Opinion: An apology for leaving you with this mess

This exit isn’t going quite as neatly as I’d imagined. I feel somewhat like a guest who overstays his welcome, then leaves behind a vast mess for someone else to clean up.

Furniture scarred, walls holed, mirrors cracked, dishes broken, and democracy fractured.

By the time most of you read this, my 41-year career at my hometown newspaper will have come to an end. It has been a pleasure, mostly — and an adventure, always.

Several weeks of leave-taking have been conducted as the pandemic began another crescendo and two apocalyptic U.S. Senate runoffs here changed the balance of power in Washington.

And while President Donald Trump made nonstop demands for a “recalculated” Georgia vote, followed by his tinderbox of a D.C. rally and the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol — a glimpse of the civil war that too much of America has seemed so intent on talking itself into.

But amid the chaos have come phone calls, emails, texts and real, hand-written letters that prove Mark Twain right. A person can receive no greater gift than to be present — and alive — at his own funeral.

I’ve tried to answer every note. No doubt I have missed a few. If I have, I thank you here and now for your kind words. And for some of the not-so-kind words, too.

Many of you have wondered where I might go with this last column. So have I. Last month, an old high school friend who now lives in Maryland wrote with a suggestion.

We both graduated from M.D. Collins High School off Old National Highway, as did my wife. Then, the neighborhood was mostly white and blue-collar — a mix of airport-driven newcomers and families with farming legacies.

The high school, which has since disappeared, was integrated — but just barely. Perhaps a third of us went on to college. The rest went straight into the workforce and/or parenthood — as cashiers, mechanics, and secretaries. More than a few became cops. One of our number turned pro-wrestler.

Nearly 50 years later, I would guess that most of my classmates — not all, to be sure — have been supporters of President Trump. This has puzzled my Maryland friend, an Emory University graduate who has long considered Trump’s shortcomings dangerous and obvious. She can’t understand why people who were once so close to her can’t see the same thing. Old friendships have ruptured.

“Maybe you could imagine putting us all in a room together — high school classmates, several decades and life experiences later,” she wrote. “Can we still talk to each other?”

I might have done so, except that Facebook has beaten me to it, and it hasn’t been going all that well.

But if I were to try, I’d tell my old classmates the same thing that I’ve passed on to Rotarians and high school students alike. We’re on the cusp of a demographic, generational handoff that will test whether we are a tribal nation, or truly believe in — not what Thomas Jefferson did — but what he wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

In 1965, when I was 10 years old, 84 percent of Americans were white. But nothing stays the same. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that whites will cease to be a majority in 2044. Georgia will get there far quicker.

As you might expect, Rotarians are more resistant to these statistics than high schoolers, who are already living in a new universe as inevitable as birthday cakes and funerals. There is no escaping this. The only question is how we embrace it.

My first beat as an AJC reporter was religion. First lesson: Don’t ask a Baptist why he isn’t a Catholic. Don’t ask a Jew why she isn’t a Latter-Day Saint. Second lesson: True conversions from one belief system to another are actually rather rare. Those that do come are more often the result of experience, an event, rather than argument.

As religiosity has declined in the United States, political tribalism has increased. It is not a coincidence. In many ways, political views have become nearly religious in nature.

Conversions aren’t unheard of. Blue-collar Democrats went to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and have stayed Republican. In 2018 and again in 2020, white, college-educated women of suburbia have abandoned Trump. We don’t yet know whether they have permanently divorced the Republican party.

But as in religion, when it comes to persuasion, facts on the ground supersede mere rhetoric. This is why the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the pandemic — a pair of crises piled on top of each other — could be so important to the future of this country.

The election of Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the U.S. Senate has done more than end six years of Republican control over the chamber. Their victories have guaranteed that Trump’s second impeachment — on charges of inciting an insurrection — will result in an actual trial. This time with witness testimony and hard evidence presented to the public.

The presence of Ossoff and Warnock in Congress also means that a thorough investigation into the breaching of the Capitol will occur on the Senate side. Just as the decision by U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and nine other Republicans to support Trump’s impeachment guarantees the same in the lower chamber. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s decision not to support booting Cheney from her No. 3 leadership position speaks volumes.

A Trump nation so proud of its support for law enforcement will learn how more than 60 officers were injured and one died. How officers ran out of chemical munitions to control the crowd even as rioters with their own smoke grenades turned hallways pitch black.

They will be told how a spontaneous uprising somehow included participants whom police witnessed using hand signs, flags and wireless communication to pinpoint positions. How they knew enough strategy to quickly seize the high ground — TV towers in place for Joe Biden’s inauguration.

They will be told of the rioters’ disdain for the thin blue line. About the death of Brian Sicknick. And the cop thrown over a wall. Of another whose head was crushed in a doorway as he was doused with bear spray, all amid the shouts for Nancy Pelosi’s head and Mike Pence’s neck. Of the zip ties some carried to immobilize prisoners they intended to take.

Unfettered congressional hearings will be an extended opportunity for all of us — my old classmates included — to stare into the abyss and decide if that’s truly where we want to go.

Much of what happened in D.C. last week can be traced to a distrust of government institutions, well-established in GOP circles during the Reagan years. But hobbling government with the belief that it is nothing but an obstacle doesn’t necessarily work in a pandemic.

In his State of the State address this week, Gov. Brian Kemp gave an upbeat assessment of Georgia’s experience with COVID-19, focusing on Albany’s harrowing experience with the pandemic. Ultimate responsibility, the governor maintained, didn’t lie with him.

“The community — not the government — flattened the curve and slowed the spread of COVID-19,” Kemp said.

That same day, President-elect Joe Biden unveiled one of the largest federal initiatives in this nation’s history — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan to address “a crisis of deep human suffering.” He’s promising 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration. The package includes an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and increased tax credits for families with children — an effort to get moms back into the workforce.

The approach that works will be the one that matters.

If you want to change minds, don’t tell. Show.

And so, good-bye for now.

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