Friday, August 31, 2018

What's In a Name?-- John McCain Edition

He was called a "giant of the Senate" by both Republicans and Democrats, and referred to as a man who "inspired universal admiration."  At his funeral, dignitaries praised him for his many accomplishments (especially his support of the military) as they looked back on his 40-year career as one of congress's most effective leaders. Within months after he died, a key federal building was named after him:  the Russell Senate Building, honoring the late Georgia Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr.

Of course, not everyone thought Mr. Russell was such an amazing person. Agreed, he championed the National School Lunch Program and helped to establish what later became known as the Center for Disease Control; he chaired the Armed Services Committee for years, and was thought of as an expert in military policy. But he was also an ardent segregationist, who repeatedly voted against, or tried to block, civil rights legislation, including the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He even opposed the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling that ended school segregation. Despite this, his senate colleagues believed there were many reasons he deserved recognition, and in 1972, naming the US Senate building after him made sense.

But in 2018, it makes no sense at all.  For one thing, it's no longer considered admirable to be an ardent segregationist. Yes, I know that even now, there are some white supremacists who have a devoted following (especially online); I also understand that many years ago, Senator Russell's racist views were far more common.  But I'd like to believe that times have changed.  I sincerely doubt a politician with openly segregationist views could rise to power in the senate today the way they could (and did) in previous generations.  It's also true that since the late 1960s, more people of color have entered politics, becoming governors, mayors of major cities, representatives, presidential candidates, and yes, President of the United States. In 1972, there were only 13 African-American members of congress; there are 50 today, and there may soon be more.

So why are some Republican members of congress resisting the idea to rename the senate building after another "giant of the Senate"-- the late John McCain? This should be a no-brainer. John McCain was a war hero, who spent more than three decades as a senator; he was true to his beliefs, a reliably Republican and conservative vote nearly all the time, and was very popular with his constituents. But unfortunately, he was not popular with Donald Trump, with whom he publicly disagreed on several policy matters (Senator McCain also objected to the president's crass and sometimes-vulgar way of speaking). Mr. Trump rarely missed an opportunity to criticize or mock Mr. McCain; the president didn't even send out a tribute to the senator's years of service as he lay dying. (And if Mr. Trump doesn't like someone, that means his base doesn't like that person either; this evidently concerns Republicans who want to be re-elected.)

I'm not a big fan of John McCain's politics; I am neither Republican nor conservative, and he was both.  He also supported some issues, such as the War in Iraq, that I did not.  But here's what I respected about Mr. McCain.  For one thing, he was among the few politicians who was willing to admit when he was wrong about an issue-- such as when he originally opposed establishing a holiday to honor Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and later came to regret that vote and apologize for it.  And during the presidential campaign in 2008, when one of his supporters accused then-Senator Obama of being a Muslim and implied he wasn't an American, Mr. McCain promptly refuted those assertions and said Mr. Obama was a "decent man, a family man," but someone with whom he just had policy differences. And throughout his career, as political polarization worsened, John McCain had friends who were Democrats; he sometimes worked with them on issues like campaign finance reform.

Whether President Trump liked John McCain or not shouldn't matter.  It seems to me that continuing to defend a building named for a segregationist is wrong. So is refusing to honor Senator McCain's many years in the senate to avoid offending Mr. Trump or alienating his base.  There are many Democrats who didn't agree with Senator McCain much, but they thought of him as an ethical person who cared deeply about the Senate and wanted to do right for his constituents.  It's time for Republicans in congress to do the right thing now and rename the Russell Senate Building to honor Senator McCain, sooner rather than later.     


Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Random Acts of Kindness, Neil Diamond Edition

It was a Thursday night in mid-October 1971, as I recall. And while I may be wrong about the date, I still remember the exciting opportunity I had: I was about to interview Neil Diamond.  A friend of mine, who was a top-40 deejay, was the host of a history of rock and roll called "Retro Rock," on ABC Radio's American Contemporary Radio Network, and he needed some quotes for a feature we were going to do about Neil's music. Thanks to my friend, I had become a writer and researcher for "Retro Rock." And while ABC radio wouldn't let me on the air (girls were still a rarity on top-40 radio), it was fun to hear what I wrote getting put to good use. 

Back then, Neil Diamond was not known for mellow pop music; he did some really good top-40 rock songs and he had a number of hits. I loved some of those songs, especially "Solitary Man" and "Kentucky Woman."  I also liked some of his more introspective songs like "Brooklyn Roads" and "Shilo." And now, I was going backstage to meet him.

I'll admit it:  I was really, really nervous. I mean, I had spent three years in college radio, but I didn't meet any famous people. Neil Diamond was larger than life to me. I didn't want to make a fool of myself, especially when my friend had worked so hard to help me get an interview.  I wanted to make a good impression, and I wanted to get the information for the episode of "Retro Rock."

I don't recall much about the interview itself; I must have gotten the right quotes, because the episode about Neil's work did get on the air. But something else happened. We were talking, and he asked me about myself-- and for some reason, I told him. I said it was a very frustrating time for me, career-wise. While being an anonymous writer was okay, what I really wanted to do was be on the air; but because I was female, nobody would give me a chance.  And other than my friend, few people in radio took me seriously.  It was probably unprofessional for me to talk about myself. But it was a moment, and I felt like he genuinely wanted to know, so I told him.

What happened next was a surprise. He gave me a hug and said something encouraging, telling me not to give up.  And he signed the tour book I brought with me, with a very heart-felt autograph next to the lyrics of "I Am... I Said."  He wrote: "She was... she said. And no-one heard at all... except me."

Years later, I still have that tour book. I doubt Neil Diamond remembers that evening, and unless he reads my blog (which I also doubt), he has no way of knowing that although it took another couple of years, I finally did get on the air and I ended up having the career I always wanted-- including meeting a large number of famous (and nearly famous) people, discovering a certain Canadian rock band, and doing all kinds of interviews with all kinds of entertainers.

I tell you this story because I remember Neil Diamond's kindness even though it was nearly fifty years ago. There's a message here, and it's worth keeping in mind:  sometimes, when you least expect it, someone will reach out and say what you need to hear; or someone will show you compassion where there hadn't been much before.  It may not be somebody famous, but that's not the point. These random acts of kindness can make a difference. In fact, maybe you'll be that someone. Maybe you'll be the one to reach out and encourage a person who needs a kind word.  And when it seems like nobody cares, maybe you'll be the one to let someone know that's not true, the way a famous singer did when he reached out to a young and inexperienced writer one evening in 1971.