Each of us will have a day, a speech, or a moment that will be our mental marker for the presidential campaign of 2008. These will include moments of eloquence and moments of confusion, moments of high drama when both candidates revealed important personal qualities, and mundane moments that were just as revealing.
I wish that my most vivid markers were times when either candidate spoke from the better angels of their nature rather than from pettiness and cruelty.
But that apparently is not to be.
Because several sultry and rainy days in late August continue to echo with such cruelty and arrogance that they probably will shadow me as long as I live. That those responsible for those days of cruelty essentially hastened their party’s defeat should provide some small satisfaction. It doesn’t. I still feel the sting and rage of knowing I live in the same society with people who find pleasure in cruelty.
I refer to those days at the August Republican convention when the Republican party’s message of the day – delivered by former New York Governor George Pataki in the morning at a breakfast of the New York Republican delegation and later by former Mayor Rudolf Giuliani to the entire convention — was a vicious, full-frontal attack on the idea of community organizing.
Pataki began the day with this reference to Obama: “He was a community organizer. What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job,” he said. He received laughter and applause.
Later, Giuliani, according to the NY Daily News, said: “He worked as a community organizer. What?” After laughing derisively, Giuliani added, “Okay, Okay, maybe this is the first problem on the resume.”
This was nothing short of a vicious attack on community volunteers and organizers who help poor people weather the kind of social policies promoted by politicians like Pataki and Giuliani. These are people who register voters of all parties, who help poor people find money to pay heating bills and buy food, who teach tenants their rights under the law, who provide their children alternatives to the street, who tutor kids after school.
By all rights, this moment of ugliness would be long forgotten and buried under the joy and hope engendered by the defeat of their politics of cruelty.
But forgetting would itself be negligent. We must never forget that on one day in August, 2008, this kind of hate and disdain came out of the hole in which it usually hides and was on exhibit for the whole world to see, in all its astounding selfishness. Community organizing, they said, is not a job. And their audience laughed.
They laughed at those who dedicate their loves to bringing warmth, nutrition, clothing, and housing to those who have never even seen or heard of a safety net, much less landed on one.
They laughed. Pataki laughed. Giuliani laughed. And their audience laughed.
I wonder if for even one fleeting moment these two men considered that, as Catholics, they were members of a church with such a proud and distinguished history of heroic priests and nuns working at street level to feed and clothe and organize and house and nurse the poor. I wonder if either of them read the ground-breaking 1986 statement issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishops – “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.”
But this also hit me in a personal way. Very early in 20th century, one particular unknown community organizer without a real job, a Chicago social worker named Jane Addams trying to found a settlement house, convinced a shy, destitute immigrant kid to train in medicine and promised that she would support him if he worked hard. Throughout his life, that kid (my grandfather) told his grandchildren stories about Jane. Only in later years did I fully appreciate that his “Jane” was Jane Addams, one of the founders of modern social work, the founder of Hull House, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
But facts never adequately refute cruelty. Its purveyors must seek forgiveness for the hurt rather than simply present arguments to the contrary. To re-enter the public sphere of civility and decency, they must apologize. These two for whom cruelty rolled so easily off the tongue must atone.
And we who were rendered speechless must never forget what they said.
Remember: Politics is a system fueled by forgetfulness. Governor Pataki and Mayor Giuliani are banking on a system that they know will likely forget their words of cruelty. Someday they will again present themselves to voters and launch campaigns assuming that these words will be ancient history. Depending on how the winds blow, the same people who spoke these words might even try to wrap themselves in the mantle of compassion. Kindness — in their cynical world — is a strategy and a talking point, not a moral tenet. The day will come when some comparably insincere consultant will hand one of them a beautifully written, yet scandalously phony speech on how we have to do more and help more.
We can’t let that happen.
Watch them laugh at the people who dedicate their lives to insuring that others might have housing, be nourished, and enjoy some measure of basic human dignity. And tell me just what Giuliani and Palin find so funny.