Grace has been on my mind lately. A co-worker said the Chairman of the Board of the company we work was the “epitome of grace.” Apt, totally, but my thoughts go further, into the public sphere.
Grace and its adjective, gracious, mean many things. My definition, in the sadly crass and ever more obnoxious world in which we find ourselves, goes like this: Being better than you have to be, and better than anyone might expect you to be. (It fits for the afore-mentioned fellow, and for those who I discuss below.)
Grace. In Don’t Try This at Home, edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, 40 all-star restaurateurs offer vignettes about what went wrong at one time or another. (For foodies it’s a must read!) Pino Luongo, an Upper East Side, successful guy in the restaurant business, ventured out to the Hamptons to catch his clientele at play during the summer. His last great story recounts watching his reservationist at his hotsy-totsy place tell a stylish middle-aged woman with a straw hat and sunglasses who pedaled up on a bicycle there were no open tables that evening. The woman pedaled away. Mr. Luongo had a sixth sense. The lady was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and she was pedaling down the road, having accepted with no muss or fuss the fact that she’d be dining somewhere else that evening. The maître d’, dressed for the evening, took off on foot and caught up with her, pretty far down the way. The restaurant found a table for the former First Lady but, in Mr. Luongo’s telling, making it work was all about him, not her.
Grace. Adam Gopnik’s great piece for the New Yorker, Long Play, bring us up to date about Paul McCartney. Many favored John, and many of them did not like Paul. At All. (George and Ringo seemed to miss all of that.) Regardless, and with the recognition that we would all like to be better at life at 73 than when we were in our early 20s, here’s the last paragraph of Mr. Gopnik’s piece:
Still, he walks these streets. Not long ago, on one of the Upper East Side avenues he haunts, Paul McCartney bumped into a woman (my wife, as it happens) who as a small child had seen him onstage and held her ears against the screaming, and, like every woman of her generation, has idolized him since. “I know you,” he said cheerily, and then, stepping forward, realized he didn’t. “I’m so sorry,” he said, at once. “I’m really sorry to intrude.” It must have been the first time in fifty years that McCartney had had to apologize for bugging someone on the street, rather than the other way around. That he still knew how to do it is a sign of his grace.
Josh Earnest returns from spending a few days with his wife and their new baby. At the morning meeting he shows up, sans phone, whereupon the president says: “Get the pictures.” Earnest returns with the phone and pictures, time gets spent by the two men studying the infant—we’ve all been there, and we all know every infant is an infant unless s/he belong to YOU—and, within a few weeks, Josh Earnest receives a framed picture of himself and President Barack Obama, earnestly—forgive me, please—studying the infant.
Grace. Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) gave the Isaac Marks Lecture at the University of Arizona Rogers College of Law in October 2004. Cate’s mom and I dragged her to the lecture, held at the local Marriott Hotel to accommodate the crowd. We walked the anti-abortion gauntlet—try it sometime, and tell me your views on the First Amendment are the same—and got inside. Cate squirmed plenty, but she got through the speech. (There was a delightful story about being in a Lower Manhattan Kinkos with his wife Vicki, making photocopies for a talk to one of Caroline Kennedy’s children’s school classes.) After, Cate Rubin got an index card to get an autograph for Senator Kennedy. Here’s what followed:
“What’s your name?”
“Um, excuse me, it’s sort of weird, but it’s Cate with a C,” after Senator Kennedy had written “To Ka– …”
“That’s not weird at all,” he said, after which he turned the card over and got Cate’s name right.” (A picture, with the card right side out, hangs in my office … until Cate is fully settled.)
Grace, yes, but the real grace was recounted in True Compass, Senator Kennedy’s autobiography, published less than three weeks after he died. This millionaire’s son, and a G-d in Massachusetts, never had to really worry about getting reelected. (Sure, in 1994 Mitt Romney scared him enough that he borrowed against his house to make sure he was fully funded, but in the end the spread was 58-41.) Still, this man—and a deeply flawed man, for sure—took home a call list every night, for many decades (he served during most of five decades), of constituents who had suffered a loss in their family, gotten a job, had a baby, etc. Being a senator is truly hard work. Taking the job home and making those calls, night after night, year in and year out for decades, because it matters to the people you serve, reflects the true meaning of grace.
And today? In this angry embarrassment of a man who might be our next leader, sadly, we see no grace.