Biff America: Debating a lizard (column)
I used to argue politics with a guy named Newt.
Truth be told, his real name was Chris. I named him Newt after Newt Gingrich and a colorful lizard (though he resembled neither). He didn’t care for the name but always looked up when I walked into his restaurant and yelled, “Hey Newt!!!”
He refused to call me by my given name but rather referred to me as “Boris” which I thought was pretty mean.
It was sometime in the mid ’90s a couple of years into Bill Clinton’s first term. Newt had recently finished his military tour and ran a restaurant only a short walk from my place of employment. On my way home I would stop in, have one drink and talk politics.
Newt and I first met many years earlier, when he was enrolled at a prestigious military academy and I was not. Both of us, at the time, were fairly disinterested in politics. After a successful military career, he was fielding offers from various governmental departments but decided to take a year off and to help manage the restaurant of a mutual friend.
Most of my ilk were excited with the election of Bill Clinton. He was the second-youngest POTUS elected in my lifetime, second only to JFK, born of humble means yet educated at Georgetown and Oxford. He was, for many, a welcome change from the more stodgy Bush “41.” It was only two years into his first term when the Republicans wrested control of the 104th Congress largely due the “Contract with America” created by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey.
I can’t remember how much I knew about the “Contract” at the time — to be truthful those years were fairly fuzzy. Newt had lived a much more regimented and less carefree life than I. He had served all over the world, sometimes in harm’s way, and thus was much affected by and knowledgeable about public policy.
I would walk into his restaurant well after the kitchen closed and the place was mostly empty. Often I’d find him at the bar reading the Economist or Wall Street Journal.
The “Contract with America” was mostly a rehash of a speech Ronald Reagan made, that by today’s standard was fairly moderate. That did not keep me from calling it Mein Kampf. Truth is most of what I knew about it was listening to Newt support it and me disagreeing. But when he would talk about a pledge of fiscal responsibility and an independent audit to combat waste, fraud and abuse, I admitted there was some merit in that.
But I was enraged by the contract’s plan to fight teen pregnancy by cutting social assistance to teen mothers. It seemed vindictive and ineffective. Newt conceded it would be much more productive to provide work skills, birth control, sex and health education to those same mothers before they were mothers. We found common ground there.
For about six months, I would visit him at work, bum one free drink (suggesting he charge the next wealthy customer double) and argue. He was better read and worldlier than I, but I had the advantage of a sharp wit, ruthless sarcasm and volume. We would have a spirited debate mostly along party lines with a lot of laughter. It was illuminating hearing opinions that were contrary to my own from someone I liked and respected. I would like to think I offered him a perspective he was unacquainted with and I will say he broadened my political outlook. This all came to an end when he left the restaurant business to join the FBI.
I’m not sure I could have a friend like Newt again. I’m not sure a guy like Newt could have a friend like me. It’s not that either of us couldn’t hang out together now but we would have to agree to not discuss politics. People don’t seem to argue policies anymore but rather attack personalities. It seems as a nation we have forgotten how to have a civil debate. It would be easy to blame Trump, but it preceded him. I think a lot of it has to do with the possibility that we get our information from sources that attempt to validate their network-sponsored opinions with whatever slim arguments are available, while ignoring all others.
There is very little we can do about that. Yes, we can choose to not patronize those sources, but there will always be those who choose to be affirmed rather than informed. But what we can do is engage in a civil exchange of ideas, constructive debate with equal parts listening, voicing opinions and respecting those with whom we might not agree; if it gets negative or ugly, move on.
I miss Newt and not only for the free drinks. I also miss civility, respect, open minded discourse … and the free drinks…
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores or http://shop.holpublications.com/products/biff-america-mind-body-soul.
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