Tom Ashbrook revisits American, personal history in closing session

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Tom Ashbrook speaks at 2017 MMA Annual MeetingOn a day when millions took part in Women’s Marches around the globe, Tom Ashbrook reflected on history – of his country, his family and his own life – in trying to parse meaning from the election and the state of the country on the day after the presidential inauguration.
“I think we’re being kicked awake right now,” the host of National Public Radio’s “On Point” said during the closing session of the MMA Annual Meeting in Boston on Jan. 21. “No matter where you come down politically, everybody’s little short hairs are standing up. Everybody can feel that the stakes are different.
“I think Americans are going to come back to what democracy really means. You can’t just sit back and presume that we’re the great nation, we’re the rich nation, it’s all going to roll along.”
He said the political tension sparked memories of the summer of 1972, when Nixon was being nominated for re-election in the midst of Vietnam War protests, and Ashbrook, as a 16-year-old congressional intern, drove Canadian and South African embassy officials from Ft. Lauderdale to the Republican National Convention in Miami.
As they sat in traffic while the National Guard checked buses of delegates, protesters spotted the State Department signals on the car Ashbrook drove. They rocked the car and ignored an anti-war declaration from a Canadian diplomat who momentarily jumped out to quell the protesters. Black paint splattered the car, and someone smashed the windshield as tear gas began to fill the air. Ashbrook drove to the nearest bridge entrance and they all jumped out of the car and ran to the National Guardsmen there.
“This is my introduction to national politics,” Ashbrook explained. “Are we going back there?”
For perspective, he added that the protests of Trump were “very mild” compared to many Vietnam-era demonstrations.
“There was violence [on inauguration day], and I think that’s never cool, but I’m not sure where we’re going,” he said. “I’m not sure if we’re going back [to 1970s-style protests].”
Whether tensions grow or wane, Ashbrook mused, depends on the interplay between the president and those who – whether through protest or otherwise – somehow hurt his pride. Ashbrook recalled his shock at Trump’s New Year’s Eve tweet, which read, “Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!”
Ashbrook’s father served on the school board in his Illinois hometown, and, Ashbrook thought, if the superintendent had sent a letter to people in town calling them his “enemies,” they would’ve secured his resignation.
“I don’t think change is necessarily a bad thing at all,” he added, “but I do really worry when we start getting into not respecting each other in this country.”
With family members participating in Women’s Marches in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Washington, Ashbrook seemed to share some of the concern of the nation, as he checked his phone frequently before and after speaking for their text messages. He also told his audience that earlier in the day he had moved into a new home in Somerville, leaving the house in Newton that he had shared with his wife of 39 years, until she passed away in 2014. As it was for the country, it was a unsettled day for Ashbrook, who nonetheless displayed his trademark calm demeanor. The open question is, can the country do the same?