Me Too

Sexual harassment is probably as old as the cave man.  It’s certainly nothing new in Washington.

I saw or heard about sexual harassment daily when I worked on Capitol Hill.  I also experienced it more than I care to remember.

My first job in Washington was running elevators in the Capitol.  It is the kind of job they give to students working their way through school.  I worked there – and in the elevators in the Senate Office Buildings – for more than five years.

An elevator is a tight, confined, and often crowded space.  I saw women manhandled there on a regular basis.  The women were almost always young.   Their harassers were almost always older, Members of Congress or men on their senior staff.  It was common knowledge Senator Strom Thurmond excelled at this practice – so much so that many women chose to avoid the elevator or wait for the next car when they saw him.

Women were not the only victims.  My bottom was pinched enough that I learned to operate the elevators with my back to wall.  The Legislative Counsel for the Senate was particularly persistent.  I couldn’t refuse him service but it got to the point where I wanted to deck him every time I saw him.

My sophomore year in college, I got a job as an auditor working with the Bureau of Budget and Finance.  The office was a typical Washington bullpen.  Auditors worked side by side with desks facing the wall.  The supervisors sat behind us so they could watch us work.

After I had been there about six months, I became aware of a commotion behind me.  I turned around and saw our supervisor giving a tour to a woman from the senior staff.  I thought nothing of it until the following week when I found myself reassigned to her office.  I was given a desk four feet in front of hers.  I was told to greet people who came to see her and answer her phone, but it soon became clear that wasn’t why I was there.

Though there were no overt actions, there were enough invitations to dinners and shows and personal questions to make me uncomfortable.  I dreaded coming to work, but I needed the money.  Finally, I decided I had enough and quit.  I got a job as a janitor in an office building near DuPont Circle and filled in when they were shorthanded at the Senate.

Because I was there so long and people knew me, my elevator became a safe space for women looking to get away from the office.  They would ride and talk until they felt they had to go back to work.  Senator Steven Young of Ohio was the subject of frequent complaint and conversation.  He was so offensive and so frequently offensive that he couldn’t keep a full staff.

When girls looking for work came through and asked if I knew anyone that might be hiring, I often told them there was certain to be a vacancy in Young’s office but always warned them that them the job came with a price.  Some felt they could handle it.  Others did not.

I remember one girl in particular.  She was about nineteen and desperate for a job so I sent her to Young’s office.  She came back in tears.  After being interviewed by the office manager, she was introduced to the Senator.  She said as soon as the office manager left the room, he came around the desk and grabbed her breasts.

A couple of friends who transitioned to the Supreme Court had similar experiences there. One of them said she stopped wearing heels to work because the Justice she worked work for – a senior member of the Court – habitually chased her around the desk.

So when I consider the moment, I find myself wondering what’s new? Is it all political, the context of our times, or have we reached a tipping point?

The closest thing to it in my experience is the Civil Rights movement of the ‘60s.  It reached critical mass at Selma on “Bloody Sunday.”   Everyone of age will remember that day – the sight of Alabama state troopers meeting 600 peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, wading into them with Billy Clubs and tear gas, leaving Amelia Boynton, the leader of the demonstration bloody and unconscious at their feet.  Our collective consciousness was touched and the world changed.

It feels like the Harvey Weinstein case has created such a moment. The dam has burst.  Each woman who steps forward inspires another and they leapfrog like a forest fire, spreading from media to politics, business to business.  Finally, we are beginning to focus on how broad and systemic this problem is.

In October of 1991, I had dinner with Teresa Heinz.  It was a few months after her husband and my former boss, Senator John Heinz, had passed away leaving her with the burden of a company and foundation to run and three young children.

At one point, our conversation turned to the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill, a Yale Law School graduate who had been Thomas’ assistant until he was nominated for the Supreme Court.

Hill’s appearance before the Senate Judiciary was shocking and surreal.  She testified Thomas had made persistent advances, boasted of his sexual prowess, and talked with her about sex with animals, breast sizes, and someone named Long Dong Silver.

The Judiciary Committee didn’t know what to do with it, but the one thing they didn’t do was take it seriously. Hill passed a lie detector test, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t believe her, didn’t want to believe her, and just plain didn’t care.

A member of the Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, reflected the mood of the majority when he suggested that talk of breasts at work was, “you know, no big deal.”

Mrs. Heinz’ reaction to all this took me by surprise. “You Americans are so foolish about these things,” she said. “A European woman would have slapped him silly and that would have been the end of it.”

Maybe that is true in Portugal where she grew up or even here when there is a level playing field.  But what it misses is the common denominator of all these activities – Sexual harassment is more about power than sex.

Maybe sexual harassment wasn’t considered a big deal two decades ago.  Now it is.  Now it seems we are more disposed to believe women than not.  Now it seems we are more prepared to do something about it than not.  The speed with which so many powerful people have fallen from grace speaks to this fact.

It seems clear society will no longer tolerate this kind of conduct.  Pure and simple:  It’s wrong.  It’s wrong in Hollywood or Washington.  It’s wrong in business or politics.  It’s wrong in the Senate, the House, or the White House.  It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about the Democrats or Republicans, Clinton or Trump.  It’s wrong.

But toppling a few predators from power will not solve this problem.  Like most systemic problems, the answer has to come from the bottom up.  In other words, it’s not about what they do. The question is – What will we do?  How will we respond?  How will we address the parts of this iceberg that are beneath the surface, less visible, but nearer to our lives.

In the words of the great philosopher, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”   We are all responsible.  We all can do something.  We all can say something.  We all can stop ignoring it and looking away.

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Dependence Day

It is the best time of the year – the seasons of thanks and giving. For me it’s particularly meaningful when I consider how quickly one follows the other and the relationship between the two holidays that mark the end of the year.

If the 4th of July is Independence Day, Thanksgiving could just as easily be called Dependence Day. It is the time we set aside to formally recognize something we should acknowledge every day with every breath we breath.

All of life and everything in life is a gift.

The essence of life is a chain of love, which binds all things together.  Plants and animals trade atoms and air – oxygen for hydrogen, hydrogen for oxygen – in a mutual exchange of life.  The water that falls on the earth passes through and is collected in the rivers, lakes, and oceans until it rises to fall again. The earth too must give so that it can receive.

I know this better than most.  I often think there would be little left of me if I subtracted the contributions others have made to my life.

Our interdependence is what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.  Much has been said on this subject but no one has said it better than Henry Emerson Fosdick.

“The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water,” Fosdick said. “It flows down clear and cool from the heights of Hermon and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon.  The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet; it gets to give…but the Dead Sea with the same water makes only horror, for the Dead Sea has no outlet; it must keep its bounty.”

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A Manifesto for the Moment

WE ARE WHAT WE BELIEVE 

Sometimes you have to say something:

  • I believe that love is stronger than hate.
  • I believe faith is stronger than fear.
  • I believe hope is stronger than despair.
  • I believe in the fundamental goodness of mankind.

Sometimes you have to do something:

  • While I cannot do everything, I can do something. I will not let the fact I can’t do everything keep me from doing the something I can.
  • I can touch one.  I can teach one.  I can heal one.
  • I can speak truth to power.
  • I can be an instrument of peace.
  • I can be the light in the darkness.

Sometimes you have to believe something:

  • I believe mankind is indivisible.
  • I believe we get what we give.
  • I believe you cannot help another without helping yourself.
  • I believe you cannot hurt another without hurting yourself.
  • I believe the better angels of our nature always rise.
  • I believe it only takes a single ray of light to penetrate the dark.
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The Meaning of Love

Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it has an end.”

The meaning of love is that it does not.

There is a piece in each of us that is God’s piece.  This is the thing we call our “soul.”

Love is the expression of the soul.  The soul expands with every act of love, every kind word, every time we see beyond ourselves and reach out to those in needs.  It contracts every time we see and don’t say, every time we turn our backs and walk away.

“God is no White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons or disease,” Nancy Mairs said.  “God chooses to become present to and through us.  It is up to us to rescue one another.”

The prayers we send to God for answers come back as questions.  God is in the distance from what is to what ought to be.  It is His voice that tells us right from wrong, offers the judgment that “someone should do something about that,” and prompts our response.  What is disclosed to consciousness is something that is.  What is revealed to the conscience is something that should be.

The call we make to a friend in need, the smile we give a stranger, our every act of kindness are all part of God’s design.  We act for God each time we respond to a need we see or sense.  Every act of love ripples out in an endless cycle of giving and receiving.

This is how the world is changed.  It’s love that acts.

Love sustains all, transcends all, makes all things possible, and all conditions of life tolerable.  Love unites us because love alone connects us by what is deepest in ourselves.  So long as we are loved, we are necessary and immortal.

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Gettysburg

Edward Everett – not Lincoln – delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Everett was a pastor and a politician who served as a Representative, Senator, Governor, and Secretary of State.  He also served as President of Harvard University.  He was 69 years old and known for his oratory.

It was four and a half months after the Union armies defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.   Through the summer, General Lee had pushed northward into Pennsylvania. General Mead and the Union Army met him at Gettysburg on the 1st of July. They fought for three days.

When it was over, the battlefield was strewn with more than 50,000 bodies. To put it in perspective, nearly as many Americans died at Gettysburg in this one battle than in the totality of the ten years we were engaged in the Vietnam War.

Twenty thousand people gathered for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863.  After a prayer, Everett spoke for two hours, delivering a 13,607–word oration.

Lincoln was invited to be present at the last moment. The words of his invitation were explicit: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Lincoln felt no slight and took no offense. He wanted to be there and meant to use this opportunity.  He spoke for two minutes and in those two minutes transformed Gettysburg from a battlefield into a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals. It only took him 272 words.

In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everett praised the President, saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

“Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln famously began, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In so doing, Lincoln reiterated the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence. He followed by proclaiming “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.  In other words, Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.

A hundred and fifty four years later, we still struggle.  The two great founding principles of our nation – liberty and equality – are said to be in opposition and Lincoln’s challenge remains.  We can’t help wondering how “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The best way to navigate these troubled waters is to remember where we began.

In a speech to his fellow Puritan colonists in 1630, John Winthrop set the direction for our nation by defining the vision for the society he hoped to establish in the new world.  “All true Christians are of one body in Christ,” he said; “the ligaments of this body which knit together are love.  All parts of the body being thus united…in a special relation as they partake of each others’ strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrow…If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice in it.”

“We must be knit together in this work as one man,” Winthrop warned.  “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.  We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities…For we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

This is a large part of what makes the United States unique in the history of the world. America is the only nation composed of people drawn from another place.  It is the only nation whose people are not connected by blood, race, culture, or original language.

The differences between us are many, but we are united by the ability to see ourselves in others and the understanding that the most selfish thing we can do is to be selfless.  One cannot succeed without another.  Our true interest is a mutual interest.

Three years after Gettysburg, Senator Charles Sumner, in his eulogy for the slain President, said Lincoln was mistaken that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Rather, Sumner remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”

Sumner was right.  Consider this.

Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun:  “The United States are a free country.”  After Gettysburg it became singular: “The United States is a free country.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln transformed the union from a mystical hope to a constitutional reality.  He saw beyond the moment to the spirit of America.

As we are now daily reminded, the battle continues.

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