I took my friend Guy to lunch last week, the same day the President of the United States declared that members of my profession were “enemies of the people.”
Guy is one of the most amazing people I know, and I wanted to know what he was thinking. He told me that after the election turned out badly, his father talked to his family at the dinner table.
“Listen,” his old man said. “We are going to have some hard times, but we have a constitution and we have a free press and we’ll get through this.”
That was not, however, this January. That was January, 1933, in Hildesheim, Germany.
"Within six months our constitution was in tatters and the free press extinct," he told me.
Guy who is Jewish, managed, thanks to an uncle, to be sent to St. Louis, where he attended high school. He never saw his family again. I don’t have to tell you why.
When the war came, he joined an elite intelligence unit known as the Ritchie boys, landed on Normandy right after D-Day, where he spent months getting Nazi prisoners of war to spill their military secrets.
Guy is 95 now, and as mentally alert as he was when he was provost of Wayne State University, where he was also a distinguished professor of German literature and cultural history. He still goes on lecture tours, primarily in Germany.
On July 4th, however, he will be in Paris, where the French government will officially make him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest award, for what he did for their country during the Second World War.
Stern was in Germany on this last Election Night. When he woke up, he told me his first thought was that
“I thought I knew my country and my people, and it turns out I didn’t.”
By his country, he meant America; he is as proud as an American as one who has lived here for 80 years can be. Kindly, gentle and elfin, he has never allowed anyone to tell him what to do or think. When he decided to become a professor of German literature, he was asked how he could do that after the Nazis.
“I am not going to allow them to claim my language and literature,” he said. And he didn’t. He’s worried now, yes.
But he knows too much to draw glib parallels. Things are different. “This man has no real ideology,” he said of the current occupant of the White House.
Our Constitution has also been in force for 230 years, compared to less than 15 for that of the doomed Weimar Republic, and it contains stronger protections for press freedom than any nation has ever had.
Still – I would have been a history professor had I not become a journalist. I can say that I never could have imagined we’d have a president who called the press “enemies of the people,” a phrase so evil and completely Stalinist it was banned by Nikita Khrushchev.
Edward R. Murrow, during another scary time, said “this is no time for men who oppose [another demagogue’s] methods to keep silent.”
I don’t think any of us should. Guy Stern, who once would have been my boss, wouldn’t expect any less.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.