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The Loss of a Hero: Apartheid Critic Helen Suzman Dies at 91

Who were my role models in public life? Long before I knew I would run for office some day, I admired a woman from South Africa, Helen Suzman, whose lone voice spoke out against apartheid in the all white Parliament. She died a few days ago at the age of 91. Why was I drawn to her? We shared certain similarities; she was Jewish, she had young children, she was married to a doctor, as I was at the time. But she was a role model for me not so much because I was like her, but because I wanted to become more like her; to understand the source of her extraordinary courage. She survived death threats, was not intimidated by what she called apartheid’s leading bullies, who called her a “dangerous subversive” and a “sickly humanist.” “I am not frightened of you—I never have been, and I never will be,” she told Prime Minister Botha in a Parliamentary exchange. (NYTimes, Jan. 2, 2009) She suffered sharp criticism when she differed with those who supported economic sanctions to oppose apartheid. Her reason for this stance was that sanctions would punish blacks more than whites. I had the opportunity to meet my hero in Washington some 12 years ago at the British ambassador’s home when he was hosting a dinner for Nelson Mandela. It was a heady evening—dining with two of the most courageous people in the world. Mandela expressed obvious affection for this small, confident woman. What I had not known, until I read her obituary, was that she visited him regularly on Robben Island where he was imprisoned for 20 years. When I chatted with her on the sofa as we were waiting for dinner to be served, I asked her, where she got the courage to speak up for justice in such an unforgiving environment for all these years. She gave me a matter of fact answer, saying she did what she thought was right. She gave no indication that she thought she had done anything extraordinary. Perhaps that is a clue to who she was—a woman who followed her conscience, no matter what the cost. Even now, I would still like to become more like her.

Tourist Eyes

For two weeks my husband and I traveled to London, Paris, Zurich and Bern—familiar haunts where one can drink water from the tap. Read More..

Gays in the Military

We’ve come a long way in the sixteen years since the policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” was adopted to deal with the question of gay and lesbian members of the military.

This time, advocacy for repeal did not come from any outside group; it came from the apex of the military establishment itself. Read More..

The Supreme Court and Corporate Electioneering

The Supreme Court decision which will allow unfettered campaign contributions from corporations and unions poses a threat to the very workings of our democracy.

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In the Wake of Massachusetts

A political earthquake hit Massachusetts last night. The tectonic plates of the Democratic Party shifted with the election of Republican Scott Brown to the United States Senate and left untold amounts of debris in its wake. Read More..

Greeting the New Year

This time of year we automatically say "Happy New Year" to friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, days after the champagne corks have popped and the fireworks are but a memory. It has become a standard greeting for the first days of January, partly to cheer ourselves up so we can face the rest of the winter. Read More..