My John Lewis story

John Lewis made his mark by getting into what he called “good trouble”. He sat in the front row when told to go to the back. He kept going forward when told to stop. He defied authority when that authority defied the promise of justice and equal opportunity. His boldness and courage in the pursuit of a more just society helped move our nation forward.

I first saw him in person in a crowded Congressional committee hearing room in 1987. He had just been elected to his first term in Congress and was the talk of Capitol Hill for his stunning upset victory over Julian Bond in the Democratic primary. Everyone expected Bond to win that seat. He was handsome and charismatic and was anointed as a rising political superstar by the pundits. During that campaign Lewis was rightly lauded as a civil rights hero, but he was considered unpolished and not telegenic enough for the hip political crowd. But he won and started a career in Congress that would span more than three decades.

I was a new Congressional Legislative Assistant that winter, working on the staff of another Georgia Congressman, Buddy Darden. Buddy was a great boss and became a mentor for me. He had entrusted me with managing his assignments on the House Interior Committee. That morning when I first saw Mr. Lewis I was seated behind my boss in the staff section of the National Parks and Public Lands Subcommittee hearing room.

I thought I was something. I was 22-years-old and had a Congressional staff ID. I could come and go throughout the Capitol complex and enter committee hearings through the restricted entrance with the members of Congress.

I don’t remember what issue the committee was taking up, but the hearing that day must have been a big deal because the room was packed. There was standing room only, with people jammed all the way against the door at the back. Shortly after the hearing had begun, Mr. Vento from Minnesota, the subcommittee chairman, stopped the proceedings after noticing that Mr. Lewis, the newest member of the subcommittee, was standing in the very back of the room behind the crowd of lobbyists and reporters who couldn’t get a seat.

Seeming a bit flummoxed to see a subcommittee member quietly standing with the overflow crowd in his own hearing room, Mr. Vento called to Mr. Lewis to come through the crowd and take his seat on the dais with the subcommittee. The people standing in the back, realizing what was going on, parted to make way for him to come through to the front to join the hearing.

It was clear that Mr. Lewis did not want to impose or intrude, to push through to his rightful place. He was new enough to not know to use the “Members Only” entrance behind the committee table. His reluctance to exert his authority and his obvious lack of self-importance was a bracing and refreshing contrast to what I had already noticed in so many members of Congress in my short time on the Hill.

This man who had famously defied authority for the sake of those without power, was now the one with power. But here he was, the epitome of humility and gentleness in a place that seems to run on the fuel of ego.

That moment in the hearing room has remained with me. Over the next four years of my time working on Capitol Hill I got to see Mr. Lewis in action frequently. He eventually discovered the members entrance, but he never ceased to be kind and never acted like the big deal everyone knew him to be.

(I got to drive him to the airport once when my boss found out he was going to take the subway there one Saturday, and my boss offered that I could take him instead. Mr. Lewis didn’t want to impose on any of his staff on the weekend, but I was thrilled to have the honor to drive him.)

Since his death last week, I have seen many similar stories shared about Mr. Lewis. His strength of character, his courage, and his boldness in noble causes mark him as a true American hero and convict me and challenge me to be better and do more. But his gentle way and humble kindness made just as much of an impression on me.

I’ve found much value in having icons of greatness to guide my thinking and actions. Lincoln was my first childhood hero, and I have favored biography and history in my reading to cull what wisdom I could from lives of distinction. It’s good to have your own Mt. Rushmore of noble men and women carved into your consciousness, to remind you of the kind of character you want to possess. That moment in the hearing room with John Lewis continues to remind me of the humility that marks the bearing of those who are truly great.

I am thankful for the brief, ennobling encounters I had with Mr. Lewis and for the large difference his life has made on our nation and in the cause of human decency everywhere.

President Obama to his daughters: Fight for treating people with kindness

This remarkable feature in The New Yorker by David Remnick recounts his inside access to President Obama in the days after the election. It is an extraordinary bit of writing and a bittersweet, yet hopeful take on the President’s reaction to this election.

There is a lot to process in the President’s analysis of the state of the nation and what’s ahead for us. But, as a father who had to explain the results last week to my two dismayed daughters, I especially appreciated this:

How did he speak with his two daughters about the election results, about the post-election reports of racial incidents? “What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

The whole article is fascinating. It’s well worth a read, or two.

I was going to close by saying how much I will miss President Obama, his class and character and wit and his keen, poetic way with words. But, now, I don’t think he will be as removed from the eye of the storm as he had anticipated or hoped. He is needed now in a new way, as a counterpoint to what is to come and as a beacon for what can be. I imagine he will not ride quietly off into the sunset any time soon.

Progress is not inevitable

Via Kottke:

“I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” –Franklin Roosevelt

This is from a time when fascism was all the rage and from a man who helped move us forward and past it.

The trend towards an even kinder and more enlightened society remains powerful. But progress is not inevitable. 

Bettering our lot takes commitment and action and vigilance and a bracing clear-sightedness. 

Stay awake. 

“Rage against the dying of the light.” 

Biden and Colbert and real talk

My first career was working on Capitol Hill. I walked into it a bright eyed “Mr. Smith” going to Washinton. 

I didn’t leave it four years later as a jaded cynic exactly. I still had it in my head that I might be fit for a political career. But the longer I was away from D.C., the more the allure of politics faded. 

After D.C. I stumbled into a job working with college students and gradually grew into appreciating making a difference one young friend at a time. 

Eventually, I stopped even following politics very closely. I don’t watch TV news. It seems mostly inane and insulting. Skimming the headlines on The New York Times keeps me up to date, and social media is filled with the absurdities of the current political process. 

And the headlines now point to a process that attracts seemingly the most shameless, vacuous people imaginable. The news I have seen looks to be something from a Saturday Night Live parody instead of actual public discourse. 

Maybe that’s why I was so heartened by this conversation on The Late Show this week between Stephen Colbert and Vice President Biden. 

It’s worth watching. These men have a remarkable, touching conversation on national television on what is supposed to be a zany talk show. They talk about heart-wrenching loss and faith and healing as these two men are uniquely able to do. (Biden lost his son to cancer recently, and lost his daughter and first wife in an accident at the beginning of his career in the Senate. Colbert’s father and two of his brothers were killed in a plane crash when Colbert was ten.)

Biden has a well earned reputation for connecting with authenticity and heart and often delightfully unscripted goofiness. He’s being urged to run for President, and you can see in this conversation with Colbert that he’s almost physically agonizing over whether he’s whole enough after the recent death of his son to even consider it. 

This kind of vulnerability is so rare in most public officials and office seekers. What passes for bold candor in politicians lately is not courageous or vulnerable at all. 

Colbert, by the way, keeps elevating his craft. He’s offering smart and savvy and challenging entertainment and ideas. In a society addicted to click-bait and wowed by lip-sync battles, who knows if there’s a place for the kinds of conversations Colbert is having. I hope so. 

And I hope there are more Joe Bidens out there who have the courage to be real and show some heart as they attempt to truly lead. 

You can rue the political process and tune it out for your own peace of mind. But we still need men and women of real character to have the courage to step into the fray and bring integrity and empathy and honest-to-goodness vision. 

Don’t settle for less in those you entrust with the public good.