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Burris: Blessed are the listeners

Keith Burris Vp/editorial Director, Block Newspapers Kburris@theblade.Com, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·4 min read

Feb. 26—President Joseph R. Biden has already had much of the membership of the United States Senate to the White House for meetings, consultations and conversations.

That's a natural thing for someone who is a creature of the Senate — he served there from 1973 to 2009.

It's also a natural thing for Mr. Biden, the man.

He went to visit an ailing, 97-year-old Bob Dole the other day.

Mitch McConnell attended the funeral of Mr. Biden's son Beau.

The President is a people person, a relational public man, an empathizer-in-chief, which means, in part, that he is a listener.

A good politician, a great leader, need not be a great speechifier (Mr. Biden is not), but he has to be a great listener.

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Tom Brady is not an eloquent speaker (in public). He speaks mostly in generalities and cliches. But he is, undoubtedly, a great leader. And one reason is that he watches, he reads situations and people, and he listens.

Mr. Biden, we have learned, also regularly speaks with former presidents, which is something incumbent presidents used to do and need to do.

John F. Kennedy sought the advice of Dwight David Eisenhower, who had been the president before him and won a world war. He was also the head of the other party. Wouldn't Kennedy have been a fool not to have sought Ike out?

And JFK was anything but a fool.

And wouldn't it have been smart, and good for the country, if Donald Trump had sought the counsel of Presidents Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Obama?

No one knows the presidency like one who has held the office. The only persons who can come close are former vice presidents.

The inclusion of the former presidents in the Biden inauguration was not only a healing sign — of the peaceful transition of power — but a bow to the power of experience.

Experience trumps party and ideology, or should.

As a young senator, Mr. Biden sought out the Senate's elders and sat at their feet. His willingness to listen — to voters in town halls, to senators, to the advice of people with whom he disagrees, to ex-presidents, even to journalists — is a quality we have sorely missed in our leaders in recent years and one we desperately need.

It's a quality we desperately need in our culture and in our public discourse, generally. This is not bipartisanship; it is faith in humanity.

If I never thought much about Rush Limbaugh, and to the extent that I did, I thought him a bully and an oaf, but my neighbor grieves at his passing — mourns as if he knew the man as a brother — I need to listen to my neighbor. Why does he feel that way? What did he see in Rush that I missed?

If I look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and see a callow and shallow youth, but my children see the tribune of their generation, I need to see what they see. I need to understand.

Maybe an empathizer-in-chief is exactly what we need right now.

And maybe listening is the key.

The great theologian and Christian apologist Frederick Buechner wrote a book called Listening to Your Life. I am rereading it for Lent. For Lent is about repentance and renewal — turning inward, but upward. Mr. Buechner says that in the ordinary, but examined, life there are countless sacred messages.

But you need to listen.

It occurs to me that listening is the essence of journalism.

Most people, most journalists, believe that journalism is regurgitation. But when you consider really great journalists — Walter Lippmann, Robert Caro, Meg Greenfield, Seymour Hersh — they are listeners extraordinaire.

When I ponder those I listen to, I think, first, of my teachers, mostly long dead, and both personal and from the page: Sister Mary Lois, Lola Miller, John Graf, John W. Chapman, Hannah Arendt, Reinhold Niebuhr, Michael Oakeshott, Roger Scruton.

But I also think of people I have known who have taught many of us by living — by living their values. Let's call the roll — a litany of saints: Baldemar Velasquez, labor leader and prophet; Thomas Jackson, urban farmer; Julie Beitelschees, pastor; Mark Nordenberg, servant leader; David Zubik, shepherd; Bev Bingle, pioneer; Robert Kaplan, barrister and psalmist; James Bacik, public theologian; Romules Durant, teacher and friend to the young; George Kral and Luis Santiago, first responders; Bruce Baumhower, champion of American workers and American products.

To name a few.

In this holy season, one in which we let go of what diminishes and divides and embrace what enlightens and empowers, the thing to do is listen, and listen to those who lead us toward the light. As Fred Rogers, the greatest listener our culture has ever produced, might say: Listen to the listeners.

Keith C. Burris is editor and vice president of The Blade and editorial director of Block Newspapers (kburris@theblade.com)