Chris: It’s not enough to be sorry. Larry didn’t kill himself for you and Dad to be sorry. He did it to show you.
Mom: What more can we be than sorry? What more?
Chris: You can be better. Once and for all, you can know that the whole earth comes in through those fences, that there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to it and if you’re not, then you threw your son away because that’s why he died, you understand. That’s why.
— From “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller
The fact that the assassination attempt on the lives of Congressman Steve Scalise, congressional staffer Zach Barth, lobbyist Matt Mika, and police officers Krystal Griner and David Bailey on a baseball field happened during the same week as Father’s Day and my own father’s yahrzeit has unleashed many memories.
Both my parents were politically active. My grandfather was an attorney, and like most professional men of that time, not only did he belong to various fraternal orders, like the Masons, he was also active in the Democratic party in the Bronx. This led to my mother becoming a poll watcher in her teens, and her involvement grew from there. My father was first generation in this country, and he became active after his time in the Army. The last official role he had was as a Democratic district leader in the 1960s. We recently found my parents’ invitation to attend LBJ’s inauguration in 1965.
My parents would end their active political involvement about the time I entered elementary school. If you assume that they indoctrinated us just to vote the party candidates, you would be wrong. I can still hear my mother saying that the beauty of the United States is the privacy of the vote. Your vote is secret unless you decide to share it. Never forget that no party has the market share on good or evil and we are risking our freedom if we fool ourselves into believing this.
My dad would continue with a warning born out of being the son of immigrants: We must be on guard for those who want to divide us, to balkanize us, because these forces are relentless and their impact, if it were to be successful, would be devastating to our freedom.
My parents taught us how to think. You prefer another candidate, fine, but you have to be able to make the case if you are to persuade anyone else. And never forget, the more a politician tells you all the things that he or she is doing for you, the more you have to look to see if you still have your wallet — and if you do, check whether there is anything left in it. Our conversations were detailed and interesting but never cantankerous.
It was later on when I saw how many politicians became wealthy or even millionaires once they were entrenched in office. My parents wanted to prepare us for the real world, and they did, although it took us time to begin to see their advice play out in real life.
Given this background and the inescapable symbolism of five fellow Americans being shot on a baseball field — baseball is America’s national pastime — for the so-called sin of being Republican, another memory emerged that I suggest shows a way forward for those who are serious about changing the tone.
My parents had one bitter political dispute, which was legend in my family. It was over the 1960 Presidential election. My father hated Richard Nixon. In addition to policy differences, he said that when Richard Nixon campaigned for the Senate in 1950 against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the wife of movie actor Melvyn Douglas, phone calls to voters asked if they knew that Douglas was married to a Jew. Though it was never proven that these calls came from the Nixon campaign, my father felt that they did.
My mother wasn’t a Nixon fan either. She, like my dad, admired Harry Truman, and she worked for Adlai Stevenson’s two failed presidential campaigns against President Eisenhower. But she also felt uneasy about JFK. It was a fact that JFK’s father, who was instrumental in his campaign, had no love of Jews; in fact, he was recalled as ambassador to England when he suggested siding with Germany in World War II. Even after my father died, my mother never shared her choice with anyone, and she kept that secret for the rest of her life.
This is prologue to one of the most important lessons I received from my father. During the 1968 campaign, both my parents voted for Hubert Humphrey for president, not for Nixon. I even remember my mother taking me to a Humphrey campaign rally where we caught a glimpse of the candidate up close. I was very young but I still remember the excitement of the moment, my first political rally, where I saw the man who I thought was going to be the next president of the United States.
Fast forward to election night. Humphrey loses. Nixon wins.
I remember talking with my father about the outcome. He was quiet and contemplative — but I wasn’t. Here I was, a feisty little girl, telling my father that we had to fight this result and make sure that Nixon failed. My father looked at me and gently said, “No, Martha. That is not what we do here in America. We now have to pray that we were wrong and other people were right. We must do whatever we can to help President Nixon be the best president possible, because if he fails, our country fails — and we love our country.”
He went on to remind me that we will have the ability to vote in a new president in the next election, four years from then, but right now our focus needs to be on supporting the democratic process and helping Nixon become a good president.
That night was the moment when I understood what is meant to be an American. We believe in the rule of law. We fight hard for our beliefs but should never be so self-consumed as to believe that we know everything. We must appreciate and engage in sharing ideas with those who have different views and not demonize or sabotage. We don’t have to agree on everything, but it is dishonorable not to play fair. There is no one rule for you and another for me. And always remember, the political party is not something to pledge allegiance to. That pledge is to our country, and to our fellow Americans.
As the excerpt above from “All My Sons” conveys, we are responsible to the bigger world outside our front door. We are responsible to our fellow Americans, to respect and listen, to disagree without attacking their integrity by calling them names or demonizing them, without creating the perception that another person has the right, in his twisted view, to take their life to protect the country. In the same scene in “All My Sons,” the self-absorbed father, played by Edward G. Robinson in the film version, finally understands that his act in sending defective airplane parts to the Army resulted in 20 deaths. That was his fault. And now he knows that it led to his own son, a pilot, deliberately dying in the war, in a sort of atonement for his father’s sin. When his wife reminds him that he lost this son in the war, he replies, “Sure he was my son, but I think to him, they were all my sons. And I guess they were all my sons.”
A lesson for us all, especially our leaders, whether they be political, religious or social.