By Frank Blechman
I am about to say something here that should discredit me as a political pundit forever. I like underdogs and longshots. I celebrate those out of step with their times, those who use honesty and integrity to overcome inertia, bias, and dysfunction.
Last Friday (June 11) marked the birthdays of two of my heroes.
Jeanette Rankin was born in 1888 in the Montana territory. She grew up in the frontier ethic of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Well-educated and strong-minded, she was involved in women’s rights, temperance, and other progressive issues. When Montana legalized women’s suffrage in 1914 (six years before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted), she saw an opening. She was the first woman elected to Congress, in 1916. She served two terms. A lifelong pacifist, she was the only member of Congress to vote against US entry into World War I. She lost her seat in 1918. Elected to a second term in 1940, she was the only member of Congress to vote against US entry into World War II. She lost her seat in 1942. Until her death in 1973, she remained an outspoken advocate for peace and justice.
I celebrate those out of step with their times, those who use honesty and integrity to overcome inertia, bias, and dysfunction.
Jacques Cousteau was born in 1910 in France. A disabling accident cut short his plans to be an aviator, but led instead to a career as a naval intelligence officer before World War II, and as an expatriate naval officer, working with the French resistance during it. After the war, he turned his attention to exploration, developing equipment and techniques for underwater photography, which led him to create the first successful undersea breathing system, the predecessor of the ‘aqualung.’ His films and books won him worldwide fame, although his crusades for environmental preservation were often unsuccessful. Until his death in 1997, he remained a technical pioneer and a moral exemplar.
Both of these people were “political,” although one ran for public office and one did not. Both understood that public policy needed public support, seeking to lead by personal example. Both enjoyed public acclaim and grudging respect, but both were willing to take unpopular stances that cost them badly needed support. Both took the ‘long view’ of their roles in history, hopeful – if not always confident – that their actions would be viewed positively by those who came after them.
Rankin and Cousteau may have been marching to their own drummers, but both were keenly aware of and responsible for the impact their actions had on others.
To be clear, I don’t celebrate these people’s lives just because they were contrarian, or because they were innovative. Lots of people say outrageous things to get attention, not caring what damage they do. Others develop and promote new ideas without thinking through the consequences. In contrast, Rankin and Cousteau may have been marching to their own drummers, but both were keenly aware of and responsible for the impact their actions had on others.
I celebrate their vision, their courage, and their longevity. In my view, they were both very special people worthy of respect and emulation.