Now the 'character question' has been written in fire
Editor's note: In this column, first published May 5, 1992, Broder reflected on the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles riots and the state of race relations in America. We republish the piece on the occasion of Broder's death.
When I watched, as you did, the sickening pictures of the beating of Rodney King and the burning of Los Angeles, my mind went back to the seemingly different world of Marburg 2 -- the corridor at Johns Hopkins Hospital where I spent some time last month.
My first roommate -- the day and night after surgery -- was a young black man, angry, hostile, cursing the nurses who remonstrated with him about his noisy outbursts. I know nothing of his background -- he was on Marburg 2 for only one night because of a shortage of beds. But he seemed the epitome of the young men who have grown up in fatherless homes, devoid of hope, totally centered on themselves and the moment, heedless of the consequences of the drugs they use and sell, the guns they are quick to fire -- terrorizing their neighbors as they act out the frustrations of their unchanneled, undisciplined lives.
When I saw the looting and burning in Los Angeles, I saw his face.
But Marburg 2 was far more than that. It was an artificially created society of some two dozen men, black and white, almost all of whom had been thrown together by the common experience of prostate surgery. It was a perfect democracy of equals, all striving for the single goal of recovery. Our role and status outside the hospital were irrelevant; and so, amazingly, was our race. Seniority prevailed. Those who were five days past surgery were envied for their returning strength by those just two days on their feet. The elders offered encouragement, assuring the juniors that in a few days, they'd feel just as well.
As we walked the corridors, in our white socks, blue bathrobes and slippers, pushing our IV stands before us, camaraderie developed. I realized it was the first time I'd had that feeling since Army infantry basic at Fort Jackson, S.C., during the Korean War, more than 40 years ago. There, too, we were thrown together by chance, black and white, in the 3rd Platoon, Company I, 8th Infantry. Our goal then, too, was simple survival, because it was clear that Sgt. Smith was going to kill us if we didn't shape up.
At no time between Fort Jackson and Marburg 2, I realized, could I recall a situation where I was not acutely conscious of the race of the person I was dealing with, whether it was George Wallace or Harold Washington. One evening in the hospital, I told a new patient, facing surgery in the morning, "You must be an actor, a preacher or a teacher; you have one of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen." As it turned out, he was a retired school administrator from Westchester County, N.Y., and over the next week, we became friends.
But I realized with astonishment that it had been 40 years since I had expressed a feeling so spontaneously to a black person -- so pervasive and encompassing and overwhelming is the race-consciousness our society. Los Angeles and Simi Valley demonstrated how adept we have become, we whites, in shutting out our recognition of the essential humanity of all peoples, in consigning those of other races to their own worlds and living within our own.
There was another lesson on Marburg 2. Several mornings I awoke, uncomfortable, before dawn, and stood at the window watching the stream of headlights on the shuttle buses and cars bringing the day-shift workers to Hopkins. The work force, as in many hospitals, is largely black. And as I watched them heading for their jobs at 6 a.m., my mind inevitably turned to that ode to the working poor which Jesse Jackson delivered so often in his 1988 campaign:
"Most poor folks are not on welfare," he would say. "They work every day. They catch the early bus. They work every day. . . . They clean the streets. They cut the grass. They rake the leaves. They work hard every day. They raise other people's children. They work in hospitals. They mop the floors, and clean up the germs. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever, rub their bodies down and when they get sick, they clean out their commodes. They work every day."
I would turn from the window and switch on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition," where the favorite topic seemed to be the "character question" of the presidential candidates. And I thought: These people I've been watching from my window prove their character every day, just by getting out of bed and driving through the dark to do the jobs for which this society offers damn little in return. Their character is evident in their daily labors.
You'll hear no prattle from them about maintaining "a zone of privacy" for themselves, as you heard from Bill Clinton, and still less will you find them ducking the jobs that need to be done, as George Bush tends to do.
What has Bush done in this nation in three years as president that shows character? Sign on to a modest deficit-reduction deal and then denounce it? Ease regulations on business? Stigmatize and fight a modest civil rights bill before signing it?
There is no more important test of character for an American president than what he does to heal the scars that slavery and racism have left on this society. That is the curse that is killing us, and everything else is secondary. The last president who acted on that conviction was Lyndon Johnson, who left office almost a quarter-century ago, when Los Angeles was last in flames. We cannot wait another 25 years for such a president. We just can't.