Jewish World Review Dec. 31, 2004 / 19 Teves, 5765

Russell Friedman

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Susan Sarandon & Tim Robbins consider invite to sleepover in Lincoln Bedroom | I watched the Kennedy Center Honors on television last week. That's the annual star-studded, made for TV event presided over by the resident President and First Lady, honoring some of the living legends from the world of show business.

This year's list of honorees was impressive. Opera diva Joan Sutherland and rocker Elton John were honored on the musical side; Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and Warren Beatty on the stage and film side; and composer-conductor John Williams who stars in both categories.

Many famous Hollywood celebrities were in attendance and some of the most notable of them spoke of and to the honorees - Steven Spielberg, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway just to drop a few names.

During the Clinton years, we all became familiar with the convergence of the Hollywood community and the White House. President Clinton seemed to delight in that connection and peopled his social events with glitterati from the entertainment world. It's not a big secret that he drew a large amount of political and financial support from that sector.

If you've never seen the show, the honorees and the President and First Lady are seated in the first row of the balcony overlooking the audience and stage below. Occasionally the camera pans across that row to show the President's and the honored guests' reactions to the speeches and performances on the stage.

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As I watched this year something seemed to be out of synch. During one of the camera pans I realized what it was. After this year's divisive election and the simplistic demarcation of the country into Red and Blue, the blended view of the President and the show business elite made my brain itch.

Truth be told, I don't actually know the political party affiliation of most of the honorees - with the notable exception of Warren Beatty. Nor do I know which of the others are Red and which are Blue. For all I know Spielberg, Nicholson, and Dunaway are far right of Rush Limbaugh, but I'll not be wagering any of my prize possessions on that conjecture.

When I realized why things didn't seem to match, I breathed easier. Red and Blue were sitting together and playing nicely in the sandbox of life. At last I had found something I had been looking for all year - civility. And along with it courtesy and good manners. I thought they were gone forever.

For one brief delusional moment, I imagined that Red and Blue could finally learn to get along with each other. With that absurd idea came another flight of fantasy - that Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins had accepted an invitation from President and Mrs. Bush for a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom. That thought led to the image of the Bushes and Robbins/Sarandons in bathrobes, chatting over morning coffee. And then a commercial break jolted me back to reality.

Everybody seemed to be on their best behavior that night, but I don't know what may have been simmering beneath the surface for the hosts or the honorees. I'm neither a mind reader nor a psychoanalyst. But what I saw on my TV was people behaving nicely with each other. A stark relief to the gouging diatribes I've witnessed this past year.

Civility has been terminally ill for quite a while and I had begun to think that it actually died this year. I have watched otherwise genteel people become flesh-tearing monitor lizards when their beliefs were questioned or contested. What has saddened me most this past year is that it is almost impossible to have a civil conversation on important issues if you are on opposite sides.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for political or philosophical debate filled with strong convictions and a great deal of passion. There's nothing more fulfilling than the vain attempt to change someone else's position on issues that I hold dear. I see it as a kind of verbal chess match, winner take all. Of course no one ever wins, but as Hercule Poirot might have said, "at least we get to exercise ze leetle grey cells."

Chess has rules and civility and respect and dignity - all of the commodities that have gone missing these last few years. I may be na´ve, but I would like to take hope from what I saw the other night. I would like to believe that we don't have to call the undertakers just yet and plan the last rites and funeral procession for civil discourse.

I'm willing to cancel the casket and pall-bearers for now, but something has to change and change quickly lest we destroy ourselves from within. I'm willing to give us another year to re-learn and practice the basic manners we learned as children. Courtesy goes a long way to finding the common ground that makes strong human connections.

Being agreeable when we disagree is the best way to create a society we can all live in.

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Social commentator Russell Friedman is Executive Director of The Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, CA [ ] and co-author of "The Grief Recovery Handbook & "When Children Grieve. Comment by clicking here.


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08/30/04: Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Has died —we are saddened but not in denial
07/06/04: Marlon Brando — larger than life in more ways than one
05/28/04: What a Difference a Day Makes
05/07/04: Remind me — remind me not — remind me
04/23/04: Columbine — Five Years On — Anniversary or Sad Marker?
04/16/04: ‘Just the Feelings, Ma'am’
03/19/04: Reduced to Joy?
03/12/04: Emotional Root Canal
03/05/04: Where in the h-ll has civility gone?
02/13/04: The Heart Has a Mind of Its Own
12/31/03: Grief is Not a Partisan Issue: The Year in Review from a Different Point of View
11/11/03: Tuesday Morning at Eleven
10/30/03: Raging Fires --- Broken Hearts

© 2003, Russell P. Friedman