Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Universal Appeal of Chaim Potok

I first read The Chosen, the wonderful novel by Chaim Potok, in the summer of 1983 after completing my first year of law school. Potok’s novel captured my imagination and opened my eyes to a particular time, culture and religious tradition – Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism in 1940’s Brooklyn – that was worlds apart from my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s as the son of a Lutheran minister in suburban New Jersey. In ways that resonate with me still, I was profoundly moved by the story, its rich and complex characters, and the internal conflicts that tormented the novel’s main protagonist, Danny Saunders.

Danny was the son of Reb Saunders, the Rebbe and spiritual leader (tzaddik) of a dynastic Hasidic sect in Brooklyn who had a deeply loyal following among his people. Danny was in line to someday succeed Reb Saunders as the Rebbe, but he had secretly developed an interest in psychology and literature, Freud and Dostoyevsky and Joyce, subjects and books that were off-limits to the son of a Hasidic tzaddik and serious student of Talmud. Danny is deeply torn between his devotion and loyalty to his father, whom he greatly loves and respects, and his desire to break free from the bonds of tradition. He wants desperately to explore the wider world around him.

Danny develops a close friendship with Reuven Malter, a fellow student who observed a more liberal form of Orthodox Judaism and whose father had quietly introduced Danny to books on psychology and literature and Western secular thought. At one point in the story, Danny explains to Reuven his torment:
Imagine being locked in a cell where you can see the whole world and everything you want is right outside the window, but you’re not allowed to look or think or move and you are supposed to stay right there, trapped, just like that, your whole life. Do you have any idea what that feels like? 
… How can I ask questions, and then ignore the answers? How can I read Freud and then ignore everything I learn? . . . What if there are some points of view so contradictory that they can’t be reconciled? What then?
Danny’s expressed anguish hit home with me, as I had begun to experience internal discord over my own guilt-ridden spiritual and intellectual journey. My increasingly dispassionate, rational understanding of faith and religion was causing me to question deeply embedded assumptions and accepted truths of the first two decades of my life. I felt myself drifting away from the comfortable and confined Christianity of my upbringing into a more humanistic encounter with the world. Like Danny, I was torn between two competing forces – love for family and respect for the religious roots of my upbringing versus my compelling need to explore a different path and seek answers to longstanding questions and doubts.

Despite the teachings and creeds of conventional Christianity, I had believed for a long time that no one religion possesses absolute truths. Even at a young age, I did not accept that Christianity offers the exclusive formula for achieving eternal salvation, if such a thing exists. I believed then, and believe now, that there are many equally valid paths to an internal peace with God.  Unlike Danny Saunders in The Chosen, however, I was fortunate to have a father who was open to conversation, and who possessed a liberal attitude and open mind on such topics. My dad was much more like David Malter, Reuven’s kind and loving father. But my psychological anguish was significant to me, for there was only so much doubt I was willing to reveal to my father. I greatly respected his life’s work, which was founded on years of theological education, decades of service to the Lutheran church and to bearing witness to his sincere and well-studied religious convictions. But I could not dismiss the questions that Danny asked: How can I ask questions, and then ignore the answers? What if there are some points of view so contradictory that they can’t be reconciled?

Reading The Chosen did not resolve my internal conflict, but it helped me place things in perspective and understand that my concerns were not unique to me. After The Chosen, I was immediately drawn to My Name is Asher Lev, which became my second favorite Potok novel, and to their respective sequels – The Promise and The Gift of Asher Lev. I eventually absorbed Davita’s Harp and The Book of Lights, each of which further sparked my desire to learn of other cultures, experiences, and time periods, from Communist resistance to fascism in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, to a Jewish Army chaplain’s experiences in Korea and Japan in the 1950s following the Korean War. I would later enjoy the film and theatrical productions of some of these works, most recently in The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, all of which explore, in a variety of contexts, the tensions between traditional Jewish values and secular culture.

Potok’s stories are universally appealing because almost all of us, at some point in our lives, are conflicted by familial expectations and our individual passions and desires; between the religion of our childhood and the mind expanding knowledge offered by exposure to other cultures, religions, and ideas; to science and philosophy, education and travel. Potok’s books and plays contend persuasively that there exist no absolute truths, but many co-existing truths.

In the introduction to The Collected Plays of Chaim Potok, daughter Rena Potok suggests that “we cannot confront the core of another culture if we believe that the core of our own culture holds the singular truth;” and that “to encounter the core of another culture from within the heart of our own, we must believe in the inherent existence of multiple, equally valid ways of being in the world. Once we let go of the idea of a single ‘Truth’ – once we can see another culture’s truth as equally valid and rich as our own – then we are primed for core-to-core culture confrontation.” It is for this reason that Potok’s characters, however different their backgrounds and experiences from our own, are so relatable. His stories express an ongoing struggle to understand the humanity of others and the truths of the world they inhabit.

In The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, Potok’s protagonists come from insular and strictly confining worlds of rituals and tradition, from which many expectations are placed on them. And yet, they long to experience the broader, more expansive world of art and literature, philosophy and psychology. They are compelled to question and search for meaning beyond the narrowly defined conventions of their families, to which they are devoutly loyal. They love their families and do not want to disappoint them. But they see the world differently than their fathers do, and they are compelled to carve their own paths in life.

As Rena Potok explained in The Collected Plays, Potok expressed “the thoughts and feelings of individuals who are trying to come to terms with two universes of discourse that they love passionately, and that are, at times, antithetical to one another.” Like Danny Saunders, Potok himself was raised in a strictly Orthodox Hasidic household and discovered early in life that “the boundaries of his world could not contain his growing passion for aesthetic and intellectual knowledge and experience.” Like Asher Lev, Potok was committed to his religious traditions, while also committed to his artistic and intellectual pursuits unrelated to the study of Torah and Talmud.

The characters in Potok’s novels and plays are drawn to the world of Western secular humanism – to critical thinking, creativity and expression separated from religious dogma – which ignite their passions and pull them in opposite directions from their expected destinies. Potok’s stories are deeply Jewish, embedded in the traditions of a narrow segment of Orthodox Judaism practiced by a small minority of American Jews, a world to which most of his readers (Jews and non-Jews alike) have not been exposed. But the themes explored in those stories, expressed through cultures and settings entirely different from our own, resonate with audiences of all backgrounds. 

We connect with Potok’s stories through the compelling portrayals of his characters – we care about them and want to know how their conflicts are resolved. The reader experiences Potok’s longing to reconcile the conflicts and heal the anguish experienced by his characters. In his play Out of the Depths, Potok’s protagonist articulates a message that is fundamental to Potok’s narratives:
I believe we should respect all the expressions of the culture, all the people – the religious, the secular, the intellectual, the factory worker, the shoemaker. I wish to bring the people together. Why is it necessary, this divisiveness? Does it make us stronger, wiser, kinder, healthier? Why not reconciliation? Are we that weak? Are we that frightened? Is there no room among us for all sorts of ideas?
These pearls of wisdom are interspersed throughout Potok’s stories. He believed that the essence of life is found in acts of kindness, empathy, and understanding, and in our search for meaning. In the theatrical version of The Chosen, David Malter (Reuven’s father), explains to his son that the choices we make in life have profound consequences:
God said: "You have toiled and labored, and now you are worthy of rest." Worthy of rest. We do not live forever. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye. So then why do we live? What value is there to our life if it is nothing more than the blink of an eye? . . . The span of a life is nothing, but the man who lives may be something if he fills his life with meaning. Meaning is not automatically given to life. We must choose. And if we choose to fill our lives with meaning, then perhaps when we die we too will be worthy of rest. 
To simply meander through life without thinking, reflecting, questioning and learning is not worthy of the human endeavor. “Merely to live, to exist,” Malter says to his son, “what sense is there in that? A fly also lives.”

The stories of Chaim Potok will always be special to me, for they helped me better understand the internal conflicts that all of us, on some level, struggle to reconcile during key moments of our lives – the pull of tradition versus the forces of modernity; loyalty to family and convention versus the freedom to think and act on one’s own terms; the incongruity between religious dogma and contemporary liberalism. Potok allowed us to respect our surface differences on equal terms while recognizing how alike we all are at our core, how our dreams and aspirations overlap, and how the search for a meaningful life transcends religion, backgrounds, and the origins of our birth.

As I continue to search for answers and reconcile my own internal conflicts, I will be forever grateful to Chaim Potok for expressing in words and stories that I am not alone.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What Would Fred Rogers Do? The Devaluation of Human Kindness in American Society

I have previously written of the widening political and cultural divides in American society and the increasing sense of despair many of us feel over the depraved state of our public discourse. For the past three years, we have been led by a president so insecure and intellectually deficient that he resorts every day to lies, insults, and personally demeaning comments towards his political opponents, members of the press, foreign leaders, our trusted allies, even members of his own Cabinet. A perennial bully, he loves to humiliate people and lacks respect for the institutions over which he presides and to which the public has entrusted him.

I contemplate every day whether there is anything we as concerned citizens can do as the nation’s political and spiritual crisis becomes worse by the hour. How can we even begin to respond to the enormous needs and stakes of this moment in American history?

Sometimes the answers to such questions are found in childhood, when the most important lessons we learned were simply to be kind and to treat people with decency and fairness. In my lifetime, the one person who best practiced and exemplified these values was Fred Rogers, the creator of the long-running public television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Rogers’ life is a reminder that there are certain people we encounter over the course of our lives – an inspirational teacher, a valued mentor, a rare public figure – who influence our sense of self-worth and how we treat those around us, and from whom we gain insightful wisdom about the meaning of life.

Rogers dedicated his life to childhood education and offered an important contrast to a mean-spirited political climate and a world consumed by materialism, competition, cynicism and violence. As explained by Maxwell King in The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, “His legacy lives in the concept of a caring neighborhood where people watch out for one another, no matter where they come from or what they look like. Far from being old-fashioned, his vision is in fact more pertinent than ever in a fractured cultural and political landscape.”

A daily glance at the morning news provides a harsh reminder that the human values championed by Rogers are a thing of the past. And yet, the kindness and humanity he displayed every day of his life could not be more needed today. The lessons he imparted were simple and direct; he appealed to the essence of our humanity. By his example, he showed us that human kindness enhances our lives and makes the world better, and that meanness and selfishness degrade all of us.

A talented musician, philosopher, theologian, writer, and poet, Rogers was a serious student of childhood education and psychology. His intellectual depth far surpassed his image as the lovable “Mr. Rogers”. And yet his television personality was no act; in real-life, his concern for other human beings, for what was essential in life, never wavered. Fred Rogers recognized the goodness, and the child, in everyone he encountered.

I cannot say if Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell – or media personalities Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and so many others – ever watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when they were younger. But the overwhelming force of their shameless disdain for American democracy, their tolerance of racism and bigotry and fear of immigrants, their pervasive mean-spiritedness, strongly suggests they did not. Indeed, the values taught and instilled by Rogers to young children for forty years are frighteningly overshadowed in today’s political climate.

Unlike Trump and his henchmen, Rogers was the opposite of macho intensity. He listened, more as a vessel than a force in social interaction, and displayed a near Christ-like humility. He enhanced the lives of those around him through constant displays of warmth, humor, and understanding. He despised depictions of violent and aggressive behavior on television, and the crass, low-grade quality of most children’s programming. When he created Neighborhood, his show was one of only a few that spoke to young children on their terms.

An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers was strongly influenced by the theologian Dr. William Orr, a chain-smoking seminary professor who taught that forgiveness was the essence of human kindness. Although he was a man of deep Christian faith, Rogers also studied and adopted universal wisdoms from Buddhism, Judaism, and many other religions, and believed in the inherent goodness of all of God’s children.

Rogers appealed to children’s sensibilities with a combination of slow pacing, simple explanations of complex problems, and a distinctive emphasis on human kindness. He was not afraid to explore difficult and sensitive topics – death, divorce, loss, pain, the evils of racism – in subtle and appropriate ways that resonated with children as young as three and four years old. This was a truly radical concept in the 1960s and 1970s. The day after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, Rogers wrote a special program designed to help parents and children cope with tragedy and the graphic displays of violence then plastering the evening news. As Maxwell King explained in The Good Neighbor, Rogers’ signature message was that “feelings are all right, whatever is mentionable is manageable, however confusing and scary life may become. Even with death and loss and pain, it’s okay to feel all of it, and then go on.”

Ironically, Rogers was criticized in some circles (including by Fox News in recent years) as too soft and naïve, and for not helping children prepare for the rigors of a demanding and competitive world. What these critics failed to understand, however, was that Rogers consistently emphasized personal responsibility and self-discipline. He helped children find and develop their own capacities, which he believed made them stronger adults. He understood that life was a journey and that the choices we make along the way, as both children and adults, impact the world for better or worse. In the last commencement address he ever gave – at Dartmouth College – Rogers said:
I’m very much interested in choices, and what it is and who it is that enable us human beings to make the choices we make all through our lives. What choices lead to ethnic cleansing? What choices lead to healing? What choices lead to the destruction of the environment, the erosion of the Sabbath, suicide bombings, or teenagers shooting teachers? What choices encourage heroism in the midst of chaos?
The life and teachings of Fred Rogers offer an important counterpoint to the meanness and vulgarity in our culture today. Were he alive, I can imagine the heartbreak he would feel for the state of our political discourse and the disrespectful, degrading rhetoric of the President. In his quiet and gentle manner, he would offer alternatives to the gratuitous violence in our television shows and movies, to rampant commercialism, and to the constant grab for more, bigger, better, faster that permeates all aspects of American society.  

He would have been especially horrified with the Trump administration’s family separation policy and images of children in cages at our borders, with the rising tide of white nationalism, and the emphasis on America First. Rogers believed fundamentally that how society treats its children directly impacts how those children develop, mentally and socially, and who they will become and how they will act as adults. “Childhood is not just about clowns and balloons,” he said. “In fact, childhood goes to the very heart of who we will become.”

Although he understood the importance of traditional learning and the utility of science, math, and reading, he emphasized the need to instill values and help children develop socially and mentally. As he told the American Academy of Child Psychiatry in 1971:
It is easy to convince people that children need to learn the alphabet and numbers.  . . . How do we help people to realize that what matters even more than the superimposition of adult symbols is how a person’s inner life finally puts together the alphabet and numbers in his outer life? What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of a sunrise – his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand-new bridge.
Although Rogers earned a significant degree of fame, he cared little for it. “What matters is what you do with it,” he said. “In the one life we have to live, we can choose to demean this life, or to cherish it in creative, imaginative ways.” Now more than ever, America would do well to heed the lessons of Fred Rogers and recognize that the presence or absence of human kindness affects everything.

We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes. – Fred Rogers

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 federal appellate judges and five of 399 federal district court judges were women.  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.”