I’ve been thinking a lot the past few days about Gerrit Wormhoudt, “Gerry” to many who knew him. It’s an unexpected reminiscence because he died four years ago, but I’m sure it’s entered my consciousness as pieces of shrapnel flying out of the mortal political and cultural combat that dominates America’s public life.
For almost 25 years, Gerry and I worked together, he as the lawyer who kept me, as a newspaper editor, mostly out of legal trouble – and more than once out of jail – because we shared the conviction that the First Amendment means what it implies: Freedom of the press is fundamental to American democracy.
We shared other things, including a fondness for Italian food, red wine, the beautiful women in our lives, Thomas Jefferson, and rigorous but civil discussion.
But we were fundamentally different in political orientation and background: upbringings, education, religion, early life experiences. If one must label his political philosophy, I suppose he was libertarian, though he never so proclaimed to me. I was what many people might label liberal – except, that is, for real liberals. Our views on such things as the value of public education, the proper role of government, economics, constitutionalism and even the designated hitter rule were not merely different but irreconcilable.
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Over those 25 years, many hours of daytime professional dealings and much off-hours private discussion converted neither of us, but we became great friends. Conversion on all things wasn’t a prerequisite to our accomplishing the things we jointly needed to accomplish. The values we shared could be preserved without sacrificing the values we did not share. Our relationship continued into our “retirement” years, though I no longer benefited from his legal guidance and he no longer collected retainers.
Through the ’70, ’80s, ’90s and early aughts, neither of us thought there was anything odd about our friendship, though a few of his more conservative friends and a few of my more liberal ones may have. But I’ve been wondering these last few days if such a productive relationship between radically different people could take root and prosper in this second decade of the 21st century when ridicule, sarcasm, condemnatory and dismissive labels, and lack of restraint dominate and poison our political conversation.
Antidotes to those negative instincts are available in the psyche of everyone save the tiny minority of the hopelessly pathological, but these days are ignored by too many. That we were able to work and socialize together for decades didn’t make us heroic or even remarkable. We valued our shared goals enough to allow the positive markers of a productive relationship to outweigh the allure of the easy negative markers.
In retrospect, those positive markers included:
Patience and tolerance.
Not applying labels to the other’s beliefs.
Trying harder to understand the other’s beliefs than to change them.
Distinguishing the genuinely important factors and events in our relationship from the trivial or merely symbolic, and not allowing the latter to detract from the former.
Take those markers along with you on your next exposure to talk TV or radio, your next trip to the blogo-sphere, or even the watercooler, and as you read the next report about ideological gridlock in Congress. Measure what you hear and read by those markers, then imagine what could be accomplished if the dynamics were different.