories, even when they relied upon undisclosed sources like “Deep Throat.” They knew they were at risk every day.
Credibility sold the news, and advertising, and paid for heavy overhead and lots of investigative reporters.
Today, news sources on the web do not need credibility. They have followers instead.
They are also not at risk because they have few, if any expenses, and are often not even identifiable. Social media is flooded with unverifiable news sources, some of which are paid for by our enemies as they seek to disrupt our country’s elections.
Senator Mathias was from Frederick, Maryland — farm country — two hours west of DC. He was fiercely loyal to his city and his state. He cherished his reputation for integrity and his nickname, “The Conscience of the Senate.”
It was different back then, but it is still the same.
I was driving Mathias when he was summoned by President Nixon to an afternoon rally the next day. Mathias was to be filmed beside Nixon for the evening news that night. Mathias had, in essence, been summoned to give the President an unspoken endorsement in Maryland’s Washington suburbs, in Mathias’s home state.
Maryland is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. Mathias was no fan of Nixon and Nixon knew it, but Nixon was a Republican and so was Mathias.
Credibility was everything to Mathias but he couldn’t say “no” to the president without punishment from his party.
I picked the Senator up at his home that morning and we headed to his scheduled meetings.
The first thing he said to me as he got into the car was, “looks like that tread on the left rear tire is thin.”
After the morning meetings and before lunch, I offered to take the car to get the tire checked, but Mathias said he wanted me inside to record his speech on the handheld tape recorder I always carried with me for such occasions. He made sure he was never misquoted.
After lunch, as he got into the car he pointed and asked me, “You think it looks like that tread is dangerous?”
I insisted that I get the tire checked immediately so we would be on time for the rally.
The Senator thought for a judicious moment. “I think you are right, Bob. Let’s get it looked at.” But as I turned into a filling station he quietly said, “I have always bought my tires up at the Goodyear store in Frederick.”
By the time we got back to Washington, the rally was over. As I let him out of the car that night, he asked me to remind him to send his apologies to the White House.
To maintain credibility in the face of power, persistence may not always offer the opportunity to speak the truth. But at least it’s a statement on its own: the resistance is a placeholder for the truth, and it retains our gravity.
It is different now, but it remains the same.
I remember when Congress actually had good manners and I almost got a chance to cite the Constitution in traffic court.
Many years ago, from within a culture of politeness, I watched the U.S. Congress impeachment proceedings of Richard Nixon. Now, 45 years later, this culture of politeness in Congress doesn’t exist, but back then it seemed to have several benefits.
I got a job in the office of Senator Charles “Mac” Mathias (R-MD) as his mail clerk. My “office” was directly behind the wall that separated me from the receptionist and everybody else.
After several months, I got a chance to demonstrate my enthusiasm. The Senator knocked on my door and told me he had a “special assignment” for me.
He told me that there was a lobbyist right on the other side of that wall who was sitting in the receptionist area. The lobbyist had just threatened to pull all of his airline clients out of BWI unless the Senator voted in favor of a bill that would be considered by the Senate that afternoon.
The senator told me to take the lobbyist to the Senate dining room and take detailed notes on what he wanted.
I straightened my tie, went through the door, and introduced myself.
After a brief moment, the lobbyist looked me over and asked me, “What exactly is your job title?”
I proudly told him, “I am the mail clerk!”
He thanked me, declined my invitation to the Senate dining room, and left.
One of the benefits of this culture of politeness was it encouraged good manners without public reprimand.
The Senator eventually took pity on me and I became his driver.
Back then, the Senate was bipartisan and the senators got along. We filled up the back seat with the likes of Kennedy from Massachusetts and Tower from Texas. We all listened to the political news in the car together on WTOP.
Despite often radically different points of view, this civility grew from a collective belief that these representatives were exercising a shared power. It made sense. This responsibility of shared power allowed a culture of compromise and progress that we have not seen since the country has been polarized.
There was a reverence on both sides for the Constitution. Mathias always had a copy in his coat pocket.
No one was immune from this culture, including me. One time as we were headed to Washington from the western part of the state, Mathias leaned over to me, turned down the radio, and said, “We can pick it up a little. You are going to law school. If we get pulled over, you will be able to cite the Constitution to the officer.” Mathias smiled as he patted his coat pocket. “It is illegal to hinder a member of Congress on the way to a vote.”
I never asked him for the chapter and the verse. I just drove a little faster. It just made sense.
So this is what an old progressive thinks he learned from his granddaughter:
Last Sunday afternoon, before my visiting daughter and son-in-law went off to the 8:00 PM Ravens/Patriots game, I volunteered for the early morning shift of “baby duty” the following morning, so they could sleep a little later the next morning.
When Ann, my granddaughter, woke up at 6:00 AM, I fed her her first bottle of the day and we settled into the couch to read a book as we listened to a little Oscar Peterson.
Ann is a very mellow child — unless she is bored. When she is bored, she will cry a little until you introduced her to something new for her to look at or listen to.
When reading books finally didn’t do the trick, we cruised the house looking at artwork and the photographs on the shelves. She was verbal in her approval and remarkable in her concentration.
After a while, we returned to the couch and she bounced gently on my knee to Oscar’s rhythms until she fell asleep in my arms, her head on my chest.
Although we have known each other for her first six months, that morning something had changed. I had listened to her and she had trusted me enough to go to sleep as I was holding her.
We all live under a set of laws which are enforced in different ways. The government issues tickets for speeding or going through a stop sign, but the rules of the road are enforced by indignant drivers who honk their horns.
Nationally, we are punished for violations of federal laws or state laws, but in much of our country also, for violations of “political correctness.” The first two are enacted by our legislatures and interpreted by our courts. The third is the law of a progressive culture, and the rules of this road are now also enforced by the indignant. For them, it is as it is on the highway. There is no appeal for those who they judge to violate these rules, other than an extended middle finger.
Many of the front runners in the Democratic party, with the best of intentions, seek to codify many of these rules. They are indignant at those who wrongly disagree about America’s history of immigration, climate change, universal healthcare, women’s rights, and the rights of gay and transgender people. They have passionate supporters who look down their nose at the “undereducated,” who do not understand the new and better rules of the road.
When Alice and Rick, my natural children, were born they were “my” children and I demanded that I hold them almost immediately after their birth. There was a genetic bond from the start. But with my granddaughter, she is once removed and it was up to me to earn my place in “her” family. With both, I was equally as paternalistic and well-intended, but the relationship was different.
It is easy for a political party to advocate the “obvious” good intended for our country and its people, but how that message is received is the issue, particularly when these rules are seen to threaten the livelihood, safety, and patriotic beliefs of the unconverted.
Further, this intolerance makes it easy to drive a wedge between the two sides and demonize the believers in order to polarize the fearful.
The most effective advocacy starts with listening and empathy if you want others to be part of your family and you want to be part of theirs.
My granddaughter had a voice, if not words, and I had to win her respect and trust. If I had imposed my effort to teach her reading, or required she love the genius of Oscar Peterson, that trust would never have developed as it did.
We are not enemies. We are Americans that disagree. Trusting enough to listen may get us what we want.
As the pendulum swings we run out of time.
You know that old joke about if there is one lawyer in town he will go broke but if there are two they both get rich? I keep thinking that’s how our political parties presently work.
But what is wrong with good old American “enlightened self interest”? I mean the two lawyers are not evil or anything. They didn’t intentionally get rich. Same with our political parties.
It is convenient that there are two sides to every conflict, which could potentially become volatile and polarize us — hot button “call to action“ advertising helps but “propaganda” and “false news” really works great! Gerrymandering is just organizing and expanding the zip code of the client base when the holiday cards go out.
Somehow politicians go in poor and end up rich when they come out. How does that happen?
Almost five years ago, to the day, I ran for office in a gerrymandered Republican district and got crushed. I believed back then the people in my district would recognize that the gerrymandering by our politicians was starting to be responsible for the polarization of our country. We knocked on almost 7,000 doors. When I dropped off my literature, I talked to the people I met and almost every time, we joked and enjoyed each other’s company until I was asked, “Republican or Democrat,” at which point the door was slammed in my face.
The polarization now is much worse than when I ran, because it affects not only our country but our place in the world and the “moral authority” we have championed since the Second World War as “leaders of the free world.”
Last month, with the knee-jerk fulfillment of a campaign promise from our last polarized election, we abandoned one of our most loyal allies, the Kurds, who suffered over 11,000 casualties in our battle to eradicate ISIS in northern Syria (we supplied mostly air strikes and lost almost no soldiers). Now we are no longer able to claim to be their trustworthy ally:
Victoria Nuland, who spent more than three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service as a top Russian policy expert and representative to NATO, Ukraine, and Europe during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, recently said in an interview with the Harvard Gazette:
“When you are an unreliable ally, then countries and leaders around the world who have bet their security by being on your team have to start hedging their bets and developing multiple relationships… We’ve already felt it vis-à-vis our ability to influence Turkey’s behavior; we’re certainly going to feel it now in Iraq. Israel has been hedging for quite some time in terms of its relationship with Iran. And you see it in other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Why should the Germans listen to us when we say, “Don’t deepen your economic and information relationship with China?”
It would seem that this must eventually affect every aspect of our life including how safe we feel at home and the cost of the international products we buy in our stores.
Under the constitutions, state and federal, our politicians control the shape and parameters of the political districts from which we elect them. This could obviously be a very powerful tool to make sure that they get elected in a greater proportion than what would otherwise be appropriate.
The Supreme Court has had numerous chances to address gerrymandering but has refused to do so: “Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts ruled in a decision that split the court 5-4. He was joined in the decision by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the court’s conservative wing. Polarization in the Supreme Court, too?
The real trouble is polarization cuts both ways. The Supreme Court, with this ruling, has determined that the Democratic Party in Maryland can constitutionally keep Republicans from having equal representation in the State of Maryland.
According to the Republican appointees to the Supreme Court, our politicians and political parties control our democracy, we don’t.
So what do I suggest? Before that second lawyer moves into your neighborhood, run out the first one. Then meet somebody with whom you disagree, discuss your differences, learn again how to listen, and then figure out a compromise together and do what only you can do. Overturn the Supreme Court and vote out any politician who won’t overturn gerrymandering, and by so doing, help make America great again!