Robert Reich: Enjoying Ella

Grandparenting a strong child in a fragile world

American politician, academic, writer and political commentator Robert Bernard Reich was born June 24, 1946. Raised in a positive and supportive home, he served as United States Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997. One of his greatest achievements during those years was the implementation of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Reich is a former Harvard University professor and currently Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Time magazine named him one of the Ten Most Successful Cabinet Members of the century in 2008, and The Wall Street Journal placed him among America’s Top Ten Business Thinkers.  A year ago he was selected by President-elect Barack Obama to be a member of the President-elect’s economic transition advisory board.

In 1997 Robert Reich was at a life-changing crossroads. After spending years consumed with the seductive world of politics and governance, he decided to walk away from all of it to spend more time with his family-specifically, his sons, Adam (15) and Sam (12). It was a decision he never second-guessed. It was a decision that arguably has made him a more appreciative and loving grandfather.

“One of my regrets is during those years [as part of the Clinton administration] I saw very little of my sons. In fact the reason I left Bill Clinton’s cabinet was to spend more time with them,” Reich tells GRAND Magazine. “It’s easy to forget that family is everything in the rush of Washington, particularly at very high levels where you can convince yourself you are immediately and directly affecting the lives of tens of millions of people. You tell yourself that you can always make it up to your family. My boys were young teenagers at the time, and I believe they really needed me to be there for them.”

In the March 2001 issue of Reader’s Digest, Reich illustrated that point when he wrote, “I couldn’t wait to get to the office in the morning and only left it at night reluctantly. Being a member of the President’s Cabinet was so much better than any job I’d had that I couldn’t get enough of it. Not surprisingly, my life shriveled into a dried raisin…. One evening, for the sixth time in a row, I phoned home to tell the boys that once again I’d miss their bedtime.”

His son Sam wanted Reich to wake him when he did get home, but Reich explained it would be very late. Sam insisted he do so, explaining that he “just wanted to know” that Reich was there. That’s when Reich knew it was time to leave his job.

What Reich discovered when he left Washington was that the teenage years is a critical time for boys. In an essay for USA Weekend in 1997 he compared teenage boys to clamshells-opening up for just a moment and clamming up again. “If you’re around when they open up, you have a chance to see something truly beautiful inside…and you have a quick chance to connect. But you have to be there in the moment. The clam shuts in an instant, and then you can’t see or do a thing.”

But not everyone understood Reich’s sudden epiphany. “When a man says that, the media doesn’t believe it and try to find alternate motives. In my case that was the truth. I never regretted it.” Regrets are one thing, but that doesn’t mean that Reich has never been tempted to jump back into the fray on behalf of the common man- an impulse that was ingrained in him by his own personal experiences.

“I had a fairly normal and happy childhood. We lived in a small house and had a modest income. My father had two clothing stores catering to factory women. I never felt deprived in any way, and I had the great, great gift of love. Even though I was always very short for my age, I never felt short for my age. My parents gave me enormous confidence, and I never doubted for a minute that I could do whatever I wanted to do. It was not always easy at all. At one point a hurricane came through and wiped out my father’s stores.”

“We didn’t know what we were going to do. I remember his anxiety and felt it deeply. I was also painfully aware of bullies. Being as short as I was, they posed a continuing threat. So I suppose you could say I developed an understanding of what it means to be powerless and vulnerable-at least that’s one of the themes I can identify in my life’s work.”

And that brings us to his granddaughter, Ella-the one above all he wants to protect. “I am worried as hell about the world Ella is inheriting. The instability is most worrisome, as is the precariousness of the world. I’m concerned about everything from global warming to airborne diseases to terrorism, and a fragile economy which is likely to stay fragile for many years. If you want to dwell on the half-empty part of the cup, there’s almost an infinite number of things to worry about.”

Reich would prefer to dwell on the day Ella was born. “Ella had personality as soon as she emerged. It just got bigger as she grew older. I felt all the typical things at the time. I thought how absolutely beautiful she looked even though newborn babies are rather wrinkled and somewhat unattractive.

I remember how relieved I was that she arrived safely and was in good health, as was her mother. How happy I was for her parents [Reich's son Adam and Adam's wife, Teresa Sharpe] and how recently it seemed that her father was born. There was a rush of all of those feelings at once. The second wave is a bunch of hopes about her future and the life she may lead. She was born into a different world in many ways.”

Nevertheless, Reich sees many similarities between the world he grew up in and the world Ella will inherit. “The world that I was born into had many foreign threats. My earliest memories were sticking my head in a cubby hole in the school lockers to get ready in case the Soviets dropped a bomb. And getting polio vaccines and sitting on the couch watching Joe McCarthy rail against Communists on television.

Have we come all that far? We still have every reason to worry about a foreign attack. There are airborne diseases, and everyone has anxieties about children and grandchildren. We’re seeing literally no end to the demagogues on TV. Today’s world seems less safe. One cannot avoid the fear for a little person’s future.”

But Reich seems to think that Ella is up to the challenge. “Ella is a complete firecracker. Right from the go she was interested in everything and everyone. She likes nothing better than to hear music and wiggle her legs and stamp her feet and move her hands, and if there are a lot of other people standing around, so much the better.”

“She’s incredibly curious and active. She’s very bright, as I would expect she would be. She has a vast array of genes from all over the world. She’s Irish, English, Austrian, Hungarian, Russian and Mexican. She’s a real mongrel, meant in the sweetest possible terms.”

Being away from the maddening pace of the Beltway has provided great perks for Reich these days. “I love teaching and I love writing. One of my sons and his wife [Adam and Teresa Sharpe] live here in Berkeley, and my biggest treat is seeing Ella almost whenever I want. In the midst of my writing and teaching a few days ago, my son called and said he and Ella were downstairs. And I stopped everything I was doing and came down and spent an hour with them.”

Reich says he needs all his energy to keep up with the adorable tyke. “A typical day with Ella is utterly exhausting. I haven’t spent an entire day alone with her. But I have babysat, and I’ve taken her for walks and time at the park. She has more energy in two feet and one year than I have in my less than 5 feet and 63 years. In fact she has more energy than I ever remember having. I’d love to have a fraction of that energy. Some little ones do enjoy sitting and contemplating-not Ella. Life poses too many exciting opportunities for her.”

Reich can’t help but hope Ella’s future world is not as polarized as the world she was born into. “I certainly don’t view myself as an unthinking partisan. I enjoy spending time with thoughtful conservatives and find unthinking unblinking lefties intolerable. Among my best friends in Washington was Republican senator Alan Simpson. He has a marvelous sense of humor and he is extremely thoughtful. So I enjoy a good argument. I am certainly willing to change my views if somebody convinces me otherwise, and I think we’ve become far too polarized. I become very impatient with television shows where people yell at me and I’m expected to yell back at them.”

Despite his frustration, Reich is optimistic that times are changing. “I think there is hope. When I speak to normal people in the world, I find that they don’t take extreme positions on one side or another. Most people are more liberal than the stereotype of the typical American, more open-minded, certainly far more willing to reconsider views. The country is far better than the media portray it to be and better than the shouting-match gladiator fights.”

The town hall meetings this summer seemed to feature more than a few angry people who were Medicare age and, in many cases, grandparents. Reich understands their anxiety, but believes their anger can be redirected and channeled into a powerful grassroots lobby.

“I came to Washington for the first time in 1974 to take a job in the Ford administration. Every time I’ve come to town since then, in the Carter administration and the Clinton administrations and as an adviser to Obama. I’ve seen Washington become richer and more dominated by fat-cat lobbyists and influence peddlers. I worry that we are losing our democracy.”

“Many Americans are angry these days because their incomes and their jobs are threatened. They feel like the game is rigged. They can’t afford to pay more taxes, and if they are retired, they are even more anxious because their sources of income have been drying up. But a large portion has grandchildren.”

“Part of the problem is that we are segregated by age. The places inhabited by many older Americans are not the same places where their grandchildren reside. One hopes that they understand their connections to subsequent generations. [If they do,] I think that there could be a genuine broad-based grassroots citizen’s movement to take back democracy. I think it will happen. When things get to particular tipping points, the country has shown itself to be capable of rolling up its sleeves and getting anything accomplished.”

MARY ANN COOPER

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