Robert Reich is Optimistic

(A third & final report on the Lisbon End-of-Life conference will be coming around next week; I’m interrupting that sort-of series to write about hearing one of my heroes, Robert Reich.)

Robert Reich 4.24.18Robert Reich, a giant intellect who is slightly shorter than this 5’2” writer, took the stage at a recent sold-out Commonwealth Club event. “You can tell,” he quipped, “that Trump has really worn me down.” When the cheers and laughter subsided a little he added, “Last time I was here, wasn’t I about five foot ten?”

Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and, among other accomplishments, has written fifteen books. His latest, The Common Good, was published earlier this year. In classic Reichian fashion it argues for a return to “moral imagination” and the common good, and leaves you hopeful. “We have never been a perfect union,” he writes at the end. “Our finest moments have been when we sought to become more perfect than we had been.”

Respect – remember that once-common element of the public discourse? – was Reich’s first talking point at the Commonwealth Club. He spoke of the days when legislators commonly had friends from the other side of the aisle, lamenting the current atmosphere that makes it virtually impossible for, say, a Democratic senator to socialize regularly with a Republican colleague. Reich dates this change to the time when Newt Gingrich, the hyper-partisan, combative Republican became Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. He told of entering his office while serving as Secretary of Labor to find a group of people going through his files, saying they had permission to do so. “What are they looking for,” he asked an aide. “They’re looking for anything,” the reply came, “that they can use to get you.”

As a child, Reich was diagnosed with a bone disorder commonly known as Fairbanks disease, which results in short stature. Because this often left him the target of bullies, he sought the protection of older boys – one of whom was Mickey Schwerner. When Schwerner and two others were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for registering African-American voters,  Reich says he was motivated to “fight the bullies and to protect the powerless.”

Asked to name the one thing he feels is most critical today, Reich says it is “to get the money out of politics. Money distorts the process,” he says – in what might be considered a mild understatement. Reich also told his audience that “the best way of learning is to talk with people who disagree with you. It forces you to sharpen your argument. You listen to other points of view – and just possibly some of them are correct.”

Robert Reich 4.24.18

Author, fan & new book

The anger he saw in places like Toledo and Kansas City when he was Secretary of Labor Reich says is still very much there. “People are working harder and harder, and getting nowhere.” Even as we bailed out Wall Street, he adds, people are saying “the game is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.” When he visited those same cities – and others like them – prior to the 2016 elections, Reich was surprised to hear many people say they planned to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. “How can you even say those two names in the same sentence?” he asked. “And they would reply, ‘Either one will shake things up.’”

But despite being worn down by the present administration, Reich proclaims that he is optimistic.  “It’s when we are losing something,” he says, “that we recognize its value. People are recognizing their responsibility is not just to vote but to be involved. And secondly, I look at my students, and students from Parkland and Stoneman Douglass high schools (which drew audience applause.) They are committed, engaged, idealistic and determined. There are so many people determined to save our democracy.”

“Your engagement and involvement,” he said to a receptive and enthusiastically pro-Robert Reich audience, “is critically important.”

 

 

2 responses

  1. You’re lucky to have been to his talk! He’s a small ray of light in a pretty dim time. Let’s hope his optimism plays out in terms of some form of national sanity and a revival of our democratic institutions.

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