It’s been a busy news week inside Washington and out. In the sports world, we have the coaching abuse scandal presently rocking the Rutgers University campus and reverberating across the State of New Jersey. In the national political realm, we await two important decisions from the Supreme Court related to marriage equality and its application toward our LGBTQ citizenry, even as Obama’s opponents continue grasping for novel ways to attack the POTUS. Did you hear the one about the President calling California litigator Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general” as part of laudatory remarks about her skills and professionalism? Were you offended? Me neither.
But for lovers of film, and most especially, residents of Chicago, the dominant narrative of the week was the retreat of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. It was only Tuesday that the icon took to his blog to announce a “leave of presence,” a step away from the weekly demands of his column for the Chicago Sun-Times. The theory was that the decision would allow Ebert to focus on battling a resurgent cancer. Before we had time to adjust to his reduced presence, Ebert died just two days later, leaving a legion of admirers bereft.
Although the Pulitzer Prize winner was not a political figure, that didn’t stop him from sharing his civic views early and often, most recently in the active Twitter feed that offered Ebert his tenth act on the pop cultural stage. Many of these tweets contained solid advice for elected officials on both sides of the political aisle. On March 10, 2012, concerned about he President’s debate performance against opponent Mitt Romney, he volunteered, “Obama needs to use the ‘Bush’ word. #debate.” Cycling back to the previous Presidential contest, Ebert sent this piece of wit across the Internet: “Facebook’s 420-character limit proves doable with @SarahPalinUSA’s policy statements.”
But beyond this clear and incisive commentary, there are many ways in which Ebert’s philosophies serve as a blueprint for course correction that the hopelessly adrift GOP so badly requires. I’m serious. Hear me out.
Let’s take Ebert’s imprint on the World Wide Web as just one example. In a very real way, blogging and social media restored the critic’s voice after he had lost it, and much of his jaw, to a battle with thyroid and salivary gland cancer. It is important to remember that the man was 70 years old and began his career when “status updates” meant pulling out the electric typewriter and mailing the finished product via USPS. Ebert, rather than running scared from New Media, used it to share his topical musings and promote his brand. This sort of nimble adaptability separated Ebert from the Caucasian, graying male peers that still represent the bulk of the GOP’s membership. Consider RNC Chairman Reince Preibus’ recent post-election “autopsy” report, which indicts the party for its failure to connect with youth voters and other demographics, on the ground as well as on the Web. The GOP’s stiff fear of change continues to be an albatross around the neck that never weighed down Ebert, as diversely popular at the time of his death as he had ever been.
Another lesson from Ebert’s life to which today’s Republican Party would be wise to attend is perhaps the toughest one of all or today’s Grand Old Party to grasp. Collaborating with rivals can produce epic greatness. You hear me, John Boehner? Ebert famously said that when he was originally asked to co-anchor the popular show that eventually became At the Movies with his contemporary, Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, he had little inclination to team up with “the most hated guy in my life.” Imagine all we would have missed had Ebert not reconsidered. Taking a page from Abraham Lincoln’s formula for greatness, Ebert was self-aware and gracious enough to comprehend that butting heads with adversaries produces the need to consider and articulate one’s viewpoint in ways that surrounding oneself with sycophants cannot.
And when you find yourself backed into a corner, overcome by the growing awareness that your position is no longer tenable, it’s even ok to change it! Imagine that! Check out this excerpt from the critic’s Wikipedia page:
“Ebert revisited and sometimes revised his opinions. After ranking E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial third on his 1982 list, it was the only movie from that year to appear on his later ‘Best Films of the 1980s’ list (where it also ranked third). He made similar revaluations of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 1985’s Ran.”
You too, Republican party members, can take your place in a thinking culture constantly re-evaluating its viewpoints, co-opting that which makes sense while discarding that which doesn’t. You just have to want it. It is not necessary to cling to discarded dogmas from yesterday out of a cowardly fear that you can’t win a primary. Who knows? People might even respect you for having a mind of your own. Consider the possibilities.
As a nation, we will miss Roger Ebert for many reasons. But not insignificant among them are the dedication to learning and growth, the lack of arrogance and the genuine humility that allowed us to feel as though we knew him personally. An increasingly tone deaf and detached GOP could learn much from his example.