Friday, December 30, 2016

Cyril deGrasse Tyson

In July of 1964, while serving as a rabbi of Newark, New Jersey’s last remaining large Jewish congregation, I helped found The United Community Corporation.  It was the first community action agency funded by Lyndon Johnson’s Equal Opportunity Act.  The War on Poverty had come to the city where I had grown up and had watched succumb to debilitating white flight.  In July of 1967 the central ward of the city would be decimated by riot.  The UCC had been an effort to turn things around.  The corrupt Mayor – he would later go to jail – and City Council thought it would be their self-serving tool.  The structure of the federal law and funding obviated their plans.  The UCC was an independent entity, subject to the community and run by a board of which I was a vice president.  Its president was the remarkable C. Willard Heckel, Dean of the Rutgers Law School, later to become national moderator (president) of the Presbyterian Church.  Our first task was to find and hire an executive director.  That brought me together with Cyril deGrasse Tyson who came to us from the early anti-poverty effort HARYOU.   We all called him Ty. 

Cyril deGrasse Tyson
Ty came into Newark as in a whirlwind, a force of nature grounded in pragmatic idealism with an unshakable moral core.  We became instant like-minded warriors and friends.  Our time in Newark came to an end; the friendship endured.  Ty died yesterday in upstate New York.  2016 was what Queen Elizabeth would rightly describe as an Annus Horribilis, a horrible year.  A host of notables, people who accomplished important things, left us, many in its closing days.  Ty was one of them.  After Newark he would serve, among others, in John Lindsay’s administration as Commissioner of Manpower and Career Development.  His resume was impressive, but wherever and however he served professionally, Ty was a visionary.  That’s what set him apart.  He could see what could be and then worked determinedly to make it happen.  He was committed to the idea of “power to the people” not as an abstract but as an attainable reality.

One might say that the devastating riot in Newark was a repudiation of everything that the UCC and Ty had done in the years before.  He documented the story of the agency's formative years in his comprehensive volume, 2 Years Before the Riot.  In fact, the city’s decades long history of municipal corruption combined with the combustible frustration of an African American community that had long been rendered powerless is what lit the match.  Ty’s work and his relentless commitment to empowerment of the people had an immediate and lasting transformative impact.  The UCC was the first time that the Black majority was put in control of publically funded programs.  That could not have happened, certainly not with such intentionality, without Ty.  It was a transfer of power that would be the harbinger for the city’s future.  Ken Gibson, one of my fellow vice presidents, would become the city’s first African American mayor.  In a real sense, former mayor and now Senator Corey Booker owes his opportunity to the groundwork Ty laid in the 1960s.

Cyril deGrasse Tyson was an intense human being with a razor sharp mind, always  churning, always on the move.  Before anyone else, he saw the empowering potential of computer technology for community action agencies, documented in his book, The Unconditional War on Poverty.  He didn’t just encounter life but analyzed it to the core, transmitting his insightful conclusions to all who would listen.  He had a passion and urgency about ideas that never diminished.  The last time we were together in the home he shared with family a few years back, I was struck by how that passion and intensity was undiminished – Ty, almost like a kid who had just made a new discovery, was ever the force of nature.  Those who knew him and, like myself, called him dear friend were warmed by that glow.

I have always felt that the real and underlying quality of public figures, of whom Ty was certainly one, is best seen in what they are about at home not in the office.  Ty’s lifelong love and equal partner, a woman of grace and supreme intelligence, Sunchita (whom we call Toni) is at its core.  They have made the incredible journey together and parented three remarkable accomplished children: Stephen, Neil and Lynn.  When Ty and I first met they were all youngsters.  They are now contributors to society, something most assuredly facilitated by supportive and inspirational parents.  Ty is no longer with us physically, but he will always be a larger than life, yes transformative, part of mine.  We are all better for having crossed and dwelled in his path, for having had him touch our lives.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Amazing Grace

You sang it in Charleston.  More important, you’ve lived it.  You brought Amazing Grace to us with your remarkable presidency.  Sometimes when recounting your administration’s accomplishments, you’d add rhetorically, “thank you, Obama”.  Well thank you Obama, thank you Mr. President for what you have done for the country and for us all.  You’ve made a difference and we are better for it.  Whatever lies ahead, our hopes will not, dare not, be diminished.

There are so many things that I will miss about President Barack Obama, not the least the steady and reliable hand with which he governed these past eight years.  But perhaps as much as anything else, I’ll miss his uplifting oratory.  He has that special gift given to very few.  Having grown up with a father who had a similar gift, public oratory is particularly dear to my heart.  Listening to a great speech beautifully delivered is like hearing the music of the masters, of Bach, Beethoven or Brahms.

All presidents are required to deliver public addresses.  Some are very proficient speakers, others fall flat.  Bill Clinton, once called the explainer-in-chief, is a compelling speaker as was Ronald Reagan building on his theatrical experience.  Looking back at history one thinks of John F. Kennedy at his inaugural and before the Berlin wall, but in the twentieth century Franklin Roosevelt had no peer.  Fortunately, we have a substantial amount of film footage showing how he electrified audiences.  Abraham Lincoln wrote some of our greatest presidential speeches, but is said to have had a high pitched voice which effected his delivery.  In the known presidential pantheon – we will never know how Washington or Jefferson delivered – Obama stands out and perhaps apart.

Many of our presidents came to the fore after years of public service, mostly with a slow credential build that included years in Congress or as governors.  Obama came to us through a single speech, what historians may one day call the speech.  Delivered by the then Illinois State Senator at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama blasted instantaneously onto the national scene.  I watched it with others and said to them that we were seeing a future president.  I was hardly alone in that assessment and can think of no comparable experience.  I had been watching every convention keynote since my teenage years.  Just four years later the speech propelled Obama into candidacy and then election.  Thanks especially to YouTube, we can watch and listen to that and all his major speeches.  I have done so, if only for their “music”.

Obama has the oratorical gift of FDR coupled with a Lincoln-like pen.  It isn’t merely his delivery but the beauty of language.  For sure, like all presidents, he employs gifted speech writers, but to one degree or another his hand is in all those texts.  We’ve read his books and know that he is a serious and accomplished writer.  Oratory and text are a powerful combination, part of what makes both listening to and/or reading his speeches so special.  His brief victory speech on election night 2008 in Chicago’s Grant Park captured the essence of the campaign and the historic moment – the election of the first African American president – as he gave confirming closure to the slogan, “yes we can”.  A bookend to that talk, an affirmation of its historic nature, came for me in his moving address commemorating fifty years after Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge last year.  By that time, in the penultimate year of his presidency, Obama had become more comfortable with aligning himself more closely with the civil rights movement and addressing matters of race head on.

Presidents are expected to be our consoler in chief.  Obama has often had to fulfill that role in tribute to notables who died in the fullness of their years, but also when lives were brutally taken by violence, most painfully children.  His eulogy for Nelson Mandela was another of his soaring and moving oratories, delivered before the assembled thousands including three of his predecessors in a South African arena.  Like the Selma speech that would follow, it contained echoes of the civil rights movement but on an international scale.  It was there that he shook hands with Raul Castro, the first step of what would end in more normalized relations with Cuba.  The gesture fit both Mandela’s peacemaking with your adversary legacy and the extended hand message of Obama’s eulogy.

Most painful were his addresses at Sandy Hook elementary school and Charleston, the sites of senseless mass murders.  Obama has often said that the day of the Sandy Hook massacre was the worst of his presidency, something that deeply touched the nation and him personally as a father.  So, too, the slaughter of worshippers and their pastor in Charleston.  These poignant talks combine empathy for the surviving families with moral outrage at the senselessness of gun violence.  Both are worth a listen and will be for years to come.

Obama at his very best as what I’d call a stadium orator.  His style fits massive audiences, something shared with many great orators, who, like live theater actors, thrive on the electricity generated by the crowd.  Altogether Obama is definitely far better before a live audience (of any size) than talking into a camera for his formalistic weekly address.  FDR may have been the master of the “fire side”, Obama is not.  He needs that interplay, that emotional contact even if those he is addressing are just listening.  Even then the audience and speaker are joining in making the experience, each acting their role in the “performance”, making it individually special.  Orators like Obama may be getting some gratifying feedback from the applause of a responsive audience, but what is really more important is the energy it generates.  It’s that shared energy, the dialogue, that makes the difference between a very good and extraordinary speech.  It is also where an orator and a mere speechmaker can be differentiated.  Great orators enjoy the experience, while speechmakers may see it as a chore.  While I’d guess Obama leaves the podium on a high, a lesser speaker may leave it with a sense of relief, a dreaded job completed.

Amazing grace is what we’ve had – the exposure to a very special gift and talent – in Barack Obama.  For sure, like many politicians, Obama could rouse the crowd marshalling them for the “cause”.  He did that on the campaign trail, but most of his gifts were used to inspire.  It is the inspiration that we will remember.  Whatever happens to his legacy of accomplishments as a result of a change in leadership, especially in these highly partisan time, his speeches will remain intact and undisturbed.  I for one am likely to revisit them, just to hear the words and delivery again.  I haven’t been doing that with the speeches of a Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, or either of the Bushes.  That’s not to take away from the import of their respective messages but rather for my greater interest in oratorical “poetry” over “prose”.  It’s what I described earlier as “music”.  Obama’s singing rendition of Amazing Grace may not have been at the level of his spoken words, but the speech it completed in a Charleston church hit all the right notes, perfect pitch.  Thank you, Mr. President.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Transition: 2

Ask countless young African American children to envision the president and they’ll see someone who looks a lot like them.  They have known nothing but Barack Obama.  At this point most Americans may take him for granted, but for people of color his sitting in the Oval Office remains a huge, very personal, deal.  That was so when he took the oath on January 20, 2009 and remains so.  I feel the same way.  For those of us with roots planted deep in the civil rights movement, who listened intently to the dreamers of the 1960s, the idea that we would see his presidency in our time seemed impossible, fanciful.  He described his own rise and election as “improbable”.  In the coming years, Donald Trump and company may try to erase his memory and undo all that he accomplished.  They will fail.

I believe history will judge Obama well but, like his predecessors, he is a mortal.  Along with many significant accomplishments, he has made sometimes wrong or costly decisions, taken actions that ran counter to our expectations.  He has tried hard to keep us out of wars (stupid stuff), out of occupations and nation building.  But, despite heralded troop exists, Afghanistan and Iraq remain unresolved and the region is in turmoil.  He resisted entering the Syrian conflict (and has taken much heat for it), but has authorized lethal drone attacks in numerous places with the usual “unintended” consequences.  Innocents have perished, something that he bemoaned in his recent NPR “exit interview” with Steve Inskeep.  Obama opposes Trump’s espoused plan to deport all the undocumented, but his administration has deported many.  Obama has been surprisingly hostile to whistle blowers – he should pardon Snowden, but won’t. 

For all but two of his years, the president has faced a hostile Congress, one that tried to subvert his every move, most effectively and outrageously his third Supreme Court nomination.  He has been the object of derision and irrational hate – denials notwithstanding, much of it racial.  This year’s unexpected presidential vote and outcome has been subjected to much analysis (including my own).  More will come including the predictable pundit and academic books.  The story of 2016 is complex, but in the end perhaps it all adds up to just one word: backlash.  Obama campaigned on change.  Some of his supporters feel disappointed, contend he’s fallen short of what they expected.  Even so, I’d argue that he has brought about enough change to produce the tentative backlash of 2010 and a more definitive one in 2016.  All elections are reactive, confirming or opposing the status quo.  Voters are often looking for some correction.  Real backlash elections are rare.  The changes that you and I may consider evolutionary and progress are seen by others as radical, disruptive and thus deeply unsettling.  They cast their votes in November to reject – not merely to modify but to replace what they perceive has been done “to them”.

Nothing tokens the change they reject more than Obama himself.  His (along with his wife and daughters) taking up residence in the “White” House is its visualization, its personification.  The euphoric myth of post racialism gave way almost immediately, if not before he was even inaugurated.  With his every appearance, many in the once assumed invincible “majority” were reminded that they were losing ground.  It reminds me of the “white flight” brought on when the first Black families moved into my middleclass neighborhood in Newark New Jersey.  The feeling-dispossessed majority just packed up and moved knowing they had somewhere to go, another enclave where they would be surrounded by people like themselves.  At the time, not a single African American held significant public office, Latinos were a non-factor and gays hid “safely” in their anguish-laden closets.  The perceived “threat” was local and containable, could be distanced, made purposefully invisible.  After 2008 all that changed.  Things seemed out-of-control with “that man” in “our” White House.  “Real Americans” were losing their rightful place of supremacy, expected to accept, even if they didn’t embrace, a new reality.  After endless years of pointing fingers at others, fingers were now pointing at them and their “outmoded” thinking and ways.  That simply wouldn’t do, couldn’t be left to stand.  Change was too much, backlash was in order and, for the moment at least, it rules the day.

Barack Obama won’t be exiting the White House head held down.  His insistence on a smooth transition in the face of what might be seen by some as a repudiation reflects an understanding that only someone like him can have.  He, as a student of history, is unsurprised – disappointed for sure, but not surprised.  Backlash isn’t new.  He will let history judge him in part because he knows it will, but also because he remains confident that what’s happened in these last eight years has been progress.  As he told Inskeep, “the country is a lot better off now than it was when I took office in almost every dimension.” In the end his most meaningful accomplishments will win out because, as we know from other instances of unresolved conflict, conditions on the ground matter.  The ACA may come under another name, but its reality can’t easily be undone.  Marriage Equality is here to stay.  A person of color can always be considered for the highest office in the land and, after Hillary’s nomination, it stands to reason a woman will occupy the oval office.  Donald Trump will ultimately be judged as president not as candidate.  He will be measured against Barack Obama but also past incumbents from both parties: the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  Americans have become accustomed in these past eight years to a classy president and first family; the Trumps have a hard act to follow and must measure up.

Timothy Eagan wrote a wonderful New York Times column in late November entitled, Farewell to the Comedian-in Chief.  It was a tribute to Obama’s funny side, his ability to deliver and to take humor.  While most pointedly on display at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, the president’s full-toothed smile and funny, often self-deprecating, comments ran through his tenure.  They will be sorely missed, most especially in contrast to his successor.  Donald Trump is perhaps the most humorless political figure to take center stage in a long time. His attempt to make a funny speech famously ran flat at New York’s Al Smith dinner and in fact evoked booing from the assembled black tie crowd.  He certainly can’t take jokes directed at him, never having forgiven Obama for the zingers so directed at correspondents dinner he attended 2011.  Alec Baldwin’s SNL impersonation drives him crazy.  There are many reasons to have concern about his upcoming presidency, but being without humor may be close to the top of the list.  Thin-skinned narcissists clothe themselves in armor to no one’s advantage.

In the weeks ahead, the new Senate will come into session and begin vetting Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees.  Given a GOP majority, most and probably all, will be confirmed.  But the process itself will be something new for the man who has always had the last unquestioned word in the Trump empire he ruled.  Democrats certainly, but also some Republicans, will be asking some tough questions, making some demands.  Conflict of interest and past positions and records will come into play.  For two years at least the incoming president will benefit from his party’s hold on both houses of Congress and what is likely to be a strong conservative majority in the Supreme Court.  But a mid-term election can change all that, just ask Barack Obama.  The scary thing about Trump is that he comes to office as the most inexperienced president in history and, the most unpredictable in part because he has no record and also because of his mercurial personality.  Scary for us, but this will also represent a huge test for him.  The Americans who voted for him may have cheered his often over-the-top promises, but, like the rest of us, they expect orderly and, yes predictable, government.  During the campaign he talked a big game, now he must deliver.  Late night or early morning tweets won’t do it.

The Constitution provided us with three branches of government to ensure checks and balances.  When one party essentially controls all three we can expect less vigorous checking and less of a balance.  But the founding fathers didn’t stop with government, they put citizens in the mix giving us, at least with the Executive and Legislative branches, the final say.  Votes count and voters count, so do our voices.  The next two years will be a test for the new president and for his fellow office holders.  It will also be a test for us.  Let’s hope we are up to it and will do our part.