National Public Radio media reporter David Folkenflik was stunned that New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse would give a stem-winding liberal speech at Harvard in June, when commentary is rarely heard from "hard news reporters." Greenhouse, well-known in reporter-or-activist debates for marching in a rally for abortion rights in 1989, tore into the Bush administration and conservatives: "our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism."
Greenhouse won an award called the Radcliffe Institute Medal, awarded not only to Radcliffe alumni but also to leaders like Elizabeth Dole, Colin Powell, and Janet Reno, as well as media figures such as NPR's Charlyane Hunter-Gault, NBC's Jane Pauley, and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Her remarks began by her memories of a Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert shortly after the Iraq War began, which caused her to cry through the second half of the concert for how her Sixties generation had failed America:
I'm not a person who bursts into tears at the drop of a hat, and I was truly surprised. I cried throughout the entire second half of the concert. I couldn't stop. It was a puzzling and disconcerting experience, and I worked hard in the ensuing days to figure it out. Finally, it came to me. Thinking back to my college days in those troubled and tumultuous late 1960's, there were many things that divided my generation. For the men in particular, of course, it was what stance to take toward the draft-acquiescence, artful avoidance, or active resistance. For many of us, it was over how actively we should commit ourselves to the great causes of civil rights and the antiwar movement. (The women's movement was barely on the horizon at that point.) I remember that in the spring of 1968, the editors of the Harvard Crimson almost came to blows over whether the paper should support Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Yet despite all these controversies, we were absolutely united in one conviction: the belief that in future decades, if the world lasted that long, when our turn came to run the country, we wouldn't make the same mistakes. Our generation would do a better job. I cried that night in the Simon and Garfunkel concert out of the realization that my faith had been misplaced. We were not doing a better job. We had not learned from the old mistakes. Our generation had not proved to be the solution. We were the problem.
And of course my little crying jag occurred before we knew the worst of it, before it was clear the extent to which our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and other places around the world. And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last years have been dispiriting is an understatement. I hope that today's undergraduates are taking the same vow that we did then, and I hope for all our sakes that they get closer to fulfilling it than we did.
From there, she found grounds for feminist optimism in how a pile of her fellow Radcliffe alumni were entrenched at the top of the New York Times:
Well, after all, when I was in college, I was the Harvard stringer for the Boston Herald, which regularly printed, and paid me for, my accounts of student unrest and other newsworthy events at Harvard. But when it came time during my senior year to look for a job in journalism, the Herald would not even give me an interview, and neither would the Boston Globe, because these newspapers had no interest in hiring women. Now, just at my own newspaper, one product of this institution, Jill Abramson, is managing editor; another Radcliffe graduate, Susan Chira, is the foreign editor; another one, Alison Mitchell, is the editor in charge of news about education; and still other women hold the position of national editor, editor of the editorial page, science editor, and editor of the Sunday Week in Review section. Women cover sports, Wall Street, diplomacy, and every human endeavor in between. No young woman has to feel that any door in journalism is closed to her.
I don't mean to suggest that Nirvana has arrived-after all, Harvard has yet to have a female president (although Princeton, Penn, Brown, Duke, and the University of Chicago, to name a few sister institutions, have already been so daring.) And corporate America still basically leaves women on their own to make the hard choices about balancing work and family. But it's impossible to look at the trajectory of these recent decades and not feel at least some optimism.
Greenhouse also felt some optimism about the increasing liberal and tolerant attitudes toward honoring gays and lesbians, including her old classmates:
I can't presume to describe how the world looks today from their point of view, so I'll simply relate an experience that we shared here in Cambridge at our twenty-fifth reunion. It was my good fortune to be elected the reunion marshal for the Harvard-Radcliffe class. As commencement approached, Harvard announced that the principal honorary degree recipient and commencement speaker was to be Colin Powell, then still serving as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was soon after the Clinton Administration's botched handling of the question of gays in the military had led to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and I suddenly began getting phone calls from classmates, some of whom I didn't even know, telling me that as gay men or lesbians, they couldn't possibly attend an event that would honor a person who embodied this backward policy.
Of course, Harvard had made the decision to honor General Powell months earlier, based on his leadership in the Gulf War and on his inspiring life story, long before the gays-in-the-military issue even arose. But that fact did not resolve the question of what to do now, and how to salve my classmates' feelings. President Rudenstine was sympathetic and responsive, and let it be known that a demonstration of displeasure by those attending the ceremony would be acceptable, as long as it was not confrontational or disruptive.
During the early days of our reunion week, there was a great deal of conversation about the problem. In fact, it injected an energy into the reunion that would otherwise have been absent. In the course of these conversations, gay classmates felt free to come out to classmates whom they hadn't seen in years. At the lunch before General Powell was scheduled to speak, one of my classmates, wearing top hat, tails, earrings, and buttons and banners proclaiming equality and denouncing the military policy, went up to the general and said to him: "I look forward to the day when this issue no longer divides us." My classmate had no idea how Colin Powell, dressed in his four-star general's uniform covered with medals, would respond to this overture. What he least expected was what actually happened-Powell embraced him with both arms, and said: "So do I, and I hope that day comes sooner rather than later." My classmate had tears in his eyes as he related this to me.
As he passed word to his community about this encounter, the anger went out of the air. When General Powell got up to speak, some in the audience stood in silent protest. He acknowledged them respectfully. Obviously this little episode did nothing to change official policy on gays in the military. I have no idea what impact it had on Colin Powell. But within our class, it enabled people to speak freely to one another, to make connections across the years, to join as bit players in a bigger drama. This was almost 10 years to the day before the Supreme Court declared in Lawrence v. Texas that gay people are entitled to "dignity" and "respect," in Justice Kennedy's words, in the eyes of the law. Back in college, I wasn't aware of knowing anyone who was gay and, if I had, I doubt that it would have been a subject of conversation. As I said, our reunion did not change policy or solve problems, but it created a sense of community across a barrier that in the so-called good old days, we would not even have known or acknowledged.
She concluded with the idea that we all define ourselves by categories, and on her list was her party affiliation:
If you were asked to choose one, two, or even three words to identify yourself, which would spring to mind? In my own case, I could choose from: woman, American, Caucasian, Jew, wife, mother, daughter, sister, straight, journalist, temporarily able-bodied, pushing 60, Democrat, Radcliffe graduate (as I call myself), Harvard graduate (as the post-Radcliffe College world would call me.) Each of those words links me to others, distinguishes me from others, imposes some obligations, opens some opportunities while foreclosing others.
And she made a blatant appeal for another allegedly oppressed minority, the illegal aliens:
I suppose that if I had to boil down my side of the argument with my mother to one thought, it would be that in my lifetime, I have seen the fences around nearly all these definitions lowered, with a corresponding increase in the opportunities to make and maintain connections across barriers that not so long ago were nearly impermeable. As I look toward the next chapter in my life, I feel a growing sense of obligation to reach across the absurd literal fence that some of our policy makers want to build on the Mexican border and to do what I can to help those whose only offense is to want to improve their lives.
In sum, the speech was a classic document on where liberal media outlets are today: what animates them and how deeply they feel about diversity and inclusion as almost the greatest struggle of our time. Discrimination is still our most offensive domestic problem. In fact, it's hard to avoid how much Greenhouse's remarks sound a lot like Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Junior at SUNY-Purchase in May, a plea to the current generation that the Woodstock generation failed to make the world a very left-wing place that abolished war, racism, and traditional religious beliefs.