Do We Like Intelligent Politicians?

In the current climate the likes of former Governor Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann are seen by some to epitomize  intelligent politicians.  For the rest of us, and thankfully that is the vast majority, we know that truly intelligent people are needed to shape policy and run the government.  Still it was shocking to read one sentence of a most wonderful article about Senator Robert Byrd in today’s newspaper. 

The sentence  was not new thinking about our political process of course, but was nonetheless harsh to see in print.

No American politician today wants to seem too educated.

Is that not just about the saddest thing, and the most bizarre that you have read in a long time?  I think most of my readers want the brightest minds running the ship of state.  To dumb-down the ones in power to somehow make a certain segment of the electorate feel good about themselves is quite telling.  Though certainly not a new phenomena, it is still a most unsettling thing  to consider given the complexities of the issues, and the dire nature of the multiple concerns that face us.

To often the Sarah Palin types that make Democrats cringe and think of nails on a blackboard when they speak are what is thought of when it comes to the Republican opposition.   Fair or not, that is how the GOP allows itself to be viewed, as it will not stand up to these Palin elements within the party, or take the high road when it comes to bashing intellectuals. 

I know that broad intelligence by prominent politicians is a most needed quality that should never be smirked at  or discouraged from being demonstrated.  When the stories were re-told this past week about West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, and his legendary command of words and ideas, it was easy to sit up and be proud that his intelligence never had to be hid for fear that somehow it might upset his next election chances.    Byrd was not going to shy away from his love of the senate traditions, the history of the nation, or the laws that are at the foundation of all that we cherish.  Instead of playing dumb Byrd stood tall and proved that intelligence is indeed a good thing in our leaders.

I can only hope that Palin, Bachmann, and some of the electorate were paying attention this past week.   Or was everything missed for the season finale of “Swapping Housewives?”

In 1994 alone, Senator Byrd quoted every last Shakespeare play on the Senate floor at least once. That’s 37 plays. He could use old favorites as well as the next politician. “Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel,” Polonius’s old chestnut from “Hamlet,” is how he described his friendship with Bennett Johnston, the Democratic senator from Louisiana. He loved to quote Cleopatra’s “Give me my robe; put on my crown. / I have immortal longings in me.”

But he also expanded his range into lesser-known bits of the canon — passages not readily available in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. In his autobiography, he praised the coal miners who tried to rescue their fellow workers after the McAlpin mine explosion in 1928 with verses from “Cymbeline”:

The benedictions of these covering heavens

Fall on their heads like dew! For they are worthy

To inlay heaven with stars.

The quote is so perfectly apposite, the dew from heaven calming the heat and smoke of the mine, the stars piercing the darkness of the pit, with the sense of working men building a glittering paradise. It’s hard to imagine a better, more thoroughly appropriate selection in all Shakespeare.

While Robert Byrd’s love of Shakespeare did not necessarily make him a better man or a better leader, his rich understanding of the greatest writer in the English language did represent a last link to a politics based on text, and to the humanist tradition. (Senator Byrd, who grew up poor on a farm, also used the Bible and the Constitution as foundations for his politics.)

His deepest anachronism, among many, was that he believed in a community of language rather than images. His politics harked back to the politics of Lincoln, who read Shakespeare aloud as he was sailing up the Potomac days before his death and, through mysterious coincidence, chose “Macbeth” to recite, the very play in which Shakespeare is believed to have invented the word “assassination.”

Which quotation from Shakespeare might Senator Byrd have used to describe his own death? The obvious one comes from “Julius Caesar”: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But that’s probably too well known. Maybe he would have picked a few great lines from “As You Like It”:

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.

Senator Byrd no doubt would have remembered something better.

Clarence Darrow Makes For Best Paragraphs In Sunday Newspaper

Another reason that newspapers make for great reading.

Now, nearly a century later, the public is receiving new insights into Clarence Darrow’s concerns….. as well as into his personal and professional life

In the Leopold and Loeb case, Darrow avoided a jury trial by pleading the defendants guilty, then fought to save their lives by arguing that they were too young to be executed and that their moral compass had been distorted by the teachings of Nietzsche. “It is hardly fair,” he maintained in his argument, “to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university.”

The presiding judge agreed, sentencing the two young men to life imprisonment. In 1928, Darrow sent a letter to Leopold, warning him not to expect to be free any time soon.

“I often think of you and especially when people got a brain storm lately over the deep laid plans to procure your freedom,” Darrow wrote. “It is strange the satisfaction people get over tormenting someone. The rest of the animal kingdom do not indulge in these pleasing past-times which shows, of course, that man is the apex of creation. But, the apex is not very high.”

Darrow, who was 71 at the time, continued: “I shall always cling to the idea that sometime you will be out but it will not be very near, still, at that, you have a longer time to live outside than I have.”

Darrow died 10 years later. Leopold was released in 1958. (Loeb, however, was slashed to death in 1936, supposedly after making a homosexual overture to a fellow prisoner; this prompted the legendary newspaper lead in the Chicago Daily News: “Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.”)

1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know From Whom US Declared Independence From

I first heard the results about this Marist poll Friday night on PBS’s “NewsHour”.  Like Judy Woodruff, I too am stunned, and needed to do a double take.

A Marist poll finds that 26 percent of Americans don’t know whom the United States declared its independence from.

The 26 percent includes 6 percent that are unsure that the United States fought any war of independence at all. Other respondents gave a range of countries that included France, China, Mexico, Spain and Japan, according to the pollsters at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

For the record, it was Great Britain we broke away from.

The telephone poll which surveyed 1,004 Americans ages 18 and over. Callers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation.

The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. In an effort to increase coverage, the land-line sample was supplemented by random dialing of cell phone numbers.

The results of the survey are statistically significant with a margin of error of 3 percent.

Sunday Echoes: Boston Pops

If it is July 4th, it is time for brats on the grill.  It is also time for the Boston Pops on public television.  Like Guy Lombardo and New Years Eve for many a year, the Boston Pops are now engrained into the consciousness of the nation for patriotic pomp and awesome firework displays.  The annual television event is staged with precision and remains a part of the holiday as does the backyard cookout.