Ernie's real legacy

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 am

They were white and black, heavy and thin, men and women. They wore flats and heels; cordovans and cowboy boots; business suits, bomber jackets, and stained and dirty sweatshirts. All stood calmly and peacefully in a long line snaking around the stadium.

Everyone knew who they were there for, and why. But there is a lesson in that incredible outpouring of tribute to Ernie Harwell that our many would-be leaders would do well to learn from.

Michigan needs someone to bring us together. Bring us together to remind us that we are all in this together. To remind us of our common victories and setbacks, of the common goals that unite us. We need someone to bring us together, not out of hatred and fear, but with a sense of commitment.

Maybe even love. That struck me powerfully when I got to Comerica Park late last Thursday night. By that time, the lying in state was no longer a media "happening." This was long after the politicians and the reporters were gone. These folks in line couldn't hope to be on TV that night.

Yet something like a thousand people were still awaiting their chance to file past an open casket containing the small body of a very old baseball announcer, who had died two days before.

When it was all over, 11,176 people had walked past the casket to say goodbye, most to a man they had never met.

Vast amounts have been written about the life and meaning of Ernie Harwell. He was indeed the best baseball play-by-play man in our history, and without doubt, the most popular man in Michigan. Everybody said so last week. But few tried to explain why.

The answer, I think, holds an important lesson for Michigan. We are in terrible shape right now. Part of the reason is obvious and unavoidable; the national recession is worse here than anywhere else; the auto industry will never again be what it was.

Yet that's not the worst of our problems. This is: We have a political system that is in dysfunctional paralysis. Term limits, petty politics and ideological polarization have given us a state government that cannot or will not do virtually anything that matters.

Most Democrats are bad enough. They have narrow horizons, little vision, and are held hostage by narrow little interest groups who are unwilling to even talk about giving up any of their privileges.

For confirmation, look only to the bloated bureaucrats of the Michigan Education Association, who pay themselves salaries of as much as $239,000 and pay their mail sorting clerk more than most top teachers make. When Speaker of the House Andy Dillon suggested putting all government workers on a rational benefits plan, they squalled like pigs denied their swill — before they even read it.

Most Republicans are far worse. They'd happily throw everybody under the bus for votes and for a few more tax breaks for people who are already wealthy. Led by Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, they'd deny children the ability to learn and prevent old people from getting their meds, if that would just somehow make the Democrats look bad.

Actually, Bishop's main reason for busily crusading against government is that he wants another government job, of course, the private sector being a bit dicey these days. He hopes to be the GOP nominee for attorney general, though even he knows the chance of that grows less and less likely by the day.

Bill Schuette, a longtime GOP warhorse and former everything (congressman, judge, etc.) is more likely to be the choice, especially since this is a nomination determined by party apparatchiks, not voters. That leaves Bishop hoping to be lieutenant governor. That scenario is probably most likely if the nominee is Pistol Packin' Pete Hoekstra, from Holland.

Hoekstra, a conservative Republican and homeland security wonk, leads in the polls mainly because he comes from the west side of the state, and the other three major candidates from the east.

Those candidates are Mike Cox, the state attorney general, Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist from Ann Arbor, and Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard. (State Sen. Tom George is also running, but nobody knows or cares.) Might these men be campaigning on the theme of restoring prosperity, telling people how they would bring jobs back to our lovely but battered state?

Not a chance. They are busily bashing the Democrats and trashing the president. They figure mostly hard-core right-wingers will vote in the August primary, and that's who they need to attract.

Campaigns that are moderate, reasonable and nuanced don't attract much attention, as Bouchard found out the hard way. When I first interviewed him a few years ago, he struck me as a competent former cop who was more into Star Trek than any ideology.

But since Bouchard entered the race for governor, his standing in the polls has drifted downward. So last week he reinvented himself as a new hard-right-wing warrior. Looking older, wearier and heavier, he railed against President Obama's health care plan.

He didn't like Michigan's new smoking ban either. In fact, he said he wouldn't enforce it. (Nice example, when a law enforcement type says he won't uphold the law.) He also praised Arizona's nasty anti-immigrant law, which encourages racial profiling and worse.

Speaking on public television's Off the Record, Bouchard said nothing to bring us together; nothing to appeal to the better angels of our nature. I turned him off when he denied being a career politician, after serving in the state House, Senate, being a statewide candidate for U.S. Senate, and having been elected sheriff a few times.

Meanwhile, Cox has been bashing liberals, and Snyder spent more than a million bucks on a commercial that said all the other politicians were stupid and he was very smart.

The Democrats are less active, mainly because even they know they are almost certain to lose this year. Nevertheless, the two leading candidates, Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, seem to spend much of their time bashing each other.

Ernie Harwell was not a politician. But he brought everyone in this state together. He educated and inspired and helped people — he was that rarest of public figures, a man as good as his myth.

Incidentally, I did not walk past his casket. I was lucky enough to know him personally, very well, and did not want that to be my last memory of him. I had sat in the booth with him during games.

He appreciated my writing and complimented me on it. And you know what? You've never seen this mentioned in print, but Ernie Harwell voted Republican, most or all the time. We were politically far apart, and it didn't affect our friendship in the slightest.

Nor our respect for each other. That's not what we have in politics and government now. That, and a spirit of goodwill, is what we desperately need, and I believe want. But nobody gives it to us.

Nobody has in a long time, except an elderly man from Georgia, who to our lasting sorrow is now long gone.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]