It is a futilely human failing to try to find some larger pattern in the groupings of deaths in the obituaries. But I could not help being struck by the juxtaposition of three men — all in their 90s — who died within three days of each other recently.
There is no obvious linkage among them (a former senator, a retired newspaper columnist and a leading sociologist) other than public lives of sufficient prominence to warrant major obits. But taken together, their careers serve as a reminder of some of the democratic values of the late 20th century that have badly eroded in this era of vitriol and venom.
Democrat Harris Wofford, who died at 92, electrified American politics by handily winning a 1991 special election to the Senate from Pennsylvania. Not only did his victorious campaign bring national health insurance to the center of the Democratic agenda, but it also brought Wofford’s two consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala, to the center of Bill Clinton’s agenda.
Wofford’s three years in the Senate (he was defeated in the 1994 Clinton rout) were only a small part of his remarkable career arc as a civil rights crusader, one of the last surviving JFK White House aides, university president and the first director of the AmeriCorps.
Russell Baker, 93, came of age on the police beat at The Baltimore Sun in late 1940s. He covered the Senate and the White House for The New York Times and then chucked these prestigious D.C. beats to gently mock the powerful with witty essays in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Times column for 36 years.
Nathan Glazer was, at 95, one of the last of the great midcentury sociologists. As James Traub memorably described Glazer during the 1990s, “He is the most modest (and the least tendentious) of the brilliant Jewish boys who attended City College 60 years ago and later came to be known collectively as the New York Intellectuals.”
These three men were never the loudest voices of their era. And their public careers seem at odds with the pay-attention-to-me ethos of our era. But when they wrote or spoke, their words had weight and significance.
The “silent generation” is the phrase used to describe the men and women who came to maturity right after World War II and whose early lives were shaped by the Depression. But as the lives of Harris Wofford, Russell Baker and Nathan Glazer illustrated, sometimes the quiet (not silent) voices can leave the most lasting imprint on American democracy.