Let us be guided by the better angels of our nature

— Architect of the Capitol: From The Apotheosis of Washington

When Nancy Pelosi stepped down as House speaker on Nov. 17, she gave a healing speech.

She named people of various parties who had taken the same oath as she and her father had, and spoke of them as colleagues, starting with Republican Abraham Lincoln and Whig Daniel Webster and moving on to Democrats Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink, and John Lewis.

“Indeed, American Democracy is majestic — but it is fragile …. Last week,” said Pelosi of the November elections, “the American people spoke. And their voices were raised in defense of liberty, of the rule of law and of Democracy itself. With these elections, the people stood in the breach and repelled the assault on Democracy. They resoundingly rejected violence and insurrection. And in doing so, ‘gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.’”

She cited the Founders’ guidance in E Pluribus Unum: From many, one. She cited, too, the growing diversity of the nation and its representatives in the House, which the Founders could not have imagined.

“The new Members of our Democratic Caucus will be about 75 percent women, people of color and LGBTQ,” said Pelosi.

She named the three presidents she had enjoyed working with as Speaker: with George Bush on “historic investments in clean energy,” with Barack Obama on “transformative health care reform,” and with Joe Biden on “forging the future — from infrastructure to health care to climate action.”

She did not name Donald Trump. She had alluded earlier to the Jan. 6 insurrection as she spoke of the fragility of democracy that members “tragically” witnessed in the House Chamber.

Pelosi concluded her speech by returning to Lincoln: “As we participate in a hallmark of our Republic — the peaceful, orderly transition from one Congress to the next — let us consider the words of, again, President Lincoln, spoken during one of America’s darkest hours.

“He called upon us to come together to ‘swell the chorus of the Union, when once again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’ That, again, is the task at hand ….”

After this November’s elections, we too had a sense that our democracy, under siege, had held. Although more than 220 Republicans who questioned or denied the 2020 election results won in the midterms, very few who lost have followed the lead of Donald Trump and said the election was stolen.

The same day that Pelosi was making her speech, we were honored to make a speech, too, as the Albany County League of Women Voters had asked us to be the mistress of ceremonies for the league’s 100th anniversary gala.

In preparation, we had been lucky to talk to some of the 16 women who had been part of the Albany County league for a half-century or more. We also got to meet and introduce Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States.

A Black woman, she spoke of discrimination she has overcome, she spoke of those who came before her who had marched with holes in the soles of their shoes, and she spoke of Eleanor Roosevelt who was supportive of DEI before it was cool with the help of her friend, civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune. 

What I learned from the elders of the local league had much in common with the themes in Pelosi’s speech: These women saw the importance of finding common ground while respecting differences.

They understood that voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and they worked in each election to accurately inform voters while at the same time relentlessly researching and advocating for needed change.

When I asked Milena Leukardt what was most important to her in her half-century of membership in the League of Women Voters, she said, “I thank the league for setting me straight — something no school did for me, no classes in history did for me. And that is why war happens.

War happens because one nation wants what’s on the land another nation has, Leukhardt said. She cited Russia wanting Ukraine’s grain or the United States wanting Middle East oil.

“We were hoping a second world war and no more wars. Hello,” said Leukardt.

What she came to realize from the league, she said, was: “I wasn’t a cause of a war and that it wasn’t about me. It was about the land and everything that somebody was jealous of.”

I had to ask her to unpack that so I could understand what she meant.

I learned that her father helped to set up shoe factories in Poland and in London. When war came to Europe, he was sent to the Philippines to start a factory there. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it was Dec. 8 in the Phillipines when the Japanese took over.

Leukardt was 7 years old. She went to school in a Catholic convent where she learned Japanese, Tagalog, and English. At home, her parents spoke Czech. “My parents couldn’t help me because they knew no English. They certainly didn’t know Tagalog — so you’re on your own,” she said.

During four years under Japanese rule, every child was to keep a garden. “They came to our place to make sure,” said Leukardt. “Of course, the whole backyard was a garden because both my parents were from farm families. And in the war, you have to grow your own stuff. With the bombs falling, you can’t expect to go to the market to buy anything. Nobody is selling anything,” she said.

So now I understood when she said that “these poor young men came to save my family,” she was talking from the perspective of an 11-year-old child who had been rescued from war. “That wasn’t the point; the war wasn’t to save me,” she said. “The point was to regain land.”

Leukardt and her family — she, her sister, and her mother in one place with her father with other men in another place — were put on board the SS Monterey. People took turns sleeping 8-hour shifts in hammocks. 

“Quite a few were severely injured … People were going home; nobody complained,” she said.

After the ship arrived in San Francisco, her family took a train to New York City. The plan was to return to Czechoslovakia but, said Leukhardt. “By the time we were going to go back, the Communitists invaded and so my relatives said, ‘Look, you just came from a hellhole. Don’t come back to a hellhole.’ And so we stayed.”

Leukardt eventually studied to be a teacher at the college in Oswego where she met her late husband who became a two-star admiral in the Navy, serving during the war in Iraq. They have three children and Llukardt describes herself as caring for three generations, including two decades of caring for her mother who lived to be nearly 105.

Through many of those years, Leukardt was involved in the league, working part-time as the manager of the legislative office in Albany. What kept her at her league work for so many years, she said, was, “They get to the heart of what is necessary in investigating a situation and then we have a position.”

She recalled 10 members going to an event once, working on a common problem, and it turned out four were Republicans, four were Democrats, and two were independents.

“We got along. No one said ‘Hey, if you don’t do it my way, I’m leaving.’”

She concluded, “I was very attracted to the league, after spending the war years, with everything so destroyed and so on, that there are people who were working toward a common good.”

So here we are today in a nation deeply divided, torn asunder. How do we get back to a place were we can work together to find a common good?

I heard the answer, again and again, from the lifetime league members. I heard words like “impartial,” “fact-based,” “objective,” and “research.” I also saw an attitude of civility and respect towards others with an underlying commitment to make government better — more receptive to people’s needs.

Rema Goldstein joined the league when she moved to Albany in the 1970s because she was appalled by the hold the O’Connell political machine had on the people of the city and wanted to get impartial and objective voter information. She picked up a Facts for Voters brochure from the league at her local library and joined.

She then worked successfully on issues like state court reform and getting an elected school board for the city of Albany.

“I believe in the thorough study and research the LWV does before it commits to taking action on an issue,” says Rema Goldstein. “The LWV does an outstanding job in its commitment to consensus and study.”

June Hahner, a New Yorker with graduate degrees from Cornell, landed her first college teaching job in Lubbock, Texas in the 1960s — a place and time she said weren’t welcoming for women. As the lone female faculty member at Texas Tech, she was told to use the student bathrooms three floors down in the basement rather than the one nearby labeled “faculty.”

“I’m faculty,” she said. “I integrated the bathroom.”

A teacher of Latin American history, she joined the League of Women voters in Lubbock to help register voters in a city where, she said, the Latinos’ streets were unpaved.

When she moved here to teach at SUNY Albany, she enjoyed being a member of the league’s committee on international relations as much as she enjoyed her world travels to Europe, Latin America, China, Southeast Asia, and Japan.

June Hahner published books on poverty and politics, about the urban poor in Brazil, and on 19th-Century Latin American women’s travel accounts — an era when few traveled and even fewer women wrote about it.

Being part of the second wave of feminism, she was interested in the intersection of women rights with class and race. “I fought; I fought; I fought; I fought,” she said.

Ann Brandon’s key issue was to get an elected executive for the county legislature, which had been controlled by the county attorney, appointed by the legislature. She went on to work on criminal justice issues and alternatives to incarceration.

What she likes about the league is that it’s a bottom-up organization rather than top-down, giving locals the opportunity to study and act on local issues as well as state and national.

Ruth Dinowitz had an awakening when, after being raised in the Northeast, she moved to Florida for her senior year of high school. She saw drinking fountains for whites only. “I’d never seen that,” she said. 

After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, students were expected to sing “Dixie.”

“It was staggering to me …,” she said. “It was a crucial moment of recognizing what the world was.”

Later she stood in protest outside a Woolworth’s store that had a lunch counter that wouldn’t serve Blacks. She also became active in the women’s rights movement.

But, said Ruth, “Marching isn’t enough.” She’s proudest of the skill she has developed as a moderator for candidate nights.

For this week’s Enterprise podcast, I interviewed Peggy Filkins Warner, in her nineties now, who for decades chaired the Republican Committee in Berne.

Dan O’Connell controlled all the Hilltowns and everybody had to be a Democrat,” said Warner of the political machine that dominated Albany from 1922 until the 1970s. “It really made a difference in your tax assessment.”

Describing her commitment to the Republican Party matter-of-factly, Warner said, “I knew that things were not right in Berne. And so I just started doing what you should do. You know, I firmly believe that everyone has the right in the United States to choose the party they want to be part of. And that’s the way it should be. But, at the time that I grew up, you had to be a Democrat in Albany County.”

Warner was always willing to listen to varied viewpoints and decries the current polarization. “Some of my best friends have completely different ideas than I do, and we discuss them but we don’t get angry at each other …,” she said. “It’s fun to debate your ideas and then you might get a good idea from somebody if you listen.”

If a new day is dawning, as Pelosi says, we have much to learn from these women.

As we said in our Nov. 17 speech, we felt a glimmer of hope when we learned that 12 Senate Republicans had joined the Democrats, 62 to 37, over the 60-vote threshold to prevent a filibuster, to put the Respect for Marriage Act on track to become law before political gridlock sets in on Jan. 1. It will protect marriage equality for same-sex and interracial couples.

That’s as it should be since more than 70 percent of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support same-sex marriage; our laws should reflect the will of the people.

With respect for the diverse citizenry of the United States — we must reject the hatred that has been fomented by Trump — we need to treat one another with civility.

With truth as our guide — we can’t accept the lies that have engulfed us for the past six years — we need to talk across parties and find common ground.

E Pluribus Unum. That is the way forward.

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