Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Ted Kennedy Passes Away

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

It’s 1:30 a.m. It’s not up on the New York Times or Washington Post yet. His Wikipedia page has already been updated, though. And CNN is reporting: Ted Kennedy has died.

He died in his home, from brain cancer, at 77.

The first thing that hits me is a memory: I covered Kennedy, in the early 1990s, as a reporter for Congressional Quarterly. I picture him coming off the Senate floor, a huge man, pink-faced, his thoughts seeming to run a mile ahead of his gait. I remember how nervous I felt, before I asked him a question. This was JFK’s brother. I’m so glad I got to interview him.

Looking at the footage of him on TV, it strikes me that we’ve lost so much. An unabashed liberal. Not someone who needed to hide behind the less stigmatized label: Progressive. (Which is to say, not someone like me.) A shameless fighter for workers, and the rights of workers to organize. A believer, until his dying day, in the absolute imperative of universal health care.

We miss Kennedy already. We miss him because he was the youngest brother of John and Bobby, and now there are no brothers left. We miss him because he was a force, a proud and powerful force for causes that are so out-of-fashion today. We miss him because we sensed, through this summer of bitter partisan infighting over health care, that he was perhaps the one person who could restore some sanity to the debate. Who could get people to move beyond their taunts — he, afterall, had worked tirelessly across the aisle, with the likes of Utah Republican Orrin Hatch — to try to find common ground.

Some political leaders inspire hope. Others, though, inspire courage.

Perhaps, with his death, those of us who believe in health care reform can remember: It’s important not just to have convictions; it’s important to be brave in advancing them.

Thanks for the interview, Ted.

A Final Thought on Norm Coleman

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

In the end, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman bowed out powerfully, turning political defeat into education.

“Ours is a government of laws, not men and women,” he said, conceding yesterday to Al Franken. “The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken, and I respect its decision and will abide by the result. It’s time for Minnesota to come together under the leaders it has chosen and move forward. I join all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator — Al Franken.”

I know this is the kind of thing people say, when they lose elections in this country. But, still, there’s something about Coleman’s formulation — pointing out the primacy of law over the individual — that really moved me, particularly now, when, half-way around the word, a different country has told its people, at the barrel of a gun: Ours is a government of men, not laws.

Coleman is a an observant Jew. Of all the things I read during the protracted fight for the Minnesota Senate seat, the most indelible image might have been this one, from an April article in the New York Times:

[Coleman] said that every morning, he puts tefillin — black leather boxes containing scrolls — on his arm as part of a morning Jewish prayer ritual. “I bind myself every morning,” he said. “I bind myself to God every morning because it’s in his hands.”

I have almost nothing in common with Coleman, politically. Among other things, he has been a strategic advisor and consultant for the Republican Jewish Coalition, the political archenemy of the National Jewish Democratic Council, on whose board I serve. But over the last few months, I’ve started putting on tefillin, too — once a week. It’s a powerful but strange ritual, one that political leaders rarely speak openly about.

“David Letterman will make fun of me for this,” Coleman said, after revealing his religious practice.

Maybe. But I appreciated Coleman’s candor. Like his concession speech, it took a certain amount of courage.

Why we Burn Out

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

There’s an excellent expanded issue of the journal Shma, published in March, about challenges to the  contemporary rabbinate.

I love this point, from David B. Thomas, a rabbi in Sudbury, Mass.:

Burnout is not the inevitable result of being too busy; it is the result of being busy with things that wear you down. The antidote to burnout is engaging in something that nurtures the soul.

I thought of this yesterday when I read Michiko Kakutani’s review of Richard Wolffe’s new book about Obama, Renegade: The Making of a President.

Mr. Wolffe tells us that since becoming president Mr. Obama has shifted his reading “from nonfiction narratives to dry academic studies” on specific subjects, like the world financial system or historical analyses of Afghanistan.

It’s a relief, of course, that we have a president who absorbs that stuff. I just hope he starts making time for the more meaningful reading, too. Maybe, on this swing through the Arab world, it wouldn’t hurt to bring along a good biography, or even a book of fiction?

As any good rabbi knows, burnout has serious consequences.