Today is my father’s “yahrzeit,” the anniversary of his death. It’s the custom to light a candle and say the kaddish. The prayer takes me back to the summer of 1980. The cancer my father would never acknowledge was shrinking him away — just as the record-setting drought that summer was shrinking away the trees, the crops, the grass…. It all seemed to fit together.
Each weekend we would pile the kids into the old Ford station wagon and drive down to visit him. It was exactly 184 miles to the house in Shreveport. That’s where the governor’s office found me one Sunday. There was an election on, and Bill Clinton was asking what he ought to do about the Cuban refugees arriving at Chaffee.
What could I tell him that I hadn’t already written? He said just the right thing when the first Cubans arrived in May: “The Cuban refugees,” he emphasized, “came to this country in flight from a communist dictatorship. I know that everyone in this state sympathizes and identifies with them in their desire for freedom. I will do all I can to fulfill whatever possibilities the president imposes on Arkansas to facilitate the refugees’ resettlement in this country.”
It was a promise, but it proved only a Clinton promise. The summer of 1980 set in, it was an election year, there was some trouble at Chaffee, tempers grew short, and the governor was no longer volunteering to do whatever the president — it was Jimmy Carter then — asked.
By September, Bill Clinton was furiously trying to out-demagogue his Republican rival, Frank White, on what would come to be called The Cuban Issue. At one point he would threaten to call out the National Guard if that danged President Carter sent any more Cubans to Arkansas.
But this was still the middle of that long, hot summer. Bill Clinton wasn’t desperate yet, and he was asking me what he should say.
I remember standing in the hallway of the house at 544 Forrest Ave., by one of those old telephone nooks once were built into the walls, listening to my immigrant father breathe in and out in the next room, slowly, laboriously. On the phone, the governor of the state explained that a lot of people were growing uneasy with the presence of These People in Arkansas.
I understood. He was looking for some politically savvy way out of having said the right thing months back. If it was a morally acceptable way, so much the better, but any way would do. First things first: Win this election. I felt like Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men” listening to Willie Stark explain the facts of political life.
All I could do was to tell him to do the right thing — and remind voters that these newcomers would soon enough be Americans, too, and that they and their children would never cease to be grateful for this country. As the son of immigrants who had themselves found a home in America — and never let their children forget it — how could I say anything different?
I don’t think it was the advice the governor was looking for, since he certainly didn’t follow it. Surely he would have lost the election if he had taken it. He wound up losing the election anyway, but only after competing with his successful opponent for the low ground.
That was the last time Bill Clinton asked me for any advice, to my relief. Newspapermen should not advise politicians. Our only concern should be the readers. It was not a comfortable conversation, telling somebody something you knew he felt was of absolutely no use.
That was the last election Bill Clinton would lose. It was as if he had learned something in 1980: Never offend a single voter. Take no political risks. Doing the right thing isn’t as important as doing the politic thing.
My father would die Aug. 18, 1980, or, by the Jewish calendar, the 6th of Elul, 5740. I think about that summer every year about this time, and feel the heat once again. And also the elation that goes with the peaceful end of a long struggle, the freeing of the spirit from pain and all things earthly, including politics.
Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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