Laura looked terrific. Sounded terrific.
And she reads well, too. Very well.
No, I’m not Chris Matthews, whose on-air propensity for commenting on the physical appearance of his female guests (as he has done with Ms. Ingraham and others) occasionally detracts from his zeal to bash the war in Iraq.
But there is, I think, a direct connection between the way radio talk show host and author Laura Ingraham has been looking and sounding lately and the contents of her new book, Power to the People.
The book is a rallying cry for Americans who have increasingly felt marginalized by what they see going on in their once familiar culture. The arguments are crisp, well reasoned, and filled with facts. The importance of family, immigration, terrorism and national security, federalism and more are discussed with imagination and a perceptive authority. In particular her expertise as a former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas shines through, lasering in on exactly the extent to which un-elected judges have usurped the powers of elected officials. Her passionate insistence on the importance of citizen action is designed to encourage the reader to shake off the couch-potato mentality and do something.
But all of this said, there is something else going on with Laura Ingraham that is both noted in her book and which she freely acknowledges in her public appearances. Laura has had what I call an “Aeschylus Moment.”
FOR THE RECORD, ALTHOUGH we were colleagues in the Reagan administration and, apparently for a brief time in the White House, I simply don’t remember her. (I know, I know, how could I possibly not remember Laura Ingraham?? Sorry, but I don’t. Hey! I was there to work!) We have met twice since, once introduced briefly a few years ago at a rally for judges, the second time earlier this year when she came to give a speech for Pennsylvania conservatives. This time we chatted at cocktails before I settled in to the audience to hear her speech. I confess, knowing of her recent bout with cancer I did the inevitable human thing, that instinctive “is this person OK?” scan that we all do consciously or unconsciously in these circumstances. For Laura fans out there, I can tell you she looked and sounded, as mentioned, terrific. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t know.
So, what of Aeschylus and Laura?
Aeschylus, for those of you not into ancient history, was a Greek playwright credited in history with being the father of tragedy. In our time he is perhaps most frequently quoted in connection with the late Robert F. Kennedy, who took to reading the classicist Edith Hamilton in the wake of his brother’s murder. On the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, RFK stepped to a microphone in front of a mostly black audience in Indianapolis to give them the news of King’s death. In doing so, he quoted Aeschylus as quoted by Hamilton. As might be expected under this kind of impromptu circumstance, RFK misquoted Hamilton’s translation, thus sending into permanent circulation a mistranslation of minor proportions from Aeschylus. The RFK version, which came to mind as I listened to Laura speak that evening in Harrisburg, is this:
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
“Aeschylus moments,” as I eventually called difficult times, are my way of referring to those periods in a human life when something or some collection of things goes seriously off track — or at least radically departs from what most people consider to be the “normal” or “expected” course of their life. Aeschylus moments can include the death of a family member or close friend, a serious illness for yourself, the ending of a treasured relationship. It can, in short, be anything that qualifies as trauma, a turning of one’s world upside down — or, to use the term associated with Aeschylus, tragedy. And when the pain of that moment passes, after it has fallen “drop by drop upon the heart,” the person in question comes out the other side a different person than he was before he had his Aeschylus moment. If he’s lucky, he is wiser, more thoughtful, determined to use his hard earned wisdom for something greater than himself.
In Laura’s case, the early death of her mother was followed some time later by a much publicized engagement, the shocking discovery of breast cancer, followed by the breaking of her engagement and the punishing regimen of her cancer treatment, replete with the physical horrors of chemotherapy and radiation. A considerable Aeschylus moment by anyone’s standards, the period also includes her conversion to the Catholic Church.
So as I listened to her speak that evening I wondered if this would reveal itself in some fashion. It did. After the usual opening humor, filled with her trademark asides and pointed jokes, her demeanor visibly shifted. That very evening, she told her audience, marked exactly the second anniversary of the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Only recently, she said, in looking back at her “odyssey” in order to write about it, had she realized “that it really is true that in our darkest moments individually and I hope as a nation we really take that moment to think, for a moment, ‘what’s the point of all this?’ What are we here for? What is this thing called America and what are we going to do with it?”
The Virginia Tech shootings had only recently occurred, and they were still on everyone’s mind. Somberly, she retold the still very fresh and stunning story of Virginia Tech’s Professor Liviu Librescu, who had saved the lives of his students by physically blocking the doorway to his classroom so his students could escape by jumping from the windows. In doing so Librescu, a Romanian Jew and Holocaust survivor, deliberately gave up his own life, shot repeatedly by the crazed gunman. Musing on the sheer courage shown by Librescu, freely admitting she had no idea what she would have done in similar circumstances, she began to focus on the importance of each individual life and the best use we can all make of the limited time granted us with that life.
It was the kind of speech that could really only be delivered by someone who has been through the valley and come face-to-face with — herself. You could hear a pin drop in the carpeted ballroom.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE FILMS is the Robert Redford classic based on Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural. It’s the story of Roy Hobbs, the gifted and golden young baseball player whose sole objective is to play baseball so well that people will say, “there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Redford/Hobbs sets off on his quite innocent journey, leaving behind girl friend Iris Gaines, only to be derailed almost immediately, shot and wounded by a mysterious Lady in Black, a beautiful psychopath who has a thing for killing young athletes. Instead of spending his prime playing major league baseball, Hobbs emerges in the film decidedly in middle age, trying one more time to actually make the big leagues and “be the best there ever was.” Making it, his past catches up with him and he is hospitalized before the Big Game, possibly unable to play in what would be the last and most important game of his amazingly successful one-year career. Visited in the hospital by the newly rediscovered Iris, Hobbs muses that his life didn’t turn out the way he expected. “How so?” asks Iris. “Just different,” he shrugs. Iris, who unknown to Hobbs is the mother of his young son, understands, offering this bit of wisdom:
Iris: You know, I believe we have two lives.
Hobbs: How…what do you mean?
Iris: The life we learn with, and the life we live with after that.
The other day I received a phone call from a woman I did not know whom I will refer to here, radio talk-show style, as Hattie from Ohio. Hattie, it seems, had come across my web site, and called to tell me she was getting involved in some new activities and wanted to know how she could inform people of this on the site. Hattie identified herself as an African-American woman, leaving me with the impression that she was just possibly over 80-something. She was quite funny about all this, her voice strong but unmistakably “older.” For most of the call I simply listened to her energetic plans to get word out about a group she was starting to educate people about economics. The thought that went through my mind, quite apart from admiring her energy, was “why?” Why, at her age, was she going to all this trouble?
As if reading my mind she quickly gave me an answer. Hattie from Ohio was going to all this trouble because, she said, “Laura Ingraham says we should be citizen reporters, and that’s what I’m going to do.”
I was, I have to say, speechless. And that certainly doesn’t happen often.
Laura Ingraham, at a relatively young age, has now lived the life she learned with. She’s had loving parents and siblings, a good education, turns in the White House and the Supreme Court, a law firm and the media. Not bad. Her Aeschylus moment — the death of a beloved parent, terrifying illness, a love lost — are behind her now. She is embarked on what Iris Gaines called the life we live with after that, asking exactly the right questions of both herself and others: What are we here for? What is this thing called America? What are we going to do with it?
Power to the People is one of the first steps on that next journey for Laura, the journey that involves answering those questions, and she clearly means to make it count. Like Roy Hobbs her life has not turned out the way she may have expected. It’s different. But as a direct result the people who will benefit from that fact, quite aside from Laura Ingraham herself, are all the rest of us.
Just ask Hattie from Ohio.
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