What Readers Taught Me
J. Dionne Jr.
-- Boy, are we angry about politics these days. And that's true
on all sides. This is a testament to our freedom, and it's exhilarating
in its way, but it's not always pretty.
It's the time to
give thanks to the thousands of people who have written their
passionate responses to columns over the year. Critics, bless
them all, are good for your sense of humility. I learned from
a reader from Boulder, Colo., that my ``hypocrisy is disgusting,''
while another reader couldn't ``help but wonder which elementary
school Mr. Dionne attends.'' I appreciated the polite use of the
``Mr.'' Someone else wrote: ``Your article is ill-informed or
simply wrong on almost every issue it touches,'' which made me
wonder exactly which issue I got right.
That last comment
was about the Terri Schiavo case. Few other questions aroused
such passions. The mail was heavy on both sides, often from people
with powerful stories about painful decisions they had to make
on behalf of loved ones.
One critic of my
view, from San Antonio, spoke of a brother-in-law who spent 20
years in a persistent vegetative state. ``My family and I are
haunted by what Terri Schiavo must have gone through,'' he wrote.
``I can't claim to know the motivation of all of Terri defenders,
but I know that at least some of them were motivated only by compassion
and humanity and the dread of her suffering.'' Whatever any of
us thinks about how politicians handled that case, that reader
speaks for many.
Because the matters
at stake cut so close personally, columns on moral and social
issues tend to draw more response than, say, those about economics.
But there were two notable and politically revealing exceptions
When I wrote against
the terrible, pro-credit-industry bankruptcy bill, there was an
outpouring from fellow critics of the bill, including a number
of Republicans. I heard from many forced into (or near) bankruptcy
by high medical bills. ``We are all just one or two illnesses
away from poverty,'' one reader wrote.
I particularly liked
the suggestion from a reader in Denver who wrote: ``If it were
up to me, I would pass a law that said all laws being passed must
clearly identify the winners, losers and the amounts involved.''
Memo to politicians: Revisit the bankruptcy issue.
And without beating
a deservedly dead horse, my mailbag suggested why the president's
Social Security privatization proposal foundered. Normally, critical
columns about President Bush call forth a hard rain of electronic
brickbats from his many loyal supporters. On Social Security,
the energy was with his opponents. Many wrote with great specificity
-- often from personal experience -- about how important it was
to save the existing system.
There is, however,
one issue on which the country longs for a less polarized discussion:
abortion. A column on the efforts of Tom Suozzi, a county executive
in New York state, to encourage us to reduce the number of abortions
rather than make abortion illegal drew -- and this is very rare
-- an overwhelmingly positive response. There's something going
on out there.
My conservative readers
taught me that there is still a lot of skepticism toward Sen.
John McCain among activists on the right. Responding to a sympathetic
column I wrote about McCain, one reader instructed me as follows:
``Because you are not one of us, you may have difficulty understanding
what I am about to write, but I encourage you to read carefully
-- John McCain will never win the Republican nomination.'' Another
reader referred to McCain as ``an evil Democrat.'' That would
come as a surprise to a reader from Apple Valley, Minn., who said
that McCain ``only looks 'moderate' right now because the Bushies
are such complete psychos!''
Ah, yes, the president
and his people have a lot of enemies out there, but his friends
are just as exercised. A reader from San Diego offered a view
that was repeated in many different forms: ``Most liberals and
some Democrats hate this president and will do anything to bring
him down, including siding with terrorists against the president.''
And here is where
I start worrying about our national mood. I don't mind being assailed
myself -- even by a theologically minded reader who called me
a ``badly catechized Catholic.'' (Blame me, not the nuns and priests
who taught me!) But when big chunks of the country begin to view
their political adversaries as something close to traitors, we
have arrived at a very dangerous time. For this badly catechized
Catholic, it's a reason to pray hard for something better next
2005, Washington Post Writers Group