OPINION — It is a futilely human failing to try to find some larger pattern in the groupings of deaths in the obituaries. But I could not help being struck by the juxtaposition of three men — all in their 90s — who died within three days of each other earlier this month.
There is no obvious linkage among them (a former senator, a retired newspaper columnist and a leading sociologist) other than public lives of sufficient prominence to warrant major obits. But taken together, their careers serve as a reminder of some of the democratic values of the late 20th century that have badly eroded in this era of vitriol and venom.
Democrat Harris Wofford, who died at 92, electrified American politics by handily winning a 1991 special election to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Not only did his victorious campaign bring national health insurance to the center of the Democratic agenda, but it also brought Wofford’s two consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala, to the center of Bill Clinton’s agenda.
Wofford’s three years in the Senate (he was defeated in the 1994 Clinton rout) were only a small part of his remarkable career arc as a civil rights crusader, one of the last surviving JFK White House aides, university president and the first director of the AmeriCorps.
Russell Baker, 93, came of age on the police beat at The Baltimore Sun in late 1940s. He covered the Senate and the White House for The New York Times and then chucked these prestigious D.C. beats to gently mock the powerful with witty essays in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times column for 36 years.
Nathan Glazer was, at 95, one of the last of the great midcentury sociologists. As James Traub memorably described Glazer during the 1990s, “He is the most modest (and the least tendentious) of the brilliant Jewish boys who attended City College 60 years ago and later came to be known collectively as the New York Intellectuals.”
These three men were never the loudest voices of their era. And their public careers seem at odds with the pay-attention-to-me ethos of our era. But when they wrote or spoke, their words had weight and significance.
To give the most dramatic example, Wofford came up with the idea for the most symbolically significant telephone call in modern American political history.
On the eve of the 1960 presidential election, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Atlanta and then moved to a remote Georgia county jail, triggering fears for his life. Wofford, then a Kennedy campaign aide, had the inspiration that JFK should call Coretta Scott King to offer his support.
In the context of the era, with Republican nominee Richard Nixon petrified to do anything that might antagonize segregationist voters, such a phone call would qualify as a bold move.
As Wofford tells it in his 1980 memoir, “Of Kennedys and Kings,” he arranged for Kennedy’s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to make the pitch to JFK when there were no nervous, naysaying campaign aides in the room. Choosing his moment just before the candidate was to board his campaign plane at O’Hare Airport, Shriver quickly convinced Kennedy.
The publicity from Kennedy’s phone call not only helped secure the release of the civil rights leader, but also triggered the national movement of black voters from the Republican to the Democratic Party. As Kennedy said afterwards, “The finest strategies are usually the result of accidents.”
Also watch: Simpson’s energetic and joyful tribute to Bush at funeral
When I was growing up in the 1960s, Baker served as a journalistic role model for me. His Times column simultaneously offered humor and serious commentary.
A typical example of Baker’s stylish commentary came when he compared one of Henry Kissinger’s doorstop memoirs to Edward Gibbon’s classic, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” As Baker noted, “Checking my edition, I find that Gibbon covered more than 1,000 years of territory in 1,170 pages, or 113 fewer pages than it takes Kissinger to cover a year and a half.”
Along with Theodore White (“The Making of the President 1960”), Baker earlier helped launch the transformation of political journalism from uninflected stenography to well-written analysis. Covering the 1960 convention that anointed Kennedy for the sober Times, Baker wrote unconventional ledes like this one: “There is always a threat of Gotterdaemmerung in the air when the Democrats get down to the business of nominating a candidate. Today was no exception.”
Nathan Glazer never served in government, although his classic study of the enduring power of ethnicity, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” was written with Pat Moynihan, a future senator, as his junior co-author.
Even though Glazer was often linked to the vocal former liberals who embraced Reaganism as neoconservatives, he was not that kind of partisan warrior. As Barry Gewen, who wrote Glazer’s New York Times obit, put it, “He was modest about what the facts could show. A reader of his work was always coming upon phrases like ‘I am not sure’ and ‘We do not have the knowledge’ and ‘I do not know.’”
Needless to say, Glazer’s lack of preening certainty is rarely encountered these days on cable TV or even in academia.
The “silent generation” is the phrase used to describe the men and women who came to maturity right after World War II and whose early lives were shaped by the Depression. But as the lives of Harris Wofford, Russell Baker and Nathan Glazer illustrated, sometimes the quiet (not silent) voices can leave the most lasting imprint on American democracy.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.