Post 52: Father Ted and Me

The course of my friendship with Father Hesburgh runs some 60 years from when I was a student at Notre Dame to my last visit with him seven months before he died. I am no exception. Father Ted was close to many families and supporters of Notre Dame and many persons with whom he worked in the interests of civil rights, international peace, and social justice. Still, I think my story is unique. Father took many opportunities to call me and Faith to get together for Mass or share meals with friends.

I have already recounted one joint experience in helping start the Peace Corps in Chile. It was Father Ted who told Shriver the slightly embellished story of my work in the mountains of Chile, which ended up in a speech by President Kennedy and landed me my 15 minutes of fame.

Here I share a few other highlights of our relationship:

Confronting the Curia

In November 1963, Father Ted asked if I could join him at Idelwild Airport (not yet renamed “JFK”) while waiting for a plane to Rome. He had been summoned by the Roman Curia. As the recently-elected president of the International Federation of Catholic Colleges, he had taken steps to revitalize this largely inactive and ineffective organization. His changes did not go well with a cardinal and an archbishop who oversaw all seminaries and Catholic colleges.

A few days later Father and I met again at the airport.

“How did it go?” I asked.

“It was typical of the Curia,” he said. “They sat me down and told me all the bad things I had done and then they tried to shove a compromise down my throat.” The federation would be controlled by a six-person panel, including a Monsignor McDonald, then president of Catholic University in the U.S. and the person Father Ted had defeated in his election.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I told them that I had been elected, not Monsignor McDonald, and then I walked out of the room and came home.”

Father ultimately won the battle by appealing directly to his friend, Pope Paul VI, and months later received a letter of apology from the offending archbishop.

Taking on Twentieth Century Fox

In the spring of 1964, Father invited me to join him again at the airport to observe a meeting he was conducting with Judge David Peck, a former New York State judge, now in private practice. The subject was Notre Dame’s legal efforts to stop the release of a movie entitled “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home.” The film starred Shirley MacLaine and Peter Ustinov and contained a tawdry scene showing Notre Dame football players being feted the night before a game by belly dancers and harem girls. To show you how dumb the film was, Notre Dame lost the game with Shirley MacLaine scoring the winning touchdown!

I listened to Judge Peck explain to Father Ted all the reasons why his lawsuit would fail. He took it all in and then authorized Peck’s law firm to proceed anyway. After some initial success, New York’s High Court of Appeals allowed Twentieth Century Fox to release the film, but not before Father Hesburgh did everything he could to protect the reputation of the university.

Taking on Pinochet

In 1976,  Chile was suffering under the repressive Pinochet government and Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez, Archbishop of Santiago, had asked Father’s assistance in obtaining funds for his human rights work. Father asked if I could help him obtain support for the Cardinal’s efforts, especially those aimed at finding work for academics who were being forced to leave Chile under the circumstances.

Our sights soon focused on a large trust fund at the Inter-American Development Bank, controlled by the United States government, which was about to provide $8 million to the Pinochet government. Our lobbying efforts managed to put a hold on these funds for three years. Pinochet was furious. We learned that on at least one occasion (a dinner at the Pen and Pencil restaurant in New York City) we had been under surveillance by Chile’s dreaded secret police. A right-wing newspaper in Chile, La Segunda, railed against the “priest and left-wing businessman” (the only time I have been referred to as left-wing) who were trying to “funnel funds to Pinochet’s opposition.” We were finally able to do that. The $8 million went to the Inter-American Foundation which went on to provide some $4.6 million to human rights and social development programs supported by Cardinal Silva.

A Mass in the Garden

In May of 1977, Father came to DC to receive an honorary degree from the Georgetown University law school (as of 2013, he held the world’s record for the most honorary degrees: 150). Before the graduation exercises, he said Mass in my garden in Georgetown. What was most significant about that day was that Faith came to the Mass, and we had our first date that evening. After the Mass, I accompanied Father to the graduation where he was honored along with Coretta Scott King and Mother Teresa.

A Video Tribute to Sarge

Bill Josephson was Sarge Shriver’s legal counsel at the Peace Corps, law partner, and devoted friend. Bill is Senior Advisor to the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute, a trust set up  with a $10 million appropriation from the Congress to honor Sargent Shriver’s memory. In early 2014, Bill asked me if Father Ted could deliver a talk in Chicago on “the spirituality of Sargent Shriver.” I called Melanie, Father’s assistant, to arrange this; but she said that Father Ted was no longer well enough to travel. I then offered to produce a video of Father Ted speaking about Sarge’s commitment to his faith, as a gift from me to the Institute.

I interviewed him on June 25, 2014. It was one of the last interviews he ever did. He spoke not just about Sarge’s faith, but about the Peace Corps volunteers he knew in Chile, and his trip to Chicago for a civil rights rally with Martin Luther King (admitting to exceeding the speed limit to get there!) The video is available at this link.

When the half-hour interview ended, we chatted in his office in the Hesburgh Library overlooking the campus and the golden dome. Father sat with his feet on his desk, smoking one of his favorite cigars and said, “Tom, tell me more about the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute.”

I told him about the good work the Institute does and about the $10 million appropriation. Then he turned to me, ever the Notre Dame fundraiser, and said, “Can we get some of that money?”

Post 51: Father Ted and the Peace Corps: A Story Not Often Told

Father Ted was leaving his office at the Civil Rights Commission on March 1, 1961, walking through Lafayette Square across the street from the White House, when he encountered two friends – Harris Wofford, a former legislative assistant on the Commission, and Sargent Shriver, with whom he had a long-time friendship and who was the brother-in-law of President Kennedy. Wofford and Shriver were ebullient. They held in their hand the text of a Presidential Executive Order that President Kennedy would sign that day, creating the United States Peace Corps.

Returning to South Bend and the Notre Dame campus, Father Ted was working late in his office that same evening and received a call from Wofford and Shriver, still together and still “celebrating.” In the call they challenged him to “bring us a Peace Corps project.”

Father assembled the Notre Dame Latin American faculty and staff, and they came up with an idea for a Peace Corps project in Chile with which Notre Dame had a longstanding presence. Five weeks elapsed until Shriver called Father Ted and said, “It’s a go. We like the idea but can you make it less Catholic?” He asked this to avoid the impression of favoritism from the first Catholic elected president.

Father then involved the Indiana Conference on Higher Education, which agreed to support the program with Notre Dame as the managing partner. Father traveled to Chile in April with Peter Frankel, an  assistant to the president of Indiana University, and quickly obtained the support of the Chilean government for a Peace Corps program with the Institute of Rural Education, a Chilean non-profit.

I had already decided to join the Peace Corps the day it was announced by President Kennedy, and I had been accepted to join the first Peace Corps group ever to begin service overseas, in Ghana, Africa. I called Father Ted for the required letter of recommendation. “No way,” he said. “You’re going to Chile with us.”

Father’s commitment to the 45 volunteers in that first Peace Corps in Chile lasted until his death five years ago. We were in many ways his family. Evadna Smith Bartlett tells the story in a special issue of “Notre Dame Magazine” (March 2015) dedicated to Father’s memory.

Notre Dame was still a male-only university in 1961 when 52 prospective volunteers for the newly launched Peace Corps, 18 of them female, arrived at the University for selection and training.

We came from across the United States, Catholics and non-Catholics, Notre Dame graduates and alums of other schools, most in our 20s, all eager to serve in Chile – and 45 of us eventually did. Having been instrumental at the Peace Corps’ inception, Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, had proposed the Chilean project almost as soon as the Peace Corps was conceived.

The day we arrived in Indiana, Father Ted hosted a reception for us at the Morris Inn. For many of us, already excited to be on the prestigious campus and now to meet the president, it was a heady experience. We quickly came to realize what an amazing man he was, but we had no idea Father Ted would become a surrogate parent, advocate and teacher and a part of our lives for years to come.

Despite his responsibilities, he found time to encourage, challenge and advise us. He already knew everyone’s name, hometown, field of study. He joined us for meals. As a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he discussed the problems and progress in addressing segregation in the nation, pointing out that we would face questions on the issue while in Chile. We did.

Once summer school at Notre Dame ended, space in a newer dorm opened for us. Males were put on the first floor, females on the second. It was a major shock for at least one priest, we subsequently learned. The move came around midnight, after we returned from the Peace Corps-arranged psychiatric interviews in Indianapolis. Father Ted, known for working into the wee hours of the night, later related that a young priest burst into his office reporting, “Boys and girls are both moving into Fisher Hall! Father should do something immediately.”

He did. He told the astonished young priest that the Peace Corps trainees were making the move on his instructions. The younger man reportedly left the office shaking his head.

Not surprisingly, many of our parents had, at the minimum, misgivings about their daughters and sons leaving for two years for who-knows-what kind of experience. Father Ted understood that as well as he understood young people. He visited each of us in April 1962 at our duty sites, locations spread more than 800 miles from north of Santiago to the Chiloé Archipelago in the south, bringing everything from sewing patterns to wool socks.

It was a special treat for us. And, we later learned, for our families. Our contact with them was then by snail mail, or, as a special treat, CB radio. Cell phones, email or other electronic communication so common today did not then exist.

Back in the United States after his visits to our work sites, Father Ted contacted every one of our parents, telling them good news of our work and situations.

In the years since our return, the volunteers who worked with the project Father Ted inspired have maintained contact through annual newsletters, email and reunions back at Notre Dame. Father Ted participated in each reunion, delighting our children in an early one when he sat on a hallway floor, back to the wall, chatting into the evening in an alumni dorm where we roomed that year. He could always conjure up a memory, usually funny, of each volunteer’s experience in Chile.

Post 50: A Movie For Remembering Father Ted

Five years ago, Faith and I had the sad duty of journeying to Notre Dame for the funeral of our dear, close family friend, Father Ted Hesburgh.  Father once made a special trip to Washington to preside over Faith and my nuptials.  He baptized our son, Garrett, and said Mass in our home on more than one occasion.  He and I had a personal relationship that went back to the 1950s when I was a student leader at Notre Dame, through the Peace Corps years and for every decade after that.

So I have decided to dedicate the next few blogs to Father Hesburgh, a task made easy by the release early in 2019 of the film entitled “Hesburgh.”  This documentary, made by award winning filmmakers Patrick Creedon and Christine O’Malley, is a wonderful portrayal of Father Ted’s leadership in making Notre Dame a first class academic institution, his service to our country under Presidents Eisenhower and Richard Nixon (yes, Richard Nixon but stay tuned), his pioneering work on civil rights and his ability to stand firm against the bureaucrats in the Roman Curia in behalf of academic freedom.  The film, which is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, received four stars from both The New York Times and The Washington Post and on “Rotten Tomatoes” as well.

So that I am not the source telling you why you should watch the film, I am sharing one of these more independent reviews with you.

“The timely documentary ‘Hesburgh’ looks back fondly on a great conciliator” by Ann Hornaday, Washington Post film critic, May 1, 2019

In fractious and bellicose times, it’s tough out there for conciliators. Which makes “Hesburgh,” Patrick Creadon’s lively and inspiring portrait of one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century, more welcome than ever.

Father Theodore M. Hesburgh was most famous as the president of the University of Notre Dame, an institution he led for 35 years. During Father Ted’s tenure, Notre Dame went from being a football school to being not just academically respected but a bastion of intellectual freedom and ideological pluralism, sometimes at the consternation of Vatican officials. “I took a vow of obedience,” Father Ted says during one debate about academic freedom, “but I had to draw a line.”

If only as a principled educator and beloved paterfamilias, Father Ted is worthy of admiration. But as Creadon makes clear in this swiftly moving chronicle, his biggest role was that of civil rights pioneer and transcendent public figure. As a one of the first members, and later chairman, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he helped create the underpinnings of what would become landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s and 1970s.

He did that, not through strong-arming or shouting but by bringing opposing sides together to find compromise that even they didn’t know they were capable of — in one memorable case, over steaks, bourbon and fishing at a Wisconsin lake. Handsome, sensitive and open-minded, he became a friend to Popes and presidents, establishing a deep, what-might-have-been friendship with close confidante Eppie Lederer, better known as Ann Landers. (I nominate George Clooney and Sandra Bullock for the biopic.)

Father Theodore Hesburgh, center left, with Martin Luther King, center right, and other civil rights protesters. (O’Malley Creadon Productions)

Was Father Ted too good to be true? “Hesburgh” never suggests a dark side or even slightly troubling contradictions, although he disappointed even his most devoted young fans when he came down hard on campus protesters during the Vietnam era. Presumably he never spoke — or was never asked — about the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the church toward the end of his lifetime (The movie is narrated by an actor reading from Hesburgh’s writings and tapes, and includes testimony from admirers in religion, education, politics and activism.)

Those who are willing to take “Hesburgh” at its word are left with a simple but exhilarating portrait of leadership at its most morally grounded and pragmatically effective, based on cultivating respect, mutual understanding and compassion. Father Ted, who died in 2015, doesn’t just make those principles look attractive, he makes them look attainable. This moving, illuminating slice of American life and social history serves as a stirring example that we should all do much better. And we can start right now.

 

Post 49: Be Kind, Be Kind, Be Kind!

Recently, in the New York Times Book Review section, Judith Newman had four short book reviews under the heading “Kindness Changes anything” (January 19, 2020). I had already brought to your attention one of the books reviewed, The Rabbit Effect, by Kelli Harding in Blog 33.

To refresh your memory, Dr. Harding maintains that “when it comes to our health, we’ve been missing some crucial pieces: hidden factors behind which makes us really healthy.  Factors like love, friendship and dignity.”

Sections from her other three reviews follow:

It was New Year’s Eve, and my friends had just adopted a little girl, 4 years old, from China. The family was going around the table, suggesting what each thought the New Year’s resolution should be for the other. Fei Fei’s English was still shaky. When her turn came, though, she didn’t hesitate. She pointed at her new father, mother and sister in turn. “Be nice, be nice, be nice,” she said.

Fifteen years later, in this dark age for civility, a toddler’s cri de coeur resonates more than ever. In his recent remarks at the memorial service for Congressman Elijah Cummings, President Obama said, “Being a strong man includes being kind, and there’s nothing weak about kindness and compassion; nothing weak about looking out for others.” On a more pedestrian level, yesterday I walked into the Phluid Project, the NoHo gender-neutral shop where T-shirts have slogans like “Hatephobic” and “Be Your Self.” I asked the salesperson, “What is your current best seller?” She pointed to a shirt in the window imprinted with the slogan: “Be kind.”

I’d probably pick up any book that includes the words “foreword by Jimmy Carter,” because I know being in his company will make me feel better. OUR BETTER ANGELS: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life and the World …by Jonathan Reckford, C.E.O. of Habitat for Humanity, has such a foreword. When President Carter isn’t writing his own historical or inspirational books, he’s building homes with Habitat for Humanity for those who desperately need them. “Our Better Angels” lays out the seven virtues that can translate into action: Kindness, Community, Empowerment, Joy, Respect, Generosity and Service. This is a nifty way to organize a lot of great stories about people Habitat for Humanity has helped and to drive home the very important point that performing a service helps you, too — even if the service is done out of duty, not love. Because in a certain sense, duty can become love — as the British in general, and fans of “Downton Abbey” in particular, can surely tell you.

Which may be why I was drawn to a book called COSY: The British Art of Comfort …by Laura Weir. The American market has been inundated with bossy little books in which other countries tell us how to behave. (Korea, please stop telling me to “empty my mind” so I can begin to claim the power of nunchi. I am 58. I can barely hold on to the few thoughts I have.) But O.K., I’m an Anglophile, and I was drawn to this one. “Unlike hygge, which is beautiful in essence, but too often seen through the lens of interior design magazines, being cosy is completely personal, affordable and democratic. … Cosy is your authentic self undone.” I particularly enjoyed the chapter “Cosy and Kind,” where Weir indirectly lays out the connection between duty and love, with advice like “Become the stealth de-icer: rise early and chuck down de-icing solution on the drives and steps of your elderly neighbors’ homes. They don’t need to know, but you will.”

Victoria Turk’s KILL REPLY ALL: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, From Social Media to Work to Love is one of the more amusing digital-etiquette books you’ll read. Simply put, social media has created a new universe of ways we can be mean to one another. So digital good manners are a great kindness, whether they apply to friends, work or love. (I like one of Turk’s definitions of love: “Texting them even though your battery’s at 5 percent.”) And now, I know I will never leave anyone in a specific circle of acquaintances out of a group chat, even if I think he or she is uninterested; let that person opt out himself. Let’s say it’s a book club chat. By God, everyone must be in there, even if Janet has questionable opinions about Nabokov and Leslie can turn every club meeting into a discussion of her grandchildren. These, like many of Turk’s lessons, are kindnesses I can live with.                              

Fei Fei had it right. Even if, at 4 years of age, she didn’t know she was echoing Henry James, who reportedly once said to his nephew: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Post 48: Recent TV Shows that “Lead Us to Goodness”

Aisha Harris recently took up her new duties as culture editor for the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times.  Announcing her appointment, the editors of the opinion section cited her previous writings which “used trends in film, TV and movies to tell us something about who we are and where we are going.”  I am certain that one piece they had in mind was an article that appeared in the February 26th edition last year about TV shows that “Lead us to Goodness.”

Harris’ article brings us back to Blog 32 about Joy Gregory’s efforts to bring spiritual values to the television screen and to the Humanitas Prize which “honors film and televisions writers whose work promotes human dignity, meaning and freedom.” It would seem that any one of the shows Harris describes would quality for such an award.

I must admit that I have spent much more time – and truly relished – the shows which Harris describes as “reflecting (and sometimes reveling)” in “the world’s messiness and harsh realities” especially the Sopranos and Seinfeld! My New Year’s resolution this year is to take in many more of the wonderful offerings now streamed on television through Netflix or Amazon Prime.  Television is no longer the “vast wasteland” that FCC Commissioner described in l961.  Perhaps some of the show Faith and I watch can also “lead us to goodness.”

Ms. Harris observes:

In the formative years of life, most of us learn the basic concepts of human decency. Say “please and thank you.” “Sharing is caring.” The Golden Rule.

Then we grow up, and as we encounter the world’s messiness and harsh realities it can be easy to forget what it means to be “good” to others. Television has excelled at reflecting (and sometimes reveling in) this moral slide, in the shameless narcissism of shows like “Seinfeld” and “You’re the Worst,” in the emotional terrorism of “Mad Men” and “You,” and in the sociopathic criminality of “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.”

In the last several years, however, a few shows have taken a different approach, one that unambiguously depicts adults stumbling to (re-)learn empathy and respect.

Their lessons aren’t presented merely as arcs following the natural progression of a character’s evolution from flawed to enlightened. Instead, in the mold of educational children’s shows, human decency is the premise. Unlike in other series that explore the dark depths of human nature, the characters in these shows actively try to suppress their selfish and harmful impulses in ways both minor and profound. At the very least, the people in their lives (and the shows’ writers) are pushing them toward betterment.

On “The Good Place,” … Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and the rest of the gang have to own up to their poor actions on earth in the afterlife, in hopes of escaping eternal punishment in the Bad Place. HBO’s “Barry,” which returns for its second season on March 31, is built around a marine turned hit man (Bill Hader) who wants out of the game but finds himself unable to quit without hurting innocent people.

For Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), an East Villager with intimacy issues in the recent Netflix hit “Russian Doll,” the key to hacking her repeating time loop of death and resurrection is to be more selfless. In the most recent season of another Netflix favorite, “BoJack Horseman,” the titular self-destructive TV star (voiced by Will Arnett) must begin to make amends for the untold number of people he has hurt — most of them women.

As is often the case in real life, change isn’t borne of these characters’ decisions to suddenly live more honorably; it is borne of self-interest in extreme circumstances. When Eleanor, a habitual liar and gleeful narcissist, first arrives in the Good Place, she believes she was brought there by “accident.” She spends much of Season 1 working secretly to become a better person so she can earn her place before the neighborhood architect, Michael (Ted Danson) finds out.

With the help of her assigned soul mate in the Good Place, Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a moral philosophy professor, Eleanor is introduced to ethical concepts and slowly begins to develop positive habits. Notably, she admits the truth about her earthly behavior to Michael and the rest of the neighborhood, setting into motion the show’s interrogation of “good” acts versus “bad.”

Moral evolution is embedded in the DNA of “Russian Doll,” too, though the lessons in kindness sneak up on you. What begins as a dark comedy with echoes of “Groundhog Day” soon takes a twist in Episode 4, when Nadia meets Alan (Charlie Barnett), an uptight depressive who is also caught in a loop reliving the same day over and over.

If “Russian Doll” and “The Good Place” place solid faith in humans’ capacity for change, “Barry” and “BoJack” are more cautiously optimistic. They insist that facing consequences for your actions is just as important — maybe more so.

Explicit conversations around morality show up time and again in these shows because they are the narrative. What would have prompted a “Very Special Episode” in a family sitcom of a different era is instead the driving force of these stories. Unlike the cheesy relics of that period, though, “BoJack” and its ilk avoid coming down too hard on what’s “right” or “wrong,” positing only that there are definite ways to be better.

Each show lays out a map for moral progression (listen to others; be honest; seek help for your addictions), and if the protagonists don’t always follow that map themselves, the lessons are there for the viewer.

It’s almost as if, having tired of the many ways TV itself has contrived to break bad, the writers sought to show that going back to basics can be equally effective.

 

Post 47: Bob Greenstein’s 40 Years of Service to America’s Poor

I have always attempted to keep this blog above politics and about others, not me; but I may be getting close to the edge on this one because it has to do with a small role I played in creating the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in the early eighties and what the Center has accomplished over the past four decades.

Some of you know that I was a Director of the Public Welfare Foundation for forty years (and Chair for ten).  From its very beginning, PWF was unlike most other foundations in that it  allowed its Directors (volunteer board members, not staff) to be actively involved in grant making and to bring new ideas to the attention of their fellow board members.

So in 1981, when my friend and mentor, Richard Boone, Executive Director of the Field Foundation in New York, told me of the efforts of a 33 -year- old advocate by the name of Robert Greenstein to create an organization to protect low income Americans, I was intrigued.  I presented Bob’s project to the board and, after several months of debate as to whether or not it was too “political,”  managed to get it approved.  Several years later Bob credited our foundation with helping “to transfer the Center from a mere idea to a thriving stable institution.”

As to any fears that Bob is one sided politically, please note that  “Republican help… was essential to past success “;  that Bob had an excellent working relationship with Senator Robert Dole and has worked closely with the Business Roundtable.

Bob Greenstein plans to retire at the end of this year.  At the end of 2019, E.J. Dionne took stock of what he and the Center had accomplished. Excerpts from the article, published in The Washington Post on December 30, are below:

Our nation’s capital has battalions of lobbyists who sneak innocent-looking provisions into bills that save corporations billions in taxes. And if you want to find statistics to prove whatever point you’re making, many experts will tell you exactly what you want to hear.

Then there’s Bob Greenstein, the antithesis of Washington cynicism.

Greenstein is the founder of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), established in 1981 with the goal of representing the interests of lower-income Americans across every arena in Washington.

This has meant working with Capitol Hill, the White House and federal agencies, of course. But its work also involved providing the city’s most reliable data. In policy skirmishes, numbers matter, and ersatz statistics can skew outcomes and cloud understanding. The CBPP’s facts are bulletproof. It never hides ideologically inconvenient findings.

But the day came this month that everyone who has been in the trenches for expanding health coverage, nutrition assistance, and help for children and pregnant women has been dreading: Greenstein announced that he was stepping down as president of the CBPP, the organization he built into one of the most powerful friends poor people have. It started with only four employees and now has 150, plus offshoots in 42 states.

…..

Although it is impossible to calculate, it’s fair to say that, over its lifetime, the center has pushed policy changes that shifted hundreds of billions of dollars, through benefits or lower taxes, to the country’s least advantaged people.

Sometimes, it did this simply by exposing the regressive effects of budget cuts. Greenstein got an early start on such work. In early 1981, when he was running a small policy start-up called the Project on Food Assistance and Poverty, he conducted a careful analysis that put the lie to the Reagan administration’s claims that it was protecting the “truly needy” in its budget cuts.

The study prompted a front-page New York Times article, an early signal of the power of good data. That success encouraged a group of foundations to put up money for creating the CBPP.

But Greenstein and his policy warriors often work behind the scenes, seeking not credit but better results. President Barack Obama’s team turned to the CBPP before he took office for advice on its massive emergency stimulus package. Greenstein estimates that about one-third of the package grew out of the CBPP’s proposals.

In the battle for the Affordable Care Act, Greenstein sought a change in its employer mandate so it wouldn’t inadvertently hurt low-income women with children. When told by the Obama administration it could not sign off on the change if the Business Roundtable opposed it, Greenstein’s team negotiated successfully with the Roundtable.

And he worked with the Clinton administration for a large increase of the earned income tax credit, but also brought pressure on the Clinton team to expand it further, an effort helped along when he ran into then-Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) in an ­elevator.

Greenstein has worries about the future. They include “extreme and increasing polarization” stopping Republicans from joining with Democrats to support initiatives for the needy. Republican help — Greenstein particularly admires former senator Bob Dole — was essential to past successes.

…. 

 [The CBPP] has produced real advances. A CBPP study last month showed that poverty had dropped from 26 percent in 1967 to 14.4 percent in 2017, thanks in large part to government action. “In 1967,” the study found, “economic security programs lifted above the poverty line just 4% of those who would otherwise be poor. By 2017, that figure had jumped to 43%.”

Politics often rewards those who preach the futility of public action. Greenstein has spent a lifetime proving them wrong.

Post 46: Human Kindness in Even the Darkest of Times

On New Year’s Day, Faith and I enjoyed a musical and emotional treat, attending a performance of “Come From Away” at the Kennedy Center. “Come from away” is an expression used in Canada’s Atlantic provinces for someone who has moved to the area from somewhere else. In this case, the area was the town was Gander, Newfoundland whose residents were visited unexpectedly by some 7000 stranded airline passengers forced to land there in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

“Come From Away” opened on Broadway in March of 2017 and was nominated for seven Tony awards, winning the one for “Best director for a Musical.”  The show is currently still  running on Broadway and in London and Melbourne, Australia as well as on tour in the U.S.  Beyond the pleasure of wonderful singing, dancing, and raucous good humor is the manner in which the show is “a cathartic reminder of the capacity for human kindness in even the darkest of times” (as Ben Brantley wrote in a review of the show’s opening on Broadway).

The best description I could find of what happened on that fateful day was in People.com in an article written by Dave Quinn on March 17, 2017.  He wrote:

The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, may not seem like the obvious inspiration for a feel-good musical — but the heartwarming true story behind the sold-out Broadway hit Come from Away is a tale of generosity and kindness that’s stayed largely under-the-radar for years.

….

The action takes place on the Canadian island of Newfoundland — thousands of miles away from New York City’s World Trade Center, Washington D.C.’s Pentagon, and Pennsylvania’s Somerset County.

With the Federal Aviation Agency immediately closing the United States’ airspace in the hours following the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history, Canadian air traffic control stepped in to help.

As part of Operation Yellow Ribbon, they landed 38 jumbo jets and four military flights bound for the United States at Newfoundland’s Gander International Airport — the nearest sizable airport on the continent.

As a result of the detour, 6,759 passengers and airline crew members — plus 9 cats, 11 dogs, and a pair of endangered apes — arrived in Gander, descending on the small northeastern town (and its nearby villages) and nearly doubling its population of 9,651.

Unable to see footage of the chaos that was unfolding in the U.S., the passengers were not allowed to leave their planes for the first 24 hours or so until customs and security could be put in place to assure no terrorists were on board — as Tom Brokaw explained in a popular 2010 documentary for NBC News. Nor could they find other transportation methods home once they were let out, like renting a car or charting a bus.

One might expect residents to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught heading their way. (After all, the sheer amount of people presented a startling logistics crisis — with challenges surrounding food, housing, transportation, supplies and translators.) But the Canadians lived up to their kind reputation and opened their doors to the American refugees — dropping everything to host and comfort them until the airspace reopened and all flights once again departed (roughly 5 days later).

Perfect strangers were invited into people’s homes – where meals, beds, and new clothes awaited them. Striking school bus drivers put down their picket signs and volunteered to transport people from their planes. Schools were converted into makeshift shelters. Restaurants and bakeries donated food, while pharmacies provided everything from diapers to medication to feminine products.

Group cookouts were planned. Phone and computer centers were set up. Walmart cashiers invited perfect strangers’ home for warm showers. An empty airline hangar was turned into an animal shelter, where the pets — many of which were traveling alone — could stretch and run.

“The people of Gander were just phenomenal,” American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass told The Dallas Morning News in 2011. “I can’t say enough nice things about them. They brought smoking patches to the airplane. They brought diapers of every size. They brought baby formula. They filled 2,000 prescriptions in the middle of the night.”

“When we got off, they had tables and tables set up,” she continued. “The people of Gander had cooked all night long. They made all kinds of sandwiches. They gave us a bag. It was kind of like Halloween. You went from table to table and just picked up what you want. They had fruit and brownies and pies and cakes — they had made everything.”

She added: “There were 6,565 passengers and crew that showed up within a three-hour period. They were fed three hot meals a day, every day we were there.”

Almost 30 hours after the terrorist attacks, footage of what happened was finally shown to “the plane people.” Some lost friends and family members in the attacks — like Bass, who knew Charles Burlingame, the pilot on American Airlines Flight 77 (which crashed into the Pentagon).

Long Island natives Hannah and Dennis O’Rourke lost their son Kevin — a New York City firefighter at Rescue Co. 2 in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who died in the Trade Center.

The residents of Gander were there to comfort them in their grief.

That time together during one of the world’s darkest moments formed tight relationships between the residents and the temporary refugees — ones that have lasted well beyond their stay.

When the travel ban was lifted on Sept. 14, all of the 6,759 “plane people” slowly returned to their aircrafts and flew back to their original destinations. But Gander surely never left them.