Friday, December 4, 2015

REMEMBERING SANDY: Samuel Berger, 1945-2015

Sandy Berger (center) with Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright.
(Source: Wikipedia)
I was surprised and saddened to read yesterday that Sandy Berger passed away.

I met Sandy in the late '80s during the time I was doing imports and exports with China, and was having meetings with people in Congress about China trade. Sandy was the nephew of the man I worked for, Howard Wagman.

One of the issue at that time was whether the US should impose trade sanctions on China. I believed (and still believe) that more was accomplished by opening up our dealings with China, not shutting them down. (That said, there's a range of advocacy we need to continue doing vis-a-vis China -- see Related posts below.)

After Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, Sandy went to work at the White House.

In the short time I spent with Sandy, I learned a lot. Three things in particular come to mind . . .

They're your representatives: talk to them . . . .

At that time, I chaired a committee of member importers within the US-China Business Council. We mostly represented pretty small companies.  From time to time, Sandy would go in with us to meet with members of Congress, and with key staffers.

I think a lot of us feared that no one would care about what we thought, because we were from small, unimportant places and small, unimportant businesses. Sandy helped us understand it's just the opposite. He helped us think about what we were going to say, and to stress the real people in the actual communities that we came from.

Make no mistake: Sandy was a high-powered lawyer with a high-powered lobbying firm. In that setting, Sandy was a big mahoff. But what made him really big was his ability to help the rest of us have the confidence to raise our voices.

A lot can happen in a year

I have a distinct memory of a group of about a dozen of us attending a meeting with Sandy in DC, talking about policy possibilities. At some point Sandy sensed the need to adjust our expectations about time horizons and the ability to predict the future.

"Oh, right, that Sholem Aleichem!"
Fiddler on the Roof was adapted from Sholem
Aleichem's Tevye stories (with a little added
visual inspiration from Marc  Chagall's "Fiddler".)
(Image: Wikipedia)
"There's an old Sholem Aleichem story . . . " Sandy began.  (At the time, I had never heard of the Yiddish author and playwright, but I had a vague awareness that shalom aleichem is a Hebrew/Yiddish greeting. "What's a 'hello how are you?' story . . . ?" I wondered . . . ) Sandy went on to tell us about a swindler who claimed to have a talking dog, a prince-in-disguise who called his bluff, and a one-year reprieve on a death sentence.

Having agreed to come back to the village one year later to the day, and see that the sentence on the swindler was carried out, the prince left with his entourage. The innkeeper looked at the swindler and said, "Aren't you afraid? In just one year, the prince will come back and you will be executed!"

"Oh, I don't know . . . " replied the swindler. "After all, a lot can happen in a year . . . . Who knows? I could die . . . . The prince could die . . . . The dog could start to talk!"

Sandy taught me: it's alright to have culture; it's alright to tell stories; and, most of all, keep an open mind about what's going to develop as time passes.

(And to my friends who keep hearing my shaggy dog stories, blame it on Sandy . . . . )

The power of acknowledging people

Around 1999, President Clinton was preparing to meet with the president of China.  By that time, Sandy was National Security Adviser. I sent Sandy some ideas about possibilities for a little "musical diplomacy" in connection with the visit -- in retrospect, probably the least relevant topic anyone could possibly have put before him at that rather busy moment.

Soon afterward, I received a card from Sandy, thanking me for the idea.

"Joe - Thanks for the material and idea regarding Bright Sheng.
I will discuss it with my colleagues. Sandy"

It may have taken him one minute -- but it meant a lot to me.

Every time I come across that two-sentence note from Sandy with "The White House" engraved across the top, I think, "Sandy really understood the power of acknowledging people. I've got to remember that."

Sandy will be missed.  He was a mensch.

Related posts

"How can it be that no one is speaking directly to what happened?" I wondered. "Should I say something? Is it just me? Can it be possible that most people aren't like me, tremendously troubled by how we should respond to what has happened in China?"

(See Remember June 4)

Despite the difficulties associated with engaging in effective solidarity with dissidents in China, it is important to make the effort. A fundamental tenet of all peace and justice activism is that if we have the power to speak we can do anything, and if "they" succeed in shutting us up, it's the beginning of the end.

(See What is the US Peace and Justice Movement Doing for Dissidents in China?)

It has required years and years of reflection to sort out the good and bad aspects and conclude that the diplomatic and commercial opening of China was part of a massive move away from conflict and toward peace.

(See THE EYES AND EARS OF HISTORY: A Perspective on the Iran Deal)

China is new and different and complicated. Thinking seriously about it may require more of our brains than we have been prepared to devote to it. We may have to get used to ideas that require more than 140 characters to express.

(See Figuring Out China: The Struggle Continues )