Thursday, July 31, 2014

On Baseball and Writing: Roger Angell and the Summer Game

Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. Old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June . . . and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for – almost demand – a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. – Roger Angell, The Summer Game
No sport lends itself to the art of writing and the literary craft more than baseball. It is a game embedded in the ever changing landscape of America, from the crowded streets of 1950’s New York and Prohibition Chicago to the westernmost expanse of coastal California. Through the distractions of war and struggles for the rights of man, baseball’s appeal remains constant. It is a game that draws us to the memories of youth, of dirt stains and the scent of freshly cut grass on a spring day, of perfectly shaped infields and the lonely arc of a fly ball on a windy, sun-drenched afternoon. As I grow older and my athletic skills recede ever further into the distant past, I feel a small pain in my heart as I watch the ease and effortless joy with which today’s major leaguers perform the daily routines of batting practice and fielding drills. It is a young man’s game. I long for the rare moments of eternal grace, when the game allows me to stay forever young and live the romanticized dreams of childhood.

I accept that I am connected to baseball only as a fan, an observer, an informed witness to the drama and passions of the game. I can play catch, take swings at fast-pitched balls in coin-operated batting cages, and play in an occasional game of softball. But it is through reading and writing that I remain spiritually connected to the passionate pastime of my early youth. Many good writers have chronicled the game of baseball – sports writers and novelists, journalists and historians. But no writer has better captured what it means to be a true fan than Roger Angell.

I first discovered the beauty of Angell’s prose as a young prosecutor in Washington, DC, when I bought a small paperback copy of The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1972) in the late 1980’s. Angell helped reconnect me to the cadence and rhythm of baseball. His writing became an antidote to the pressure-filled world of courtrooms and career advancement. The Summer Game was Angell’s first collection of baseball essays originally published in The New Yorker, where for a half century he was literary editor and a frequent contributor to its pages. When I first opened the book and started reading a short reflection called “Box Scores,” I recognized instantly the personal moment he captured:
Today the Times reported the arrival of the first pitchers and catchers at the spring training camps, and the morning was abruptly brightened, as if by the delivery of a seed catalogue. The view from my city window still yields only tiny tundras of trash, but now spring is guaranteed and one of my favorite urban flowers, the baseball box score, will burgeon and flourish through the warm, languid, information-packed weeks and months just ahead.
Angell has written passages like this since 1962, when his first essays on baseball appeared in The New Yorker to a surprisingly enthusiastic reception. More than five decades later, at the age of 93, Angell received this past weekend the J.G. Taylor Spink Award at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the highest honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers Association of America. He was honored for a lifetime of exquisite writing and reflection, much of it anthologized in such classics as The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), Late Innings (1982), Season Ticket (1988), and Game Time (2003). I have read every one of these books and the essays and observations that span over 40 years, and I believe there is no better writer about the game of baseball than Roger Angell.

Angell writes with the same clarity of purpose and efficiency as his stepfather, the celebrated author E.B. White (Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, The Elements of Style), a revered figure in American literature. Indeed, writing may come naturally to Angell, for he is also the son of Katherine Sargent Angell White, the first fiction editor of The New Yorker. The New York Review of Books once praised Angell’s ability to search “for the Higher Game, the cosmology behind each pitch, each swing, each ‘shared joy and ridiculous hope’ of summer’s long adventure.” Angell at his best captures the essence of what it means to be a fan.

In March 1962, William Shawn, Angell’s editor at The New Yorker, sent Angell to Florida to write about the annual rite of baseball’s spring training. It was a rather unusual assignment at the time, because Shawn knew absolutely nothing about baseball and The New Yorker was not a publication whose readership cared much about sports. With little guidance or instruction, Angell spent a week camped out in Sarasota, St. Petersburg, and Tampa, attending exhibition baseball games in the Florida sun as the major league teams prepared for the start of the upcoming season. When he returned to New York and handed in his draft, there was not a single quote from a player or manager, no news or big-league scoops. He titled his piece, “The Old Folks Behind Home Plate,” which he wrote not as a sportswriter in the press box, but as a fan in the grandstands.

Angell described watching from the stands an early morning workout of the Chicago White Sox in Sarasota: “Batters in the cage bunted one, hit five or six, and made room for the next man. Pitchers hit fungoes to the outfielders, coaches on the first and third baselines knocked out grounders to the infield, pepper games went on behind the cage, and the bright air was full of baseballs, shouts, whistles, and easy laughter.” This is good writing, allowing us to visualize and sense the sights and sounds of that cool March morning. But it is Angell’s ability to capture the soul and true essence of the fan that makes him such a compelling writer:
There were perhaps two dozen of us in the stands, and what kept us there, what nailed us to our seats for a sweet, boring hour or more, was not just the whop! of the bats, the climbing white arcs of outfield flies, and the swift flight of the ball whipped around the infield, but something more painful and just as obvious – the knowledge that we never made it. We would never know the rich joke that doubled over three young pitchers in front of the dugout; we would never be part of that golden company on the field, which each of us, certainly for one moment of his life, had wanted more than anything else in the world to join.
Angell understands the fan deeply, more profoundly, than other chroniclers of the game, perhaps because he is, first and foremost, a fan himself. Over the years, Angell has given voice to the passionate, caring fan and has profiled the key people and players of the game, always with an eye on the humanity of the players and the reality of the human condition. In October 1975, following the Red Sox fall from grace in one of the greatest post-season classics of all time, Angell wrote of the fans’ emotional connection to the game. In “Agincourt and After” he writes of the night Carlton Fisk homered in the bottom of the twelfth inning at Fenway Park to win game six of the World Series, the night before the Reds would cruelly crush the dreams of Red Sox nation in the seventh and final game:
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look РI know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring Рcaring deeply and passionately, really caring Рwhich is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivet̩ Рthe infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball Рseems a small price to pay for such a gift.
Angell grew up a pure fan of the game, and it comes through in his writing. He was sixteen years old and living in New York when Joe DiMaggio became a Yankee. Like other young boys of his day, he dreamed of someday playing before large crowds in such venues as the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, and Yankees Stadium. He fell in love with DiMaggio’s smooth swing and style of play in the outfield and would, a few years later, be swept away by the swift elegance of Willie Mays. His ability to identify with a team, or a player, and to care abundantly about something for which he had no control, has stayed with him. His writing helps explain why I continue to root passionately for the Cardinals and why each year I live and breathe with the ups and downs of the long, grinding season, exalting when the team wins and suffering miserably when they lose. To have a sense of belonging, to identify with some mystical, magical force larger than me. It is what the game is all about.

But Angell understands not just the loyal and romantic fans. He understands as well the less appreciated fans, those who root for a hopeless cause. In June 1962, he devoted time to the first season of the New York Mets, when they were barely good enough to win forty games and his school-age daughter compared watching the Mets to watching “the fifth grade play the sixth grade at school.” After watching the Mets struggle day in and day out, he wrote, “Suddenly, the Mets fans made sense to me. What we were witnessing was precisely the opposite of the kind of rooting that goes on across the river. . . . This was a new recognition that perfection is admirable but a trifle inhuman, and that a stumbling kind of semi-success can be much more warming. Most of all, perhaps, these exultant yells for the Mets were also yells for ourselves, and came from a wry, half-understood recognition that there is more Met than Yankee in every one of us. I knew for whom the foghorn blew; it blew for me.”

I was initially reluctant to write this piece for it is difficult to do justice to the artistry, grace and precision of Angell’s writing. I was tempted to simply compile an anthology of his observations and notations that capture the game with such descriptive clarity. Good writing sets forth a fresh awareness of even those things with which we are intimately familiar. What Angell can do with a pen and notepad after soaking in an afternoon, or a season, of baseball from the bleachers, where most of us are seated on the playing fields of life, is inspiring. He combines a genuine love of baseball with a love of language; and, most especially, the gift of insight.

Among my favorite of Angell’s writings is an essay about Bob Gibson, my favorite player of all-time, the fiercely competitive, prideful pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s and early 1970s. Five years after Gibson had retired, in the summer of 1980, Angell spent a weekend with Gibson at his home in Nebraska. In a long, moving essay titled “Distance,” Angell paid tribute to Gibson the pitcher, but more importantly, to Gibson the man. He recognized Gibson for his sensitivity, his intelligence and grace. Towards the end of the essay, Angell contemplated what life was like for Gibson now that his playing days were through. “For the first time in our long talks, he seemed a bit uncertain,” Angell wrote.
Baseball is the most individual and the most difficult of all team sports, and the handful of young men who can play it superbly must sense, however glimmeringly, that there will be some long-lasting future payment exacted for the privileges and satisfactions they have won for themselves. . . .Even those of us who have not been spoiled by any athletic triumphs of our own and the fulfillment of the wild expectations of our early youth are aware of a humdrum, twilight quality to all of our doings of middle life, however successful they may prove to be. There is a loss of light and ease and early joy, and we look to other exemplars – mentors and philosophers: grown men – to sustain us in that loss. A few athletes, a rare handful, have gone on, once their day out on the field was done, to join that number, and it is possible – the expectation will not quite go away – that Bob Gibson may be among them someday. Nothing he ever does will surprise me.
I could not master the art of pitching like Bob Gibson, and I did not have the requisite talent to play baseball much beyond high school ball. I love to write, but I will never have the purposeful clarity and eloquence of Roger Angell. But I am grateful to both of these men for allowing me a glimpse into their artistry. When I read the works of Angell, I feel that I am experiencing a true artist, a writer of poise and stature. Like Gibson and Brock, Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Musial, Angell belongs in Cooperstown, where the masterful accomplishments of men in their younger years are immortalized in the Hall of Fame. With the aid of good writing, not least the clear and insightful prose of Roger Angell, I can, in some small way, remain connected to the game and the men who played it well; and, in the imaginary station of my soul, live out the dreams and unfulfilled expectations of youth.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bible as Metaphor: Taking it Seriously, Not Literally

[H]uman beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value. – Karen Armstrong
In the mid-1970s, during my junior year in high school, a friend from concert band invited me to attend a small bible study he had recently joined with some other band members. As the son of a Lutheran minister, I was not anxious to add to my religious obligations, having reached my fill of regular church attendance, youth group outings, and confirmation classes. Sensing my hesitation, my friend noted that Julie, a sophomore flute player with wavy blond hair to which I had formed a recent attraction, would also be there. Hey, no one ever said religious people don’t play dirty. Always one to consider my options, I weighed the prospect of two hours of potential annoyance and piety against the chance to become better acquainted with Julie.  Hmm. What would Jesus do? “Julie was going to be there, you say?” I decided to attend.

It did not turn out very well. As it happens, this particular group, I soon discovered, did not share my mainline Protestant perspective of the Bible as historical-metaphor, but instead took the Bible literally. It was one of my early experiences with fundamentalism, or biblical literalism, which I later learned was far more prevalent than I had realized. The leader of this particular bible study was a man – Julie’s uncle I seem to recall – with no particular theological training; not an ordained minister or priest, but a self-proclaimed student of the Bible. He was determined to establish that the Bible was the authoritative word of God, factually and historically accurate, and not to be questioned. Thus, he contended, the creation story in Genesis is literally true – the world really was created in six days; Adam and Eve really were the first humans; Noah really did build an ark and gathered the animals two-by-two before it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.

I tried my best that evening to correct these mis-impressions, to explain that most of the stories in the Bible were never intended to be understood literally, but were instead to be read in their proper historical context. “The stories have meanings,” I said, “but they should be read symbolically, not literally.” Tension suddenly filled the room as the adult leader became visibly annoyed with me. As for Julie? Well, let’s just say we never dated. Although I held my ground, I was completely outnumbered, and the evening ended with no praises of kumbaya or songs of peace around the camp fire.

Somewhat discouraged, I went home and explained the evening’s events to my father, who listened carefully and, somewhat to my surprise, laughed out loud. He then explained that this was unfortunately a common misunderstanding with which he had contended his entire career. I should understand, he said, that there are a lot of simplistic, erroneous notions of biblical scholarship out there, for which reason, science, and history have little appeal. But damn if that girl wasn’t cute. Oh, well.

*     *     *     *

Over the years, I have had other experiences and run-ins with Christian literalists, born-again proselytizers, and fundamentalist science deniers. Typically friendly, polite and non-threatening, they have approached me in grocery store parking lots, on street corners, and even near a Florida beach during college spring break. It usually goes something like this:

“Are you saved?” asks a friendly young man with short hair and a wide smile. Standing beside him is a pleasant looking young woman with a wholesome glow and an equally friendly air. The first few times this happens to me, I am caught a little off guard.

“Excuse me?” 

“Are you saved?”

“Uh, I’m good, thanks.” I lower my head to avert their intense stares and casually wave them off.

“Do you accept Christ as your savior?”

“Really, I’m good.” I attempt to side-step them.

“Have you been born again?”

Geez, these guys don’t let up! A touch exasperated, I proclaim finally my credentials. “Look, I am the son of a Lutheran minister! I have attended church all my life.”

But such a response simply provides fuel for the fire. These guys are zealous, after all, and prepared, with answers and bible verses for everything you throw at them. For the born again evangelical and proselytizing fundamentalist, “I grew up as a Lutheran” only confirms that I am a misguided soul, lost in the wilderness. I have not really seen the light. They continue to press for more specificity.

“If you died today, would you be prepared to face the Day of Judgment?”

“Listen....but...uh, really....” I give up and walk away, suddenly sensing that I am headed straight for eternal damnation.  

For some evangelical Christians, that I never had a “born again” experience rendered me insufficiently Christian and, thus, “unsaved.” That I had been raised from infancy in the Lutheran tradition was considered irrelevant and, for some, heretical. This is also true for most people raised in mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. If one has not had a conversion experience, a grand vision from God in which you fall on your knees and accept Christ into your life, you are neither “saved” nor, in their eyes, a true Christian. It is but another form of biblical literalism, based on a passage in John 3:3, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

A major problem with biblical literalism is that it gets the Bible wrong, distorts what the bible, religion, and faith are all about, and emphasizes only “what the bible says” divorced from history and the nuanced meanings of its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words. Literalism obscures and distorts the Bible’s meaning and renders faith impossible for millions of thoughtful people otherwise open to religious and philosophical reflection.

*     *     *     *

According to a 2011 poll reported in The Huffington Post, one in three Americans believe that the Bible is literally true. Although many are likely quite selective with their literalism, it is an astonishing figure nonetheless. No wonder so many thoughtful people are turned off by religion and consider American Christianity in particular to be dominated by anti-intellectualism and unthinking dogma.

As Marcus Borg, formerly Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, explains in Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (Harper One, 2014), much of the Bible consists of metaphorical narratives and parables through which a variety of authors, writing two to three thousand years ago, attempted to set forth their understanding of God, the universe, and humankind. "Our biblical ancestors told the stories they told, not for the sake of providing a reliable factual account of what happened, as if their concern were like that of modern newspaper reporters or historians. Rather, they told the stories they told because of the meanings they saw in them.” 

Although biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism have been dominant forces in American society throughout my lifetime, both concepts are relatively new in origin. Neither movement developed any traction until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both run counter to what the early Christians believed and what nearly all mainline Protestant and Catholic theologians have recognized from the very beginnings of their respective traditions. As Borg explains, the Bible "was not written for us. Rather, it was written in the historical contexts of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity.” The ancient Israelites and early Christians were confessing faith, not recording history. They simply did not believe that for something to be true it had to be factually and literally true. They were a generation of story tellers. 

I have found that, for many fundamentalist Christians, biblical literalists, and evangelicals, to suggest there is a non-literal way to read the Bible is to threaten long-held belief systems and cherished “truths.” But this is stubborn, simplistic thinking, and it is wrong. People of faith are not required to throw away common sense and disregard all knowledge of archeology, geology, astronomy, biology, and history to claim a belief in God. The appropriate question is not “Is the bible true?” Instead, a better framework is: “What truths does the Bible reveal?” and “What meanings can be ascribed to the wide variety of narratives and passages contained in the Bible?”

Consider the creation story found at the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.”

The story continues in symmetrical fashion. On the second day, God separates the sky from the oceans; on the third day, God creates land and vegetation; the sun, moon, and stars appear on the fourth day, birds and sea creatures on the fifth day. Then God created human beings in his own image. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” On the seventh day, satisfied with his creation, God rested.

Did the authors of Genesis really intend for us to believe that God created the world in six days? That God created land and vegetation before there existed the sun, moon, and stars? That the universe is only six thousand years old? Read as historical fact, the Genesis creation story is simply bad science. Read as metaphor, it takes on a beautiful, more profound and enriching meaning – that all of creation comes from God and that the created world is good. It presents in poetic language one writer’s attempt to understand the most fundamental questions of creation and humankind. Why do we exist? For what purpose are we blessed with the gift of creation? What is our essential purpose and meaning in life? Read and understood in this manner, the creation story enriches the Bible’s significance and allows us to take it seriously.

Consider as well the second chapter of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve. As Borg notes, the word adam is the Hebrew noun for humankind. From the rib of adam the first woman is created. She is called Eve, which means “mother of all living.” Together they live in the Garden of Eden, or “Garden of Delights,” which includes “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life” – metaphors all. It was not intended to be a factual account of the world’s first human beings, but a metaphorical story of all humankind. This story in Genesis, full of symbolism, writes Borg, is “about what went wrong in paradise. In a world created by God and declared by God to be good and very good, why is there so much pain, suffering, and misery?” Reading Genesis parabolically eliminates the conflicts created by the book’s literal reading and greatly enhances its meaning. It allows us to affirm the spiritual themes of our biblical ancestors without rejecting the theory of evolution or believing in the impossible.

Similarly, when Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of God,” he was, according to Borg, talking about God’s vision of a just world, not of the afterlife. Early Christianity was an anti-imperialist movement with strong political and social undercurrents. It is why Jesus was publicly crucified, a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state. When he spoke of being “born again,” he was speaking not of eternal salvation, but of a personal transformation that comes from casting aside convention and becoming transformed into a new way of life grounded in this world. “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians,” writes the noted historian Karen Armstrong. “He went around doing good and being compassionate.” 

Faith and belief in God is a difficult struggle for some people, a journey of constant doubt and skepticism. I understand why people lose faith and question God’s existence. But those are internal struggles that should not be influenced by misguided and incorrect biblical scholarship. Whether or not one believes in God or assents to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other faith tradition, or merely seeks answers to life’s deepest questions, the journey should not be distorted or rendered impossible by a fundamentally flawed view of religion and the Bible. Faith, religion, philosophy, and biblical scholarship are hard work, but to confuse the Bible with literal-factual truth is to create an impossible, unnecessary and incorrect dilemma.

The Bible is a fascinating book, written by ordinary, fallible human beings in ancient Israel and the early Christian era. It spans nearly a thousand years and contains differing visions and perspectives of God and humankind. It presents a multiplicity of human voices, from storytellers and prophets to evangelists, apostles and teachers. It includes voices of vision and wisdom; voices of convention and prejudice; voices of clarity and ambiguity. To be a person of faith does not require that one “believe in the Bible” or the literal-factual truth of the narratives and parables told throughout. It does not require setting aside all knowledge and thought and believing in impossible things. As Borg contends, faith does not require acceptance and belief in things we know not to be true. Faith is instead “about something far more important. It is about our relationship with God – about centering in God, being . . . faithful to God, and about trusting in God.”  It is a journey of the self and the soul for which the Bible is but a resource from which to draw in the constant search for meaning, purpose, and understanding.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Great Conciliator: Howard Baker 1925 - 2014

If we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don't like, we would soon stop functioning altogether. – Former Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN)
In the fall of 1980, I had the good fortune to participate with 100 or so college students from around the country in the Washington Semester program at American University. A presidential election year, Washington was abuzz with excitement and activity; the campus frequented by dignitaries and speakers of varied political perspectives. I attended talks and speeches by a wide assortment of personalities, from Abbie Hoffman to Henry Kissinger. I listened to Senators and Congressmen, journalists and presidential contenders, and other politically oriented, opinionated speakers who challenged, provoked and, at times, upset me. But always, the talks were interesting and thought provoking.

One speech in particular I remember that Fall was by then Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee. As he stood behind a podium at an outdoor amphitheater in front of a large crowd on a warm September evening, Baker exemplified Establishment grace and charm. I could see why my Republican friends had wanted me to hear him and why he was known as “The Great Conciliator” during his years in the U.S. Senate. A soft-spoken Tennessee lawyer, he possessed an inherent reasonableness and seemed to get along with everyone.

Baker died last week at the age of 88. The country will miss his serious intellect, courteous demeanor, and reasoned approach to politics and problem solving. A self-described “moderate to moderate conservative,” Baker was a centrist Republican who combined fiscal prudence with social and foreign policy moderation. He was also, according to a New York Times obituary, “[f]riendly and unfailingly courteous . . . popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.”

Born into a modest Presbyterian family, Baker was the son of a lawyer and Congressman. After serving in the Navy during World War II and studying law at the University of Tennessee, he was eventually schooled in the art of politics by his father-in-law, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen exemplified the centrist Republican tradition of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and played a crucial role in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by delivering 27 Republican votes to help Lyndon Johnson defeat a Southern filibuster that threatened to permanently block that historic bill. In 1967, Baker joined Dirksen in the Senate, becoming the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. For the next 18 years, Baker served with professionalism and integrity and won the respect and admiration of the press, the public, and members of both political parties.

Baker had conservative instincts and strong opinions, but he believed in the common good. He put the needs of the country first, over party affiliation and ideological purity. As a member of the public works committee, Baker worked closely with liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans in drafting the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, fair housing and voting rights legislation, and willingly promoted bipartisan efforts to enact laws that he believed benefited all Americans, even if opposed by the more conservative elements of his party.

I can still remember Baker’s calm, lawyerly manner during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, which impressed me even as a young teenager. It was Baker who asked the famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” When Nixon’s role in the cover-up became clear, Baker did not hesitate in elevating the interests of the nation ahead of partisanship. He presided over the hearings with patience and equanimity under intense political pressure from many diverse factions, and he ensured the bipartisan nature of the Committee’s investigation

In 1978, Baker supported the Panama Canal Treaty over the vociferous opposition of veterans groups, conservatives, and many others who felt that relinquishing the canal represented a decline in American power and a weakening of our strategic assets. Baker recognized that maintaining American hegemony over the 48-mile canal was akin to colonialism and that ceding the property back to Panama was the right thing to do. He worked with an unpopular Democratic president and helped secure the support of enough Republican senators to achieve the 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty. It was an act of political courage when the easy thing to do would have been to appease the ideological loyalists of his party.

Although he regularly appeared on the morning talk shows to advocate Republican causes with which I passionately disagreed, I found it hard to dislike Baker. Despite his Establishment pedigree, he reminded me of some of my friends at Wittenberg University in southern Ohio. He played tennis and golf and was an avid photographer. He was professional and courteous and rarely displayed anger or bitterness. He understood that there were two sides to an argument and did not personally attack or demonize his opponents.

Baker was an “eloquent listener,” wrote the National Journal, “open to what others said – a trait he lamented as lacking in today’s polarized capital.” Concerned by the growing political divide in the United States, in recent years he was troubled by the forces of ideological extremism so prevalent in political life today. In 2007, Baker co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center with former Senators Bob Dole (R-KS), George Mitchell (D-ME), and Tom Daschle (D-SD). Together they promoted bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, the kinds of compromises skillfully forged in their own careers.

Baker believed in the concept of the citizen-legislator; he understood the value of conviction, but also of taking counsel, listening to one’s constituents and adversaries, and allowing for thoughtful consideration. "What really makes the Senate work,” said Baker, “is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the hearts as well as the minds, the frailties as well as the strengths, of one's colleagues and one's constituents."

I often wonder lately if the present lack of reasoned political dialogue and compromise is a reflection of a broader change in American society, a historic shifting in the manner in which we obtain information and form opinions. Baker served at a time when most Americans operated under the same set of facts and got their news from essentially the same sources. From around 1950 to 1990, most Americans watched one of three television networks, read the same newspapers and weekly news magazines, and listened to the same radio programs. We argued then, like we do now, over the proper direction of our country, but not over basic facts. We debated the amounts we should spend on certain government programs, on defense and social programs, how much we should regulate businesses, tax rates and budgets, and the proper level of welfare and redistribution. But our arguments seemed more civil and were premised on the fundamental belief that liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, while differing widely on how to solve the nation’s problems, did not question the good faith of the other side’s intentions. Such is not the case today and Baker was saddened by this. He tried to correct it until the day he died.

I am confident that someday we will look back at this time in history and recognize that the extreme ideological battles over national health care, climate change, and the minimum wage, and the right-wing obstructionism that seeks to block even routine presidential appointments to the federal bench and regulatory agencies and fights everything the president does, will be considered an anomaly, a dark point in American political history, when reason and compromise lost out to ideological extremism.

“All government,” wrote Edmund Burke, “indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” Like Burke, Baker understood that we live in a nation of diverse peoples and beliefs with competing interests. He knew that politics by necessity involved a certain amount of bargaining and that, at the end of the day, we are all Americans; and that it served no purpose to hate your opponents or to reject the good faith of their intentions.

Howard Baker was a kind and gracious man who loved his country and worked until the end to make it better. He was indeed a citizen-legislator, an eloquent listener, and a great conciliator. He will be sorely missed.