Abigail Van Buren. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac.)
Sometimes we feel so alone, we liberals, in this country where a massacre of children wins 100,000 new members for the National Rifle Association, where politicians and pundits’ answer to a middle class drowned in predation by plutocrats is to preach a squeeze on government spending, where a president heard in the voices of 3,000 people slaughtered by Al Qaeda an injunction to invade Iraq. The beacons, however, are out there—everywhere, and sometimes where we least expect them. I’m not saying Pauline Friedman Phillips, who published her advice column in some 1,400 newspapers under the pen name Abigail Van Buren, was some Emma Goldman or something. But for millions of ordinary Americans who trusted her, she was frequently a voice of progressive decency on the cutting edge of subjects on which most voices of authority were saying very different things indeed. We lost her yesterday. So here’s an example of what I mean.
In August of 1980 the director of the ballet company of which Ron Reagan, son of the presidential candidate, was a member for some reason felt moved to put out a standement that Reagan and all the other men in his group had “nice girlfriends.”
In the notion that ballet dancers must be gay, and that this was a shamefully horrible thing, he spoke to a fear shared by Ron Reagan’s father, who when Ron dropped out of college in 1977 to become a dancer immediately phoned up Gene Kelly to ask if that meant he was gay. Later, his adopted son Michael helped him process a disturbing discovery: he caught Ron with a woman in his and Nancy’s (gross!) bed. Said Michael, “The bad news is that you came home early and you caught him. The good news is that you found out he isn’t gay.”
“Dear Abby” had a different view. Of the ballet director, a reader wrote in to decry the “sad commentary on our society’s attitude toward human sexuality that such a statement was made at all. Implicity in that announcement were the following erroneous assumptions: 1) That male partification in ballet requries lengthy justification lest it threaten our traditional views of mascuilinity; 2) that all male ballet dancers are suspect and therefore proof of their masculinity is required—i.e., having girfriends; 3) that without proof of their manliness, people might think they were gay; and 4) that being gay is bad.”
The reader asked Abby if she had anything to add. She didn’t. She just wrote, “No. Right on!” (And: “Readers? Write on.” She was democractic that way.) The same column (August 20, 1980) printed a letter of thanks “for your explanation as to why the ERA is a national need,” noting that still, in 1980, the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s sufferage was still ritually voted down every year in the Mississippi legislature.
Good thing Mississippi newspaper readers could read Dear Abby. Good thing Mormons could, too; indeed the link to the August 1980 column above is to the Deseret News—Salt Lake City’s Mormon-owned newspaper. Abby blazed trails for liberalism in the most reactionary precincts. People trusted her that way.
And by the way, let’s not forget her twin sister Eppie Lederer, who wrote as “Ann Landers.” She kicked some serious wingnut ass, too. Here she is in 1973 on a subject of current topical interest. A reader, incidentally a chauvenistic douche, writes in, “Annie Old Kid: Here we go again. I refer to your nutty views on guns. I have hunted since I was 12. I have never shot a gun carelessly or caused an animal to suffer.… Give us hunters equal time. Don’t take our guns away.” Ann gave back as good as she got: “Relax, Sport. I don’t want your hunting guns. I’m after the Saturday night specials, the handguns that are killing thousands of innocent people. Those are the murder weapons I’d like to see melted into scrap iron.”
Both of them, no apologies, no hemming and hawing: just straight up, unapologetic moral force. May Annie and Ann rest in peace.
Rick Perlstein last wrote about Barack Obama's rush to compromise when he should push ahead with his platform.