Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Remembering America

While traveling recently by train through a New England countryside, I was reminded of a time when life moved at a more moderate pace; when every small town in America had a distinctive character, with genteel houses and front porches dating to colonial times, main streets lined with banners of American flags and lemonade stands. It harkens back to Saturday Evening Post covers by Norman Rockwell, portraying an idealized slice of American life that satisfied our longing for a quieter, simpler time.

For those of us who grew up in places like Phillipsburg and Moorestown and Hightstown, small to moderate-sized towns in New Jersey that are replicated in thousands of towns across America, these images and memories remain with us long after we become ensnared in busy, pressure-filled lives in the city, where life is more stimulating, the food more exotic, the people more diverse; where the arts flourish and everything is available for a price.

Certain memories of our youth remain with us even as we age and the decades blend together. I remember fondly walking several blocks uphill on Parry Drive as a young boy to peruse the books at the Moorestown Public Library and then wander into Woolworth’s on Main Street; frequenting the bagel and hoagie shops with my high school friends on Tuesday afternoons in Hightstown, and congregating with friends by the duck pond near my house in East Windsor. In college, I occasionally strayed from Wittenberg University’s bucolic campus to see a movie or frequent the bars in downtown Springfield, Ohio, an old industrial town that appeared then more substantial than it does now. These images were reinforced in the many small towns I passed through when I delivered grocery supplies throughout New England in the three summers I lived in Massachusetts during college.

In looking back, our memories suggest more innocent times, when as children we played outside on summer nights after dark, knowing that home was within shouting distance, and the moonlight and poetic dance of lightning bugs would lead us safely to the front porches and unlocked screen doors of our houses. But remembrances of our childhood are ultimately overcome by the reality of adulthood. The intervening years add weariness and wisdom born of the disappointments of unrealized dreams.

The passage of time also imposes a sense of history. As a young man, I quickly discovered that not everything was so pure in those golden days of youth. There was a dark underbelly of injustice, prejudice, inequality, and violence displayed on the nightly news that frequented life in the United States. While I played hide-and-seek with neighborhood friends in East Windsor, New Jersey, 19-year old boys were dying in a far-off Asian land more than halfway around the world, fighting a war our leaders had privately acknowledged years before was unwinnable, in a place and for a cause we did not understand. While I hit groundballs to my brother in the backyard on Saturday afternoons and played touch football with a motley collection of self-satisfied teenagers on my block, we were oblivious to the ongoing struggle for racial equality and black empowerment, to the way American corporations profited at the expense of clean air and clean water, and to ever widening economic inequities that increasingly left a substantial segment of Americans behind.

Only as I started to pay attention to the world around me did I begin to understand how fortunate I was to have a stable, loving family and a comfortable, middle-class existence. Others were not so lucky. I became aware that some of my classmates contended with broken homes, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug abuse, disabilities and mental illness. It was an intolerant time for people of differing sexual orientations, most of whom remained closeted in a society that did not allow them to live life on their God-intended terms. Girls were still treated as subservient to boys despite rising feminist consciousness, and racial minorities were disproportionately housed in “the projects” and suffered the suspicion and derision of the local police and a predominantly white culture.

The Rockwellian-inspired images of small-town America remain places of illusion and possibility in part because, like our nostalgic memories of childhood, they depict America as a land of freedom and opportunity; where anything is possible; where we are a nation bound together by the rule of law, the Constitution, and a spirit of engaged citizenship. And yet, it is in the great American cities where we more frequently achieve the ideals of democracy and pursue our dreams. Although central New Jersey with its abundant farmland felt more like Indiana than the east coast, New York and Philadelphia were always in our line of sight; the excitement of Broadway, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell and other historical landmarks, big league sports stadiums and the hustle and bustle of city life only a one-hour drive away.

As a young man, my love of baseball reinforced my sense of America on a grand scale. In the two to three decades following the integration of major league baseball in 1947, big league ballparks brought to life in a practical sense the ideals of America, where true racial integration, a sense of fair play and competition, and the pastoral beauty of green fields and open landscapes in an urban setting came together as one. As the late author and baseball lover Philip Roth, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, wrote in an essay for The New York Times, baseball allowed him “to understand and experience patriotism in its tender and humane aspects, lyrical rather than martial or righteous in spirit, and without the reek of saintly zeal, a patriotism that could not quite so easily be sloganized.” The game “was a kind of secular church,” Roth continued, “that reached into every class and region of the nation and bound us together in common concerns, loyalties, rituals, enthusiasms, and antagonisms.”

Baseball, like the small colonial towns of New England and the quaint main streets of small-town America, appeals to our yearnings to restore the symbols of America, to once again believe in our institutions, our democracy, and our leaders. I grew up with a sense of reverence for America’s great leaders. Washington, Lincoln, the Roosevelts – and, in my lifetime, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama – shared my understanding of America as a great country that aspires to be even better. They appealed to the better angels of our nature, taught us to fear only fear itself, called us to public service, dreamed of a day when all would be equal, and sought to unite a divided country. They helped us see the small towns and beautiful, vibrant cities of America with a sense of history and a larger purpose in a way that we desperately need to recapture now.

In Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, Richard N. Goodwin, a former speechwriter and aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, eloquently described what I believe we have lost in today’s political climate, an idealized vision of America:
If we believed in our leaders, it was because we believed in ourselves. If we felt a sense of high possibilities, it was because the possibilities were real. If our expectations of achievement were great, it was because we understood the fullness of our own powers and the greatness of our country.
As I wrote this essay, I learned the distressing news of two more mass shootings – in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. At least one appears to be the work of yet another white nationalist terrorist. As is always the case with these tragic events, there are the predictable calls to action as we are reminded of the easy access to guns and a culture of violence that is seemingly unique to America. The president played golf all weekend, making time for a single tweet about the cowardice of the shooters, while ignoring the seeds of his anti-immigrant vitriol and inflammatory debasement of “rodent infested” cities that preceded the shootings. And nothing will get done for the reasons nothing ever gets done when it comes to guns and violence in this country.

There have been 250 mass shootings in the United States in 2019 alone. While the president, Senator Mitch McConnell, and certain members of Congress are not personally responsible for each individual act of hatred and violence that occurs, they are responsible for a failure of leadership, for refusing to enact laws and policies that will enhance public safety, create a more humane immigration policy, and make life better for the people living in our small towns and large cities. Most tragically, they are responsible for a failure of moral leadership, for the harsh tone of our politics and the lack of civility, respect, and compassion, which have been all but abandoned in our civic life. “In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still,” said President Harry Truman. “Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better.”

So, when I look at the Norman Rockwell images these days and think back on the limitless possibilities of youth, I long for an America I can believe in again, for a president who inspires sacrifice and service and reminds us of our common aspirations; who helps us recapture a shared sense of history and idealism symbolized by the American flags that line the streets of those small colonial towns in New England; and who helps us restore respect and compassion in our civic and public life.

Abraham Lincoln asserted that the object of government was to “elevate the condition of men – to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race for life.” Nearly a century later, then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke of a “New Frontier” and challenged Americans to examine “uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” Only seven years ago, Barack Obama reminded us that “our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or duty or charity or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.” One need not agree with the policies and political leanings of our past presidents to appreciate that they spoke in aspirational tones, lifted us up in times of distress and challenged us always to be better and do better. They worked for all Americans, even those opposed to them, and more frequently than not appealed to our common humanity and shared ideals. Moral leadership does not alone solve society’s problems, but it helps provide the inspiration we need to solve them. Is it too much to ask?

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Homecoming: Albert Pujols Returns to St. Louis

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back home. – Pascal Mercier
There is something about being a baseball fan – a loyal, devoted lifelong fan of one team – that connects us to certain players in ways that are beyond comprehension to the non-fan. The players who wear the uniform of our team become part of our extended family. Like our siblings and our children, they are the ones we root for every day, who disappoint us regularly and give us immense joy when they do well, and to whom we confer unconditional love and grace and forgiveness. The players we grow up with become the heroes of our youth and fill us with lasting memories of a simpler, more innocent time, when our concerns were not the complex dimensions of complicated lives, but the happenings on expansive fields of green grass and dirt basepaths. As we grow older, the players we root for become adjuncts to our dreams of what might have been, if only we had the skill and luck and fortitude to have been good enough to play baseball for a living.

I grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals when Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Orlando Cepeda and so many other idols of my young life – the players whose baseball cards I longed for and who I searched for in the daily box scores, the names I wrote into the lineups of my Strat-O-Matic Baseball games through middle school and high school – inspired me to dream of major league glory. These were the memories of my youth, and they remain the memories I return to whenever I think back on the joys and heartbreaks of childhood.

As I enter my seventh decade of life, I am amazed at the extent to which I continue to rely on these youthful memories, and how certain players even today continue to catch my imagination and remind me of what I so much love about the game. For eleven seasons starting in 2001, Albert Pujols was the player who captured my attention and restored my faith in the game at a time when the demands and pressures of everyday life frequently interfered with the trivial passions of my youth. Although he was not selected until the 13th round of the 1999 Major League Draft, with 401 players picked ahead of him, by the spring of 2001, Pujols so impressed the Cardinals in pre-season play that they had no choice but to include him on the major league roster. He was the National League Rookie of the Year that first season, batting .329 with 37 HRs and 130 RBIs. He repeated or exceeded this performance for the next ten seasons, a uniquely talented ballplayer playing for a city that understood just how special a player he was.

For eleven years, Pujols was among the best players to ever play the game in St. Louis, a Dominican version of Stan “the Man” Musial. No one since Musial had produced the numbers that Pujols did in those first eleven seasons, when he batted a collective .328 and hit 445 home runs. Like Musial, Pujols was a line drive hitter of incredible consistency. In St. Louis, they called him El Hombre (“The Man”) because, like Musial, he was a once-in-a-lifetime player.

When Pujols left the Cardinals after their World Championship season of 2011, it was like losing a family member. When I learned he had signed as a free agent with the Los Angeles Angels that off-season, I was shocked and heartbroken. For Cardinals fans, the hurt and bitterness that followed was not entirely rational, for nothing about being a baseball fan is rational. It is all about feelings, emotions, magic and destiny.

I am certain there are many complicated reasons why Pujols left St. Louis to play for the Angels, but it seemed at the time that it was all about the money. For slightly less compensation, he could have stayed in St. Louis and been the most revered player in Cardinals history. But he is a proud and complex man, and in the high-profile, high-pressured world of modern-day professional baseball, there are inevitable slights and misunderstandings along the way. When he left the Cardinals, I convinced myself it was just as well. Age would eventually encumber his skills, and with time he would become less productive and a burden on the team.

But that was eight years ago, and time has a way of softening one’s outlook. When I learned earlier this year that Albert Pujols would return to St. Louis in late June for a three-game series with the Angels, I asked (okay, begged) Andrea if she would mind traveling to The Promised Land – uh, I mean, St. Louis, Busch Stadium to be precise – for an extended weekend of baseball in America’s heartland. Something compelled me to be there for Pujols’ return, for after eight seasons apart, it was time to relive and come to terms with the lapsed memories and suppressed emotions that Cardinals fans everywhere needed to confront. Time heals, and a reconciliation, a public group therapy session, was needed to bring closure to the pain and hurt and misunderstandings of this modern-day Prodigal Son.

“Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there,” wrote the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon. On June 21, 2019, for the first time since he left eight years ago and never looked back, Pujols returned to Busch Stadium. For each of the three weekend games, every time he came to bat, he encountered wildly enthusiastic, standing ovations from 48,000 cheering fans. On Friday evening, the second largest crowd in Busch Stadium history turned out on a day that had experienced heavy rains and a tornado warning to welcome back El Hombre and convey how much he meant to them. When Pujols came to bat in the top of the first inning, everyone rose to their feet, politely at first, then to a growing crescendo of cheers and whistles – 48,423 baseball fans collectively expressing that we forgive you for leaving us, we appreciate what you gave us, and we thank you for giving us the best years of your career. As I took it all in, suddenly I was flooded by a wave of emotions and memories, as if acknowledging the return of my long, lost brother.

Yadier Molina, the Cardinals catcher and Pujols’ best friend, stood several feet in front of home plate to give the crowd time to pay tribute to El Hombre, who initially ignored the cheering as he dug into the batter’s box, kicking the dirt around home plate with his head down and bat in his right hand. Finally, Pujols stepped back and lifted his helmet to the crowd, circling to acknowledge everyone and gesturing to the Cardinals dugout, all to the crowd’s utter delight. When Molina started back towards home plate to resume play, Pujols patted him on the chest and he and Molina embraced – friends and brothers re-united. The crowd fell apart.

I felt the tears forming and my chest tightening as I thought of what once was, what might have been, and what it means to come home after a long, silent absence. I thought of the people no longer in my life, who left the world involuntarily, but who I wished at that moment could be there with me – my older brother Steve, who taught me how to play ball and let me play with him and his friends in the backyards and sandlots of our youth; my father, who accepted my irrational love of the Cardinals and once drove with my mom to St. Louis to spend the weekend with my daughters and me to watch the Cardinals and Albert Pujols play; and Andrea’s dad, who for most of his life was not a sports fan, but who became an honorary Cardinals fan in later years simply because he knew what baseball and the Cardinals meant to me.

Each time Pujols stepped to the plate throughout the weekend, the scene repeated itself with standing ovations and enthusiastic cheers. When Pujols hit a home run on Saturday afternoon – a classic Pujols line drive that never rose above fifteen feet off the ground until it landed in the Angels dugout in left field seconds later – the entire stadium erupted as if the Cardinals had won the World Series. It was a remarkable moment for which, I confess, I became choked up again, as I thought of the many joyful moments I experienced, often by myself on summer evenings, watching the beauty and artistry of Pujols’s outstanding, dominating play. It was a needed reminder of how quickly time passes in our temporary journey through life.

In a sense, Pujols’ return to St. Louis was a chance to reconcile conflicting emotions, to cleanse my soul; to remember, to forgive, and to once again dream. For Pujols, one sensed that he too needed a collective embrace from the city and fan base that loved him like no other. After he rounded the bases and entered the Angels dugout to the congratulatory high fives of his teammates – a temporary dose of reality that the opposing team had just hit a home run against us – Pujols returned to the top of the dugout steps a moment later and donned his cap to the Cardinals faithful, and we erupted in wild cheers all over again. The Prodigal Son had indeed returned home, and all was forgiven.

For me, the weekend in St. Louis was also a needed respite from the noisy and divisive times in which we presently live. For three days, tens of thousands of people of all political persuasions came to one place with one purpose. With the help of Albert Pujols, we temporarily forgot about all that divides us and showed that we are united in our passions, our hopes, our dreams, and our aspirations. He reminded us all once again of why we love baseball, for it keeps us connected to our youth, when we were defined by our dreams and embraced the mythological heroes of our favorite teams. The game and its players let us forget, if only for a moment, that adulthood forces us to grow up, to put away childish dreams, to go out into the world and confront the harshness and realities of life. The players we root for everyday become extensions of ourselves and our family. 

Of course, we all must grow up and go our own way; our children leave us and make their own lives; our siblings leave home and pursue their dreams. Disappointments and sorrow inevitably follow, along with moments of joy and celebration. Over time, we lose the people we love, some to death, others to the precariousness of life. But we are always welcomed home to the embrace of family.

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. -- George Augustus Moore

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Re-Assessing the Carter Presidency

“The sad duty of politics,” noted the great 20th Century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “is to establish justice in a sinful world.” It is a sentiment most certainly shared by James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, the former Governor of Georgia and peanut farmer from Plains who became the 39th President of the United States. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition of his native Georgia, Carter was a man of deep religious conviction who talked openly of his “personal relationship to Jesus Christ” and believed, as he wrote years later in Faith: A Journey for All (Simon & Shuster, 2018), that “Christians are called to plunge into the life of the world and to inject the moral and ethical values of our faith into the processes of governing.” Although he opposed the rightward shift of most Evangelical Christian leaders of the time, and respected the separation of church and state, Carter’s faith was often misunderstood and made some of his supporters uncomfortable. Partly because of his faith, he remained an enigma as president and never fully connected to the American people, at least until later in life.

Carter was eight months into the presidency when I left for college in the fall of 1977. He had been elected president in November 1976 as a refreshingly honest, reform-minded response to Watergate, corruption, and growing public cynicism. The United States had recently ended its disastrous involvement in Vietnam, Nixon had been pardoned for his criminal cover-ups and dirty tricks, the country was facing increasingly militant demands for social and political equality on the basis of race and sex, and volatile oil markets were driving home the reality of limited resources and an interdependent world. Carter seemed an unlikely candidate for president when he ran in 1976, but there was something oddly reassuring in his southern charm and toothy grin that juxtaposed his obvious intellect and seriousness of purpose.

As an undergrad still trying to find his way in the world, I did not personally consider Carter an exciting or inspirational leader. By the summer of my sophomore year, I had finished reading Robert Kennedy and His Times (Ballantine Books, 1978) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and was moved by Kennedy’s passion and idealism. I believed the times called for a president who could reconcile racial and class divisions, bring the country together, and make the United States a leading force of world peace, environmental protection, social justice and economic prosperity for all. I wanted a national leader who combined an appeal to the common good with Kennedy’s charisma, youthfulness, and other intangible traits that Carter lacked.

First impressions are difficult to overcome, and I remained ambivalent about the 39th President for most of his four-year term. When in 1980, at the age of 21, I voted in my first presidential election, I cast my ballot for the highly articulate John Anderson, a liberal Republican from Illinois running as an independent. It was not that I disliked or disapproved of Carter, and I was fully aware that he had experienced a trifecta of bad luck with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, an unprecedented level of stagflation (high inflation combined with high unemployment), and a world energy crisis, none of which was the result of anything he did as president. But Anderson proposed bold energy and environmental policies that I believed better addressed the pressing issues of the day.

After he lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter was dismissed as a one-termer, his presidency deemed a failure. The pundits claimed that Carter never embraced the ways of Washington; he disdained politics and the political deal making that greased the wheels of Congress. He could be aloof and socially awkward, possessed an off-putting moral pietism, and micro-managed the minutia of governing, once drafting a detailed memo to staff on use of the White House tennis courts. He did not effectively communicate to the American people and – as with his “crisis of confidence” speech after the 1979 oil shock – lectured when he needed to inspire. Although the country acknowledged his fundamental decency as a human being, the sincerity of his religious faith, and his good intentions, and although his post-presidential life is widely respected and admired, he is generally remembered as an indecisive and ineffectual president.

Fortunately, the passage of time allows us to reflect on the past with a more expansive historical perspective. In President Carter: The White House Years (St. Martin’s Press, 2018), Stuart Eizenstat, who served as Carter’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor during all four years of his presidency, persuasively argues that it is time to fundamentally re-assess Carter’s legacy as president. Eizenstat’s well-written and thoroughly documented 900-page account of the Carter presidency contends that Carter’s White House years are underrated and underappreciated. Despite inheriting a troubled economy and contending with the competing demands of labor unions, civil rights groups, the women’s movement, northeastern liberals and southern conservatives, Carter left office with significant achievements in foreign and domestic policy that materially improved the lives of Americans and our standing in the world.

Energy and the Environment. Carter was the first president to actively champion energy conservation and environmental protection. He enacted national fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and created federal subsidies for wind and solar power to promote research and development in clean energy sources. He lifted price controls for domestic oil and gas, which substantially reduced our energy consumption and reliance on foreign oil supplies. He protected more than 100 million acres of land from development through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which Eizenstat notes is “one of the most important pieces of environmental legislation in the nation’s history,” and he greatly expanded the national park system.

Consumer Protection. Carter was also the “most consumer-friendly president in the nation’s history,” according to Eizenstat. By deregulating the trucking and airline industries, President Carter enhanced economic efficiencies that placed downward pressures on prices and democratized air travel, making it accessible to nearly everyone. He appointed disciples of Ralph Nader to head key regulatory agencies who implemented significant improvements to consumer product safety and occupational health and safety, mandated automobile airbags, placed limits on child advertising, and reformed the banking industry’s lending practices, all of which we take for granted today.

Women’s Equality. Carter was the first president to truly embrace and materially advance women’s equality. When Carter took office in 1977, only one of 97 judges serving in the federal judiciary was a woman.  By the time he left office in 1981, he had appointed 40 women to the federal bench, five times more than all the presidents in U.S. history combined. He issued a presidential executive order prohibiting sex discrimination in the federal workplace and appointed women to top positions in the White House, regulatory agencies, and executive branch departments, including the Department of Defense.

While all these accomplishments have had lasting effects on the everyday lives of Americans, it was in the realm of foreign policy where Carter achieved his most historically significant successes: peace between Israel and Egypt, the elevation of human rights as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy, and ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty.

Middle East Peace. Eizenstat skillfully writes a detailed account of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers and negotiations that occurred at Camp David between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Both of those men had deep-seated distrust of the other, and both were stubborn and tough negotiators. Begin particularly refused to budge on several key issues, to the point that negotiations seemed hopeless and destined for defeat until the final minutes of the very last day. It was only Carter’s perseverance, his grit and determination, and his willingness to endure extreme domestic political heat – straining relations with the American Jewish community, which constituted a key base of his support in the 1976 election – that created the successful conditions for a binding agreement.

Carter was so personally invested in peace, so knowledgeable and entrenched in the details of the negotiations, that it is difficult to imagine any other American president, past or present, who could have accomplished the cold but firm peace that was agreed to at Camp David in 1979 and which remains embedded in history. “This was Jimmy Carter at his best,” writes Eizenstat, “his attention to detail, his recognition of the limits to which he could push Begin and Sadat, and his appreciation of their starkly different personalities.” Carter’s achievement was “without precedent in American diplomatic history . . . a peace between two former enemies that has lasted into the next century – and without a single violation.” The Camp David Accords will remain indelibly linked to the history of the Middle East and the security of Israel for decades to come, and it remains a model for future peace deals in that region. Camp David opened the way to the 1993 Oslo Accords that resulted in mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO, and the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan.

Human Rights. Carter was also the first president to genuinely promote and permanently institute human rights as a formal aspect of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, his human rights policy provided inspiration to the leaders of liberation movements in what were then Communist Bloc countries, including Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Lech Walesa in Poland. He successfully pressured the Kremlin to greatly increase the number of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate to Israel and the United States. In Latin America, Carter’s emphasis on human rights greatly improved our relations with Latin American democracies and pressured military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes to lessen human rights abuses.

The Panama Canal Treaty. On September 7, 1977, Carter reduced the perception of American hegemony over Latin America by ending U.S. ownership of the Panama Canal, which had been a sore spot in the region for decades. The Panama Canal Treaty opened a new chapter in U.S. – Latin American relations and gave the United States a leg up in its Cold War competition with the Soviets for allies and friends. “Americans want a more humane and stable world,” Carter said on that historic day. “We believe in good will and fairness as well as strength.” Carter understood the intense feelings of many Americans who opposed the treaty and believed that, because American engineering and ingenuity had built the canal 75 years earlier, we had a right to permanently control that strategic passageway. But Carter’s strength as president was that he did what he believed was right even if it hurt him politically. “This agreement with Panama is something we want because we know it is right,” he said. The agreement was “not merely the surest way to protect and save the canal; it's a strong, positive act of people who are still confident, still creative, still great.”

Carter the Ex-President. Of course, Carter will forever be lauded for his singular devotion to the betterment of humankind during the last forty years of his life. Since Carter left the White House in January 1981, he has easily been the most accomplished and substantial ex-president in American history. Through his work at The Carter Center, which he founded in 1982, he has helped eradicate diseases in Africa and established village-based health care delivery systems in thousands of African communities, monitored 105 elections in 39 countries, and mediated peaceful solutions to some of the world’s most intractable foreign conflicts. Through his work with Habitat for Humanity, he and Rosalyn, one of the most graceful First Ladies in American history, have devoted thousands of hours to building houses for impoverished families. A prolific author, Carter has written over three dozen books on peace, human rights, women’s equality, democracy, and world affairs. A man of deep and abiding faith, he continues to teach Sunday school at his church in Plains, Georgia, while accomplishing more in his post-presidential life than most presidents accomplished while in office. And he has done it all with a quiet and sincere humility that is difficult to fully comprehend in the Age of Trump.

There is, admittedly, something unrelatable to me about Carter, his unwavering seriousness, or aloofness, or maybe his distinct southern mannerisms, that prevent me from being personally drawn to him in the ways I have been to Obama and the Kennedys. But the current state of affairs in the United States, the meanness and selfish individualism that so dominates our political life today, has appropriately, if belatedly, elevated Jimmy Carter’s standing in history. He is a statesman, peacemaker, model of human generosity; a sincere person of faith who lives out his convictions through his actions. He’s a mensch, a genuinely decent human being. And throughout his life he has done his Niebuhrian-inspired best to “establish justice in a sinful world.”

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The End of Privacy: Gary Hart and the Decline of Journalistic Standards

I recently finished reading The Front Runner (originally published as All the Truth is Out) by Matt Bai, which along with the accompanying motion picture starring Hugh Jackman by the same title, is an engagingly piercing retrospective on the collapse of then Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in 1987. As anyone over the age of 40 likely recalls, Hart’s presidential ambitions were destroyed following revelations of his alleged extra-marital affair with Donna Rice, a young and beautiful pharmaceutical representative and former actress. The story became front-page news in The Miami Herald after two of its reporters staked out Hart’s Capitol Hill townhouse and observed Hart and Rice leave and return together multiple times that weekend. The story, published on Sunday, May 3, 1987, led to a national media frenzy the likes of which had not been seen before in presidential campaign history. Hart’s campaign never recovered, his political career ruined not by financial scandal or corruption, but by the media’s pietistic concern for his alleged personal sins.

I first took notice of Senator Hart in February 1984 when he upset former Vice President Walter Mondale in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. As a young law student with an interest in politics and government, I liked that Hart was an “ideas” man, socially liberal but not rigidly ideological, well respected by members of both parties, and refreshingly more thoughtful and intellectual than the average politician. I perceived Hart as an exceptionally talented and intelligent public official, who offered new and thoughtful legislative strategies that looked to the future and discarded the stale, special interest politics that was then holding back the Democratic Party. As described by journalist and author Matt Bai, “Hart was invariably described as a brilliant and serious man, perhaps the most visionary political mind of his generation, an old-school statesman of the kind Washington had lost its capacity to produce.”

Although Mondale ultimately won the Democratic nomination that year (before losing in a landslide to President Reagan), Hart was well positioned to become the Democratic nominee for President in 1988. I enthusiastically supported Hart when he announced his candidacy in the spring of 1987 and promised to run a campaign focused on ideas. Hart had a prescient understanding of world economic trends and America’s interconnectedness to the global economy. He promoted collaboration between government and private enterprise to address pressing environmental and energy concerns and to transition the United States from the Industrial Age to the Information Age. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hart had advanced a series of policies (that were eventually widely embraced) to reform the U.S. military’s reliance on large-scale weapons systems and better defend against new forms of stateless terrorism. He seemed destined to lead at a time when the Democratic Party lacked any other true superstars.

But then, based on whispered rumors of Hart’s reputation as a womanizer and a “tip” from someone who claimed to have inside information about Hart’s marital infidelities, two reporters from The Miami Herald set-up surveillance of Hart’s D.C. residence. In a moment of “gotcha” journalism one would expect of The National Enquirer, not a mainstream news organization, The Herald reported its findings in a front-page story that treated the alleged Hart-Rice affair as if Hart had committed treason. Suddenly, the Washington press corps cared nothing about Hart’s ideas for the future of the planet and only about his sex life. The resulting coverage was relentless. It encompassed all the major news organizations, print and television. The Hart campaign was blind-sided, and, in a matter of weeks, he withdrew from the race.

Throughout the fast-moving media circus that followed The Herald’s stakeout, it seemed that all voices of common sense and good judgment were drowned out by sensational hype. I recall minimal coverage devoted to thoughtful reflection on the questions I and others asked at the time: Why is Gary Hart’s sexual life a relevant consideration to his fitness for office? Why did the press suddenly believe the private lives of public figures were fair game? If it didn’t matter that FDR, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK or LBJ were adulterers, why should it matter if Gary Hart committed adultery? Assuming Hart did in fact commit adultery (to this day, both Hart and Rice have denied a sexual relationship and Hart remains married to his wife of nearly sixty years), what was it about Hart’s private sexual life that was fundamentally different or more important than the private sex lives of past presidents, prime ministers, Cabinet officials, or congressional committee chairmen?

The Herald defended its reporters’ tactics and the resulting coverage of Hart by suggesting that Hart’s apparent marital infidelities reflected negatively upon his “character” and “truthfulness.” Defenders of the media argued that the real concern was not that Hart may have slept with Donna Rice, but that he misled and lied to the American people. That a substantial majority of Americans did not think Hart’s private sex life was relevant seemed not to matter.

“Gary Hart has now become the first American victim of Islamic justice,” wrote Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Republic on June 1, 1987, shortly after Hart dropped out of the presidential race. “He has been politically stoned to death for adultery. The difference is that in Iran, the mullahs do not insult the condemned prisoner by telling him that he is being executed not for adultery but because of ‘concerns about his character,’ ‘questions about his judgment,’ or ‘doubts about his candor.’”

Even if Hart lied about his private life (in fact, he steadfastly refused to say anything about his private life), did that mean he would lie about fundamental matters of public policy, war and peace, or the future direction of our country? I think not. When I vote for a candidate for public office, I am not concerned about who the candidate is sleeping with any more than I care about the candidate’s sexual orientation. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant facts, between the trivial and important matters.

Hertzberg accurately noted that, in the past, the private failings of our political leaders were only deemed a fit subject for public exposure in respectable news publications if they contained some connection to one’s fitness for office and the performance of his or her public duties. But in the spring of 1987, journalistic standards suddenly and dramatically changed. The Miami Herald story did nothing to test the merits of Hart’s ideas for leading a nation, or whether he had the leadership qualities to help prepare the United States for the 21st Century. Instead, in the post-Watergate mentality which makes journalists aspire to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, reporters wanted to know why Hart had separated from his wife on two past occasions, why his family had changed his name from Hartpence to Hart two decades earlier, why he had altered the look and style of his signature, and why there appeared to be a one-year discrepancy in his birth certificate.

“What all these things have in common,” contended Hertzberg, “is that they are trivial.” Such questions tell us nothing about a candidate’s character or “the collection of qualities that make one person distinct from another . . . the overall moral pattern of a life and work” that “is woven through the total pattern of a person’s life.” Besides, added Hertzberg:
If Gary Hart is a man of bad character, surely the voluminous public record of his actions, decisions, statements, writings, and political maneuvers over the last 15 years must be replete with examples. Those who have condemned his character on the basis of the Donna Rice affair have been quite unable to point to such examples. If character is something that manifests itself solely in a person’s private sexual behavior, yet leaves no trace in the rest of his life, including his work life, then “character” is not very important after all—and the sexual details tell us nothing. If character is something that manifests itself in the totality of life, then we don’t need the sexual details to discern it.
Yes, but wasn’t the issue Hart’s lack of candor, his untruthfulness? He lied about adultery, so therefore he is a liar. Why doesn’t the public have a right to know this? Because in real life, there are just certain things that even presidential contenders should have the right to say is “none of your damn business.” And when you lie about or falsely deny something that is none of anyone’s damn business, it says little about your overall truthfulness or character – it simply means there are boundaries to what you will discuss. “The fact that a person will lie in the context of adultery proves nothing about his general propensity to lie,” suggested Hertzberg. “[I]f Hart is a liar there must be one or two more lies among the millions of words he has spoken as a public man. Let them be produced.” In all the scrutiny of Hart’s life, then or later, I have seen no examples of lies or misleading statements from Hart on any matters of substance or public import. Contrast that with the current president, for whom in two years The Washington Post has compiled a list of over 10,000 lies and misleading statements on matters of substance.

Character and integrity matter. But character and integrity in public life has little to do with living a life of saintly purity. History has proven that many of our greatest presidents were flawed human beings. But their public virtues outweighed their private moral failings. Give me a president with the character and fortitude to rise to the occasion and do great things in times of stress and urgency, to always put the national interest ahead of personal concerns, and to tell me the truth about the things to which I have a right to know, and I will happily forgive his human shortcomings.

Gary Hart will forever be remembered as the politician who got caught with a woman on his lap on a boat called The Monkey Business. His entire life of public service essentially erased from public consciousness because he expected that there remained a circle of privacy even for presidential candidates. It seems incredibly naïve to think such a thing today, but that was not so in 1987. Maybe Hart was his own worst enemy. He should have known better than to be reckless under what he knew to be heightened scrutiny. Nevertheless, America lost the services of an exceptionally talented presidential contender in 1987 because the rules of engagement between the press and political candidates suddenly and unexpectedly changed; the focus shifted to the trivial and personal at the expense of serious public discourse.

I want leaders who genuinely care about the future of our planet, the quality of our public discourse, and the ideals of American democracy; who favor peace and diplomacy over war and conflict; and who believe in the dignity of all human beings. Most importantly, I want men and women of good will and intelligence, who demonstrate character through acts of kindness, decency, compassion, and empathy, and who have the backbone to make tough, unpopular decisions for the benefit of the greater public good. I am simply not interested in the private lives of our public leaders, so long as such private conduct does not interfere with the exercise of their public duties. I will continue to distinguish between public morality and private morality.

Matt Bai concludes The Front Runner by noting that, in the years since the Hart scandal first broke, Hart has maintained an unwavering silence about the details of whatever did or did not happen between him and Donna Rice in 1987. He has done this, Bai contends, because “he harbored a fierce conviction that private affairs had no place in the public arena, and he was going to hold fast to that conviction until his dying breath, no matter how anachronistic it seemed to others. There’s a way to describe a man who holds that tightly to principle, whatever the cost. The word is character.”

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Idealism Tempered by Reality: Robert Kennedy in the Shadow of JFK

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. – Robert F. Kennedy, South Africa, 1966
Coming of age in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the Kennedy brothers, the glamour, the mystique, the all-American mythology. From my reading of history, I admired the cool dispassion of John and the passionate moralism of Robert. Later, I would come to admire the legislative skills of Ted. Despite their many and varied flaws, over the years the Kennedy brothers have remained a source of inspiration to me, more for what they represented than for what they accomplished. Their public personas embodied the promise of America and the ideal of public service. In our collective imagination, the Kennedys appealed to the better angels of our character and articulated a poetic and aspirational vision of America.

Admittedly, my youthful fascination with the Kennedys has been tempered by life and maturity, by the recognition that the wealth and status associated with the Kennedys are matters of fortune and luck; the life of a Kennedy bears little resemblance to reality for most of us. Camelot was a myth of our own imagining. The reality of their lives was messier and more complicated than their public relations machinery presented. But their impact on the concept of public service left an indelible and inspiring mark on the fabric of American history.

As President, John Kennedy understood that the problems and challenges America faced in his time were of pre-existent origins. Governing did not allow for mythological and utopian thinking. JFK made public service something to be admired and respected. He established the Peace Corps and sent young men and women to far off lands on missions of goodwill. He encouraged America to reach the moon and explore the universe. He advocated public support for the arts. He presided over the Cuban missile crisis with exceptional tact and competence. He understood the perils of nuclear ambition, the horrific consequences of nuclear war, and the environmental devastation of atmospheric testing. Although his presidency was cut short before he could achieve his most ambitious objectives, he pointed us in the right direction.

But to study the Kennedys is to encounter disappointment and regret for the lost potential of what might have been. Although JFK’s presidency lasted only 1,000 days, by November 1963, he had developed into a true national leader. Months earlier he had acknowledged the moral imperative of civil rights and the injustices of the Jim Crow South. It took Lyndon Johnson to harness the Kennedy myth and America’s love affair with Camelot to succeed where Kennedy failed – in civil rights and an assortment of federal programs that aided the poor and middle class in substantial and lasting ways. But history treats our fallen heroes more kindly than others. JFK’s mythic legacy has outlasted Johnson’s hard-scrabbled achievements. And it is a legacy owed in part to younger brother Bobby, who played a unique role in American history as Attorney General and the President’s protector, confidante, and advisor.

Few people in public life have demonstrated a larger capacity for personal growth and reflection than Robert “Bobby” Kennedy did in his final decade of life. In his earlier years, Bobby fought the Cold War and opposed Communism while otherwise advancing the political interests of his brother. When he became Attorney General, Bobby studied first-hand the injustices of segregation and racism. He reprioritized the Justice Department’s resources to fight the mafia and its corrupting influence on American institutions, including labor unions. He immeasurably helped guide JFK through the Cuban missile crisis. His reputation for being tough and ruthless evolved into one of a respected and thoughtful public figure.

By the middle of the 1960s, Bobby’s concerns were focused on a broader set of issues. By then, he had become the one Kennedy whose passions, ideals, and intellect were best suited to lead the United States through a time of division and strife. Like his brother, he did not live long enough to fulfill his dreams of racial reconciliation, economic justice, and peace, but his personal, moral, and intellectual growth during his last several years of life was truly impressive.

Bobby understood far better than John what it was like to experience neglect, to be overlooked and forgotten. He was in many ways the runt of the litter, the smallest and scrappiest of the Kennedy brothers, the least golden of these all-American golden boys. Not to overplay this – he was still a rich, privileged Kennedy, with all of the advantages that accompany wealth and fame. But later in life, when he personally witnessed the extreme poverty, as described by Michael Harrington in The Other America, of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta; rubbed the cheeks of malnourished black children and saw entire families living in shacks with no running water or sewage – he was sharply awakened to the reality that, even in America, the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, injustice and inequality were widespread.

A devout Catholic of Jesuit influence, with a strong social justice instinct, Robert Kennedy was a problem solver who cared little for political ideology. By the time he became a U.S. Senator from New York, he was interested only in solutions that worked, that made people’s lives better. When his eyes were opened to the sufferings of impoverished and underprivileged Americans, Bobby could not fathom that these injustices existed so epidemically in the United States. He came to believe the Cold War would be won more effectively in how we confronted inequity and injustice than by how many nuclear warheads we possessed.

Among the great divides in America today is that between the cynics and the idealists. There remain few of the latter. Perhaps only Barack Obama, who wished to unite Americans of every race and ideology, has come closest to resurrecting the idealism of RFK. Obama’s vision of a people united in the common good was blocked by Mitch McConnell and his Republican strategists. And we will never know if RFK could have successfully bridged the wide gaps that existed in the late 1960s between black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural.

By the last few years of his life, Robert Kennedy had become a prophetic and unifying voice at a time when our nation was divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution. He responded with sensitivity, intelligence, and compassion in ways that distinguished him as a uniquely thoughtful leader. He gave voice to reason at a time when many Americans had lost faith in our institutions.

He was liberal without being elitist, and he did not shy away from telling people things they did not always want to hear. He opposed the Vietnam War, but told affluent white college students that they should not be allowed educational deferments from the draft and leave the fighting overseas to poor whites and racial minorities. He was a champion of civil rights but strongly supported the rule of law and the prosecution of rioters and looters. He was a champion of the poor but did not like many traditional welfare programs, believing they were degrading and humiliating to the recipients. He called instead for “a massive effort, public and private, to provide jobs and housing and hope to the people who dwell in the Other America.”

For 82 days in 1968, a time of massive unrest, it appeared that Robert Kennedy was the only American politician who could successfully bring America together. Although he took too long to enter the race, once he announced his candidacy, he presented America with a clear case for why he was running: to end the war in Vietnam; to bring people of different races and ethnicities together; and to fight poverty and economic injustice. An awkward, inconsistent speaker in his younger days, he found a self-confidence and eloquence that had previously eluded him.

We cannot undo history, but must contend with the reality of today. In looking back over the past 50 years, it is hard not to long for a man or woman as passionate and idealistic as the Robert Kennedy of the mid- to late-1960s. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote of Kennedy, “History changed him, and, had time permitted, he might have changed history.”

At a time when few politicians could do so, Bobby Kennedy forged a coalition of working-class whites and blacks, and helped them recognize that they shared common interests. It is why the memory of his life and sudden death haunts us still.

As Thurston Clarke wrote in The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America (Holt, 2008), people from all walks of life mourned Kennedy’s death “because they sensed that he had tried to educate rather than manipulate them, reconcile rather than divide them, engage them in a dialogue rather than feed them the message of the day, appeal to their better angels instead of their wallets, and demand sacrifice instead of promising comfort. They mourned him because they ached for a leader who could heal their wounded nation and restore its tarnished honor, and because they ached to feel noble again.” America today needs another Bobby Kennedy, his idealism and unifying spirit. We need someone who will help us feel noble again.

The youthfulness I speak of is not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is the spirit which knows the difference between force and reason. It does not accept the failures of tomorrow. It knows that we can clasp the future, and mold it to our will. . . . Leadership which is true to the spirit will recognize the source of our happiness; it will know that we will find fulfillment not in the goods we have, but in the good we can do together. – Robert F. Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Pride and Prejudice: Remembering the Humanity of Roberto Clemente

Legend has it that, during the 1969 season, when the Pittsburgh Pirates were visiting San Diego, Roberto Clemente walked from his hotel to a local carry-out chicken place. On his way back, a bag of food in hand, he was kidnapped by a gang of four young Mexican nationals, shoved into a car and taken to an abandoned park. As one man held a knife to Clemente, the gang members took his wallet, chicken dinner, and some of his clothing. About to leave Clemente stranded in the park, one of the gang members finally realized that they had kidnapped the great Clemente (one of the items they stole from him was an All-Star ring with his name on it). Horrified, they immediately returned to Clemente his wallet and clothes, apologized profusely, and drove him back to the hotel. Before driving away, a gang member jumped out of the car and handed to Clemente his chicken dinner. Such was the respect and admiration for the Latin Prophet.

I was thirteen years old when Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972, after his chartered plane crashed while on a humanitarian mission to deliver food and clothing to thousands of earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I still remember the shocking news reports that Clemente’s plane had gone missing over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from Puerto Rico. For a young teenage boy who idolized the star baseball players whose pictures appeared on bubblegum cards and in the pages of The Sporting News, it was an early lesson in the mortality of our heroes and the human vulnerability of us all.

To me, Clemente was a perennial All-Star, one of the elite and most respected players in all of baseball. That he died trying to better humanity and bring aid and comfort to people who had lost their homes in a natural disaster, and who were being denied food and medicine by the corrupt regime of Nicaraguan military leader Anastasio Somoza, only enhanced Clemente’s status as a larger-than-life character.

At thirteen, I was familiar with Clemente from a distance, as the star right fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates and competitive adversary to my Strat-O-Matic version of the St. Louis Cardinals. I appreciated Clemente’s stylish athleticism and grace whenever the Pirates were featured on NBC’s game of the week or during the annual All-Star game and, most memorably, the 1971 World Series when the Pirates surprised the Baltimore Orioles and Clemente displayed his artistry to a national audience (Roger Angell described Clemente’s performance in that series as “something close to the level of absolute perfection”). I recall having seen Clemente play in person only once, against the Phillies in either 1971 or 1972, but on this point my memory lacks clarity, and that is a shame. Because he remains one of the most skilled and graceful athletes to have ever played the game in my lifetime.

Recently, I finished reading about his life and times in David Maraniss’s biography, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (Simon & Shuster 2006). Maraniss portrayed Clemente in all his human complexity; as a proud and dignified man, one of baseball’s early Latino stars, who experienced racism and discrimination and the loneliness of being a Spanish-speaking player on an all-American ball club, where even the other black players did not easily relate to him. Despite his dark skin, Clemente identified as a Latino man, and a representative of his native Puerto Rico, not as a black man. But while this caused some early misunderstanding in the black community and African American press, it was due more to the language barrier than actual differences.

Clemente was a sensitive soul and did not easily remain silent in the face of injustice. He felt passionately about civil rights and did not understand why he and other black and Latino players were forced to stay in the “colored” side of town during Spring Training in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Pirates were stationed in Ft. Myers, Florida, then part of the Jim Crow south. Clemente greatly admired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who once spoke at length with Clemente on a visit to Puerto Rico. He shared King’s vision of a day when all people – rich or poor, black or white – would be treated with dignity and respect, as human beings, equal in the eyes of God and the law.

Clemente was equally disturbed by what he considered the unfair stereotyping of Latino players, as lazy or soft. Clemente frequently played hurt – he had chronic back and neck pain due to wayward discs from a car accident in 1954 (which occurred when he was driving home to see his dying brother); bone chips in his elbow caused inflammation when he threw too much or too hard (he had the strongest arm in the major leagues, which made him a perennial Gold Glove winner in the outfield); and he had stomach ailments and frequent tension headaches. Some critics, including some baseball writers, called him a hypochondriac and believed him to be a malingerer, a misperception that deeply hurt Clemente. As his former manager Harry Walker once said, “No man ever gave more of himself or worked more unselfishly for the good of the team than Roberto.”

Clemente ran out every ground ball and always hustled on the bases. In right field, he thought he could catch any fly ball hit in his vicinity and throw out any runner who tried to take an extra base. Despite the long, exhausting  baseball season, he continued to play winter ball in Puerto Rico until late in his career. And through it all he led the National League in hitting four times, accumulated 3,000 career hits and a lifetime .317 batting average, was the outfield assist leader five times, won twelve Gold Glove awards, and played in eleven All-Star games. Clearly there was nothing lazy or soft about Clemente.

Clemente’s occasional  outspokenness led to misunderstandings, in part because he spoke broken English and lacked nuance in his speech (which would not have been the case had reporters communicated with him in his native Spanish). Many reporters back then quoted him phonetically, which made him seem unintelligent and drove him crazy (e.g., “I hit many what you call the ‘bad bol’ pitches and get good wood. The ‘bol’ travel like bullet”). It hurt his dignity. Because Clemente felt he represented the people, history, and struggle of his fellow Puerto Ricans, any perceived slights to him were insults to his people.

Despite his sometimes superhuman skills on the ball field, Clemente was a human being with human feelings and flaws. He once punched an autograph-seeking fan in Philadelphia who became too intrusive (Clemente later apologized), and he argued with umpires whom he felt did not treat him fairly. But he had a soft, gentle side as well, which led him to “adopt” a shy teenage girl from Pennsylvania as his American “sister” and to treat her and her mother as extended family for many years thereafter, inviting them to games and dinner when he was in town and to stay with he and wife Vera on visits to Puerto Rico during the offseason.

Clemente had a particular soft spot for children, especially if they were sick or poor. He quietly and routinely visited hospitalized children while on the road in National League cities. Although he did not seek publicity, word quickly spread and requests came in from all over; Clemente would sort his mail before each road trip and bring with him letters from children in the cities in which the Pirates were scheduled to play.

He dreamed that after his baseball career ended he would establish a free “sports city” for the children of Puerto Rico, where kids from all walks of life could learn to play together and become good citizens. He talked of inviting Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams to come and teach the kids fundamental baseball skills. He wanted to start an exchange program so that kids from Puerto Rico could spend time in the United States, and kids from the States could spend time in Puerto Rico. Only by playing together, eating together, and living together, he believed, can people understand that we share the same dreams in life. “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you,” Clemente said, “and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.” 

“The reality of many athletes, even those who become hailed as deities, is that they diminish with time,” wrote Maraniss. “Clemente was the opposite, becoming more sure of himself and his larger role in life.” After he won the MVP award in 1966 and finally received the official recognition and respect he felt had been previously overlooked, he began to relax and feel accepted. And as the Pirates (like many of the teams in the 1960s and 1970s) added growing numbers of black and Latino players to their roster, Clemente’s true, fun-loving personality began to shine in the clubhouse. He became more comfortable in his surroundings, enjoyed the fun-loving ribbing from his teammates, and dished back his own gentle jibes. His teammates adored him.

Clemente was revered throughout Latin America as an almost mythical figure. He mentored the many young Latino ballplayers who followed him to the major leagues, including Orlando Cepeda, one of my all-time favorite players. Clemente was like a big brother to Cepeda, generously giving of his time, advice, and encouragement even though they never played on the same team.  That Clemente died on a mission in service of humanity caused him to be regarded by many people of Spanish-speaking countries as something close to a prophet. Had Clemente played in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, he would have been a national icon. But playing in small-market Pittsburgh, he was among the best kept secrets in baseball.

“The mythic aspects of baseball,” wrote Maraniss, “usually draw on clichés of the innocent past, the nostalgia for how things were. Fields of green. Fathers and sons. But Clemente’s myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become.” Roberto Clemente was a great ballplayer with exceptional talent. He was also a fundamentally decent human being who understood how fortunate he was in life while recognizing the misfortunes of others. He knew that his gifts placed on him special demands and obligations. He achieved near perfection as a ballplayer, but sought to better himself as a human being. 

Having learned more about his life and inner passions, I wish I had known more about Clemente when he was alive. Although I will always admire his extraordinary talents as a baseball player, in the end, I am even more inspired by his humanity and will remember him for the complex, dynamic, and passionate human being he was.