Eulogy for Marcus Raskin (1934-2017)
Delivered by Congressman Jamie Raskin
[Editor's Note: On February 12, I took part in a memorial for Marc Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies and an old friend of mine, going back to 1959 when he and I were both legislative assistants to Congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin, and then were colleagues from 1963, when the Institute began, into 1977. The beacon-light of the memorial was an extraordinary distillation of Marc's wisdom, filtered through the experience of his son, newly elected Congresmman Jamie Raskin of Maryland. With his permisssion, I am publishing his Eulogy here and will be sending it to the email lists of The Shalom Center. -- Rabbi Arthur Waskow, editor]
Eulogy for Marcus Raskin (1934-2017)
Delivered by Congressman Jamie Raskin
February 12, 2018, at Sixth and I Synagogue
in Washington DC
Lesson One: My father taught us that, when a situation seems hopeless, then you are the hope.
When everything looks dark, you must be the light.
Thank you for being the hope and bringing us the light today.
That’s your first lesson. Dad taught us a lot about every stage of life, from birth to the time of what he called “shooting on through.” He was a philosopher and we need his teachings more than ever, so I’m going to honor my Dad by sharing these Marcus Raskin life lessons with you.
** Lesson Two: Spoil children with love and wisdom, not with things.
When we were kids, he’d take us places—not like baseball games or ski trips or the Virgin Islands but, you know, conferences on reconstructive knowledge at MIT, national political conventions, civil rights marches. Once he took me with him to Kenyon College where he debated a human being named Midge Decter. And she said something about how my Dad’s friend Dr. Spock had spoiled the children of the 1960s and these spoiled children were all liberals now because of it. And Dad said, no, they were liberals because they loved freedom but, yes, he was absolutely for spoiling children—spoiling them with love, the only thing that works, he said, to raise healthy adults. And he said, “It never occurred to me to spoil them with money because I never had any, but no, it doesn’t sound like a very good idea.”
My Dad delighted in children and saw the best in them—his four children, his nine—soon- to-be ten grandchildren, and his first great-grandchild, and all the others. He saw qualities in us we could not see and nurtured them until we did see them and then they became part of us. He loved us unconditionally and dreamed for us boundlessly.
He was a famously subversive grandfather. He and Lynn called for a pizza slumber party with a mass of grandchildren when their average age was somewhere around 8. Then, after Lynn went to sleep, he let them watch, without parental permission, Wedding Crashers, and when all the parents were in an uproar the next day, he led a long inter-generational insurrection and debate, rallying the kids to argue that there was no such thing as a “bad word.”
Dad transmitted his natural anarchism to a lot of this third generation. Take the case of, Tommy Raskin, the middle child belonging to Sarah and me who actually interned with Baba. When he was 10, a boy in our neighborhood was suspended for school for three days for acting up in class and when I was walking Tommy to school the following Monday, I noticed the boy was walking back to school too. And I said, “Tommy, look there’s Julian. They let him out of jail.” And Tommy corrected me, saying, “No, you mean, they let him back into jail.” I don’t know whether it’s nature or nurture but that’s pure Marcus Raskin and I’m telling you guys, it lives!
** Lesson Three: Whatever the background noise, follow the music in your head and the dreams in your heart.
He was born in 1934, the year Hitler declared himself dictator of Nazi Germany. While my Dad’s older brother, our Uncle Mel, fought with valor in World War II and flew bombing missions over Germany, Dad was in 5th Grade.
Every day the piano prodigy would march off to Whitefish Bay Elementary School, and when the teachers spoke, he couldn’t hear them. Literally couldn’t hear them. He could hear only Bach and Schumann and Beethoven and Chopin playing concertos of human longing in his head. It was as if this tiny little boy was keeping the romantic dreams of the 19th Century alive in his mind as the 20th Century became drenched in blood and genocide.
When I was a kid I asked my Dad if his teachers sounded like the teachers on Charlie Brown—wah, wah, wah—but he said no, he couldn’t hear anything at all. Nothing. Just the music in his head.
When he turned 16 he left his home in Whitefish Bay—which by then he was calling White Folks Bay—and said goodbye to his parents—my grandfather Benjamin the plumber, after whom I was named, and my grandmother Anna the seamstress— and to his favorite childhood chum, Jerry Silberman, who would leave Whitefish Bay soon thereafter himself and change his name to Gene Wilder.
He followed the music in his head to New York to study piano at Julliard. There he befriended yet another budding young comic, his roommate Nipsy Russell. It was as if my Dad, who felt the tragic weight of history in his bones, always had to have on his side a comedian, Gene Wilder, Nipsy Russell, later Dick Gregory, a friend who could level the conceits of power with clowning and laughter. Dad loved to laugh and never surrendered his absolutely juvenile sense of humor which you can blame on Willy Wonka.
After a year, Dad decided, against the urgings of his piano teacher, Rosa Levine, to leave the path of a professional musician and to study at the University of Chicago.
He later told the press he was too lazy to pursue music but that’s an unlikely story for a man who never took a single day’s vacation in his life, at least vacation in the sense that the rest of us would think of it where you actually stop working. For my Dad, work and play were fused every moment of every day, and the harder he worked, the more playful he got. He didn’t even stop working in the hospital when he got sick with something serious but insisted on wearing regular street clothes—well, regular for him——and his hospital room always ended up looking exactly like his office, with books, papers and pink phone messages strewn everywhere.
No, it wasn’t laziness. At the time of Joe McCarthy and fallout shelters, Jim Crow in Washington and apartheid in Johannesburg, the teenaged Marcus Raskin decided against a full- time career in classical music because I think he heard something else playing in his head now: the music of a new political language that he would come to help develop and express, the language of what he called the “civilizing movements” of the second half of the 20th Century:
The Civil Rights Movement;
the peace movement and SANE/FREEZE;
the movement for human rights and international law; the labor movement;
the women’s movement;
the LGBT movement;
the movement for environmental justice; and
the movement for immigrant rights
—all the movements for human liberation and dignity, freedom and peace that would become his lifeblood, the driving spirit of his beloved IPS, and the humanistic counterpoint to a century of war and oppression.
The musical contributions today are a sampler of the music in his head and the dreams in his heart: both the classical pieces that stirred his boyhood imagination and the music of the civilizing movements that infused his passion for freedom.
** Lesson Four: Go to school to teach as well as to learn and never let your schooling interfere with your education.
A high school friend of my father’s wrote me to say the other kids used to take notes in class when my Dad spoke. In college, he taught a kid on his floor named Philip Glass how to play the piano, which some people say explains everything you need to know about Philip Glass’ wild and paradigm-busting music.
** In law school Dad was research assistant for Quincy Wright, the professor who advised the Judges at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Dad wanted to figure out, in the aftermath of Auschwitz and Treblinka, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, how international law could be used to prevent genocide and war crimes and end what he was calling even then “the war system.”
Think of this for a second: my Dad went to law school for a reason. He had a purpose for being there. He didn’t care about most of his classes and, let’s be honest—kids cover your ears— he didn’t go to most of them. Indeed, when he received an Alumni Award from Chicago, we learned that his corporations professor, who practiced the Socratic Method, would actually call on Dad at the start of each class as a raucous crowd-pleasing joke because everyone knew he wouldn’t be there. Dad’s selective approach for going to classes did no wonders for his GPA and he proudly graduated last in his class of several hundred. He had gone to law school for a different reason, to solve a problem—how to use law to prevent the recurrence of war and genocide.
** Lesson Five: Bring your full intelligence and ethics to work every day and if you can’t, you may need to find a new job.
When President Kennedy took office in 1961, Dad left Capitol Hill to join the Special Staff of the NSC as McGeorge Bundy’s assistant for national security and disarmament. He had been recommended by Harvard professor David Riesman, who promised the 26-year old Raskin would become the “conscience” of the Kennedy team. Upon meeting him, as recorded in The Color of Truth, Kai Bird’s biography of the Bundy brothers, Bundy took to my Dad immediately, writing tothankRiesmanforthereferral. “He has a remarkably powerful and lively mind,and it is flanked by both moral and physical energy,” he wrote, “I think we shall probably have some disagreements. . .”
Of course, the disagreements came right away, in fact on his first day of work. It was April 19, 1961, the day of the Bay of Pigs. My Dad quickly prepared a Memo for President Kennedy saying the military base at Guantánamo Bay should be closed and converted into a hospital and health clinic and given to the people of Cuba as a gift from the American people. This Memo remains unanswered to this very day.
In 1962, Dad represented the U.S. at disarmament talks with the Soviet Union in Geneva where he pressed for negotiation of the first atmospheric test ban treaty, something that would come to pass within a year, after the Cuban Missile Crisis. While he was in Geneva, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and other conservatives attacked The Liberal Papers, a book my Dad edited while working on Capitol Hill.
Bundy wrote JFK a Memo to alert him that Dad had come under fire for his liberalism but that he wanted to keep him on. He wrote: “That young menace, Marcus Raskin, has returned from Geneva. . .you may be curious about Raskin, who has been a good staff officer in spite of—and perhaps partly because of—his insistent effort to find ways of making progress in this most unpromising field (of disarmament).” He warned the president that “critics of the Liberal Papers may be trying to focus attention on Raskin, and in that event we may have a small fuss.”
Dad survived that small fuss but his early criticism of the Vietnam War proved too much for Bundy. Dad was sent to the Bureau of the Budget to work on education, where he moved to block nuclear fallout shelter drills in the schools and press for massive funding of schools in poor communities. Observed Kai Bird, who is here today and whose book tells the story of how the “best and the brightest” plunged America into the quagmire of the Vietnam War: “For McGeorge Bundy, it may well have been a tragedy that this troublesome twenty-six-year old was no longer by his side to serve as his ‘conscience.’” By the end of 1962, Dad had left the administration to create IPS with Dick Barnet.
But Dad used that episode to teach us about power and conscience. When David Riesman said my Dad would become the “conscience of the Kennedy administration,” Bundy quickly adopted that tag-line and introduced him to everyone as the “conscience of the White House,” a putative compliment which Dad completely rejected.
As he explained, if he was going to be their conscience, then what would happen to their conscience? It would atrophy and shrivel away. Outsourcing your conscience is an alibi for irresponsible decision-making. If he was going to be assigned the role of conscience in the White House, Dad said, it would mean he would never have any power and they would never have any qualms.
So never allow yourself to become the conscience for other people, Dad said, and never allow other people to delegate their moral decision-making to you. All of us must exercise conscience together and all of us must exercise power together. In Democracy, he would say, the highest office is that of citizen and we must bring all our faculties to the task. And those of us who aspire to public office, whether President or Congressmember or Governor, are the bosses of no one. We are nothing but the servants of the people.
**Lesson Six: Hate war and work as citizens for peace and justice.
He was a leader in the movement to stop the Vietnam War, the crucible where he shaped both his intellectual authority and his fierce political courage. The book he wrote with Bernard 5 Fall, The Vietnam Reader (1965), became the bible of the peace movement which used it to organize thousands of “teach-ins” across America.
Imagine that—a book about foreign policy designed not for the Establishment but for the people. Like Tom Paine’s Common Sense, it was a popular book that galvanized a movement.