Things only change when people make them change. Citizenship isn’t passive; it’s active. I spent two years fighting to end the war in Vietnam. I got arrested in an act of civil disobedience with hundreds of other vets. People screamed at us, “Support the troops,” and we’d respond, “We are the troops.” Know what happened? Richard Nixon won 49 states in 1972, and I learned the president waited up until news confirmed that I’d lost my race in Massachusetts before going to bed.
I became an optimist the hard way. I got knocked down, but then I got up. Not even two years later, Nixon had to resign, and a new Congress of reformers came to Washington to end the war and clean up the corruption. But it didn’t “just happen.” It never does. You have to get in the arena.
There are many examples of people who put themselves in the arena. Remember Michael Jordan’s rule that he didn’t do politics because “Republicans buy sneakers too”? Bruce Springsteen put his name and reputation on the line by speaking out in his own way about America and our elections. Carole King lives the word citizen. She’s on Capitol Hill every year fighting to preserve the Rocky Mountain Northwest.
In 2002, I got to know an activist in New Hampshire. Her son was in a wheelchair, and she became a fierce advocate for special education funding. She worked her butt off on my campaign. We lost, but she didn’t give up. She’s Maggie Hassan, and now she’s a U.S. senator fighting for millions of kids, the same way she did for her own, arguing at school boards. That’s what you do. You fight. You keep pushing.
I don’t believe we have to be captives of demagogues, and if I were a citizen in a state and all I heard was the vilifying, name-calling and the hyperventilating headlines, I could understand why people tune out or worse.
But you have to listen. Thirty-two years ago, assigned seating put me face to face with a guy who had opposite views about a war in which we’d both served. We didn’t trust each other. We didn’t really know each other. But after a long conversation on a long flight, we decided to work hand in hand to make peace with Vietnam and with ourselves here in America. I will never forget standing with John Mccain, the two of us alone, in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton where years of his life were lived out in pain but always in honor.
One thing the service and the Senate taught John and me—at some point, America’s got to come together. If Washington is a city where you can bridge the divide between a protester and a POW, finding common ground on anything else shouldn’t be hard at all. But you have to force open a dialogue. And you have to listen.
“BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN PUT HIS REPUTATION ON THE LINE BY SPEAKING IN HIS OWN WAY ABOUT AMERICA.”