I have to admit that these two guest speakers were not related; yet they addressed a common theme that I have been confronting in law school, career planning and even in conversations with friends. Practicality. Now, anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m a bit of a dreamer and an idealist. Or should I say, I was. As I mature (albeit slowly) and learn more about professional life and our society at large, I’ve been struck with how much I want my career to make a tangible change in people’s lives.
On Tuesday, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor spoke at my law school and I was lucky enough hear her speech and then greet her in a room of about 25 students. During her remarks she made some great points about our system, told stories about her younger years and championed a few issues – civic education and ending the election of judges. I was struck by her down to earth style and the way she described working on the court. When asked what one of her toughest cases was, she responded that it was a federal income tax case that was so dense none of the justices even understood the case after reading the briefs. In fact, she went on to describe how the justices did not know how to tackle the material or where/how to make a stand on the legal issues. The job of writing the opinion fell to her and she ended up having a unanimous decision because no one else wanted to write anything about it. The way she describe this task implied that sometimes these things are not glamorous but must get done.
In describing that message further, she was able to take the Supreme Court, this shiny beacon of sterile justice, and make it real, messy, and downright normal. She emphasized that no system is perfect, no process without weaknesses but our government is filled with honorable men and women trying to make good decisions and be good lawyers and judges. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always clean, but we figure it out. I think it was important for me to see the Supreme Court, and our entire government, without the rose-colored glasses of an idealist. It’s never going to be perfect, but we keep figuring it out.
Today, author and historian Thomas Fleming spoke at the high school where my wife teaches and I attended the lecture. Having recently published “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers,” Mr. Fleming’s was largely devoted to knocking the Founding Fathers – Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton and Madison – off the pedestals we’ve hoisted them onto. In a good way. He described the woman, both wives and mothers, behind the men and how each had character flaws and misgivings of his own. (Hamilton, for example, published a public report of his infidelity to attempt to reconcile with his wife.) Fleming did this not to be a messenger of doom but to offer a more accurate picture of these smart, brave, and complex men. It was fascinating and I left with the same impression.
Men are men. Women are women. Our government and the people who live it are largely the same as they were 200 years ago. Many of us who revere history and study politics have an idealistic and serene idea about the honor and majesty of the Founding Fathers. Even as we mature, take college history classes, read stories about affairs with slaves or hear lectures about their love letters to other women, we still remember these men largely the way they are portrayed in our first history classes. We don’t see the frustration, compromise and failure. We don’t feel their blood, sweat and tears. Yet, they were extraordinary individuals making the same decisions, compromises and “deals” that we criticize our politicians for making today.
For me, it’s been important to remember that I need to expect the same from my life as well. Life will be difficult, disappointing deals will probably be made, and good things will hopefully result. I think I want the fight; I want the sweat. In today’s legal and political world, it’s easy for me to get concerned, disappointed and even, as my friend Emily’s blog put it, depressed. This lesson was an important for me and it came at an important time. I want to remember that work of organizing our society, keeping it running and making it better for future generations has always been one of guts and grime. As I readjust my expectations to learn this lesson, I’m more prepared than ever to get involved.
Please Note: As I re-read this post, I realize that I may have inadvertently made it sound like Mr. Fleming confirmed the story about Thomas Jefferson sleeping with Sally Hemings, his slave. He actually mentioned it saying that the accuracy of how historical DNA testing takes place is somewhat in question. I was just using this to illustrate the types of things we hear and read about these men that conflict with what we’re taught in middle school. Sorry for any confusion.