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Friday, July 31, 2015

Dreams From My Grandfather

 August 7 will be the anniversary of my maternal grandfather's passing. I know he would have loved to be here today as I head off to law school in a few weeks and as Iran and the United States potentially improve their relationship. 

For as long as I can remember, my grandfather was a venerable, beloved figure in my family. He touched, deeply, everyone he knew. He was a vastly accomplished, and skilled, lawyer and judge. Most impressive of all though was the content of his character.

He was an exceptional husband and father -- the stoic, sober rock in a family of three self-described unapologetically, uncompromising women. They learned from each other. My grandfather was inspired by his daughters to speak out when he witnessed injustice but his daughters were compelled by him to reserve judgment until all of the facts were absorbed.

Nobody was a better teacher and student than my grandfather. He liked to learn and he liked to lecture, lovingly. Those qualities were reflected not only in his role as a husband and father but also in his capacity as a judge and, memorably, in his role as my grandfather. As a judge, he valued honesty, impartiality, and respect for the law. 

He upheld standards of public decency, preserved individual rights, and abhorred undue influence upon the law from malevolent actors. He handed down judgments that changed people's lives while, at the same time, the individuals who appeared before him gave him an informed perspective on the complicated, complex lives of everyday Iranians. 

I was lucky enough to experience his love, kindness, and compassion, as well as his aforementioned ability to listen and lecture, respectfully. I was only seven years old during the seven months he visited our family in 2000-01 but he treated me with the utmost respect. He valued my independence, which is the most amazing gift in the work when you're literally seven. 

He also learned diligently from me everything one needed to know about Thomas the Tank Engine, the geography of the Back Mountain, Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, and the history of Hershey, Pennsylvania, among other items I was obsessed with at the time. At the same time, I learned from him, even in that short time he was with us in the U.S., the importance of respecting my parents, the long-term consequence of doing or not doing my homework, and the sensation that was the Beatles. 

Indeed, he listened and, in return, he lectured -- enthusiastically so. For instance, as noted above, he told me about The Beatles. He actually bought for me in Christmas 2000 the Beatles 1 album, my introduction to their music, after picking up on how much I loved Ringo Starr's performance as the conductor in Shining Time Station. 

I taught him about Thomas' adventures and he taught me about the band of Thomas' narrator, in return. Part of this generosity of spirit, for my grandfather, was linked to his character as a husband and father and his demeanor as a judge and attorney: a great teacher and a great listener and learner.

Those qualities were also reflected in his deep appreciation for and love of America. My grandfather came to the United States to study abroad at the University of Virginia during his youth. He came to adore the U.S. in the early 1960's as a beacon of hope, virtue, and liberal progress led by a charismatic, ambitious, and youthful president.

He deeply admired America's constitutional principles of a right to a trial by jury and due process; he yearned to emulate some of those principles in his own line of work as a judge. In his attitude towards America, he showed his own penchant for learning and lecturing.

He learned a lot from America and Americans about responsibility, family, and self-care, among other values he held dear. On the other hand, he was eager to teach Americans about Iranian culture, food, and customs. He believed Iran had a lot to learn from America in terms of political and legal practices and diversity of thought but he also believed America had a lot to learn from Iran in terms of issues of economic justice, war and peace, and decency.

When he returned to the U.S. in the 1990's, for periods of months at a time, and in the 2000-01 period when I remember seeing him, his admiration of the U.S. didn't subside. He was inspired by the generosity, ingenuity, and kindness of the American people -- characteristics he always aspired to and attained in his own life.

For all these reasons and more, he would love to see this day. I try to live a life that harkens back to his personal striving for justice, learning, and teaching and his hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the just, equal America he believed in everyday. America also, in his view, through its actions had demonstrated the same qualities he demonstrated in his own life, of learning from others but teaching others as well.

In fact, he would be extremely pleased to see this day. As I go off to Villanova Law School in the fall, I can't help but think of my grandfather as the anniversary of his passing nears. He would have given anything to see one of his grandchildren begin the process of becoming a lawyer one day. My grandfather would be elated in no small part because he would urge me to learn a lot from my studies so I could be able to lecture others about it in the future.

What's more is that he certainly would also have loved to see this day of Iran and the U.S. slowly, but surely, warming relations as a nuclear accord is reached. My grandfather would've probably surmised that these countries have a lot to learn from each other, much like his own experiences of teaching and learning in return.

As I strive to become an attorney, and as I hope to continue to see strengthened dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, my grandfather will forever be in my thoughts. Those qualities of his character, of generous and kind teaching of others but learning from others at the same time, are ones I hope to see in my own pursuit as a lawyer, in our country's character as a whole, and in the U.S.-Iran relationship. These are the dreams from my grandfather and I know he would be so happy to see them come to fruition. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jimmy Carter's Mixed Legacy

Tonight, I am meeting former President Jimmy Carter at DC's famous Politics and Prose bookstore. I'm lucky enough to say this is the second time I am meeting the 39th President of the United States (the first being in the spring of 2013 in my hometown) and I'm also pretty lucky to say I've met every living Democratic president. As he travels the country on a book tour to promote his recent autobiography, one of a multitude of books he's written, Jimmy Carter is getting a second look in some corridors.

Although it may be a harsh indictment to hand down on President Carter right before I meet him, I am convinced that he is, probably and sadly, the worst Democratic president of the 20th century. On the flip side, he is, arguably, one of the greatest ex-presidents in American history: crisscrossing the world to solve problems like malaria and hunger and rightfully earning the Nobel Peace Prize for such work. It is emblematic of Carter's decidedly mixed legacy that he earns both of these unique distinctions.

Indeed, as president, Carter's record is mixed, at best. On the one hand, he scored crucial foreign policy victories which were in our best interests and strengthened peace around the world. In fact, he owned his ostensible advancement of "peace" as a central theme of his 1980 reelection bid, clearly an effort to distinguish himself from the more hawkish Ronald Reagan.

He was the key, instrumental force in ensuring the success of the Camp David Accords, the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel which strengthened Israeli security despite the current gripes about Carter being supposedly anti-Semitic. According to a History Channel documentary on the U.S. presidents, Carter literally, physically stood in the way of the Israeli leader, Mr. Begin, from leaving the site of Camp David and insisted that the two sides come to an agreement.

Carter also concluded the Nixon-initiated process of establishing diplomatic relations with China, he agreed to return the Panama Canal to Panama (at great political risk since it was one of the core issues Reagan capitalized on to build his success), and his leadership in the Algiers Accords ensured there would be a diplomatic solution to the Iran hostage crisis, rather than a dangerous bombing campaign.

On the other hand, his foreign policy portfolio was muddled by internal disagreements that tarnished his record even in this area. The rift between the hawkish Zbigniew Brzezinski and the more dovish Cyrus Vance made Carter's Cold War policies a total mess, especially in the African continent where the U.S. was mired in efforts to squash Communist actors, in the deadly aftermath of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, and in the hasty response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On Iran matters, Carter was all over the place too: he promised to strengthen human rights but then proudly embraced the Shah but also pushed for specific reforms in the country but also brought in the Shah for medical treatment.

On domestic policy, Carter's record is even weaker. He can claim virtually no major legislative policy achievements here. He had enormous Democratic majorities in Congress and could not get along with members of his own party. He bizarrely refused to provide for jobs spending in members' districts despite it being a net plus and being crucial to advancing vital causes of his.

That's why, among many reasons, Carter failed to achieve consumer protection reforms, welfare reforms, a more robust economic stimulus package than what passed in 1977, and a national health care program. On the latter front, Carter actually backtracked from supporting single-payer in 1976 and enraged Ted Kennedy so much with his noncommittal attitude that nothing happened. On abortion, Carter was also disappointing, as he would not fully commit to supporting a woman's right to choose and sparred with Democrats on Medicaid funding in this arena.

On the environment, Carter could claim a strong record, as he spurred the creation of Superfund sites (among other key reforms), but these issues only came to the forefront because of the 1978 Love Canal disaster. Lastly, unfortunately, Carter's economic policies also gave way to the kind of deregulation and austerity that would become the hallmark of the Reagan era. In hindsight, the raising of interest rates, which did no good in 1979-81 for millions of Americans who would later benefit from their *lowering in 1983 instead, and the deregulation of trucking, among some other industries, were largely harmful.

However, what's also true is that Carter was rather prescient on some matters in domestic policy. His creation of a Department of Energy and his 1979 crisis of confidence speech, in which he warned against overconsumption, as well as putting solar panels on the White House, were bold moves. He also was the first president to meet with gay rights activists in the White House and, long before SCHIP was created, he expanded health insurance for low-income children.

So, what to make of Carter's mixed legacy? Arguably, on the whole, as president, he was not very good, he was politically inept, and he failed to take advantage of existing advantages, like those huge Democratic majorities he enjoyed, to advance a comprehensive agenda. He was a victim of his own management style too, as he relied too heavily on micromanagement, became too mired in intricate details, and stubbornly refused to make reasonable compromises with Democrats.

On the whole though, Carter is a good, decent person, as evidenced by the amazing work he has done since leaving office, he had a mostly fine foreign policy legacy, and he does deserve credit for being ahead of his time on some key progressive matters. However, he should not have been the Democratic Party's nominee in 1976 as the damage he did to the party, both politically and on policy, was long-lasting.