Penn Rhodeen has grown fond of uttering a dirty word. At a time of brutal, seemingly intractable tribal warfare around the globe, he believes it offers hope for peace.
Rhodeen’s dirty word: “politics.”
At least that has become a dirty word in modern American parlance. (See: presidential debates; U.S. Congress.)
The word assumes a different flavor in a new book by Rhodeen, a New Haven attorney. Called Peacerunner: The True Story of How an Ex-Congressman Helped End the Centuries of War in Ireland, the book tracks the remarkable story of how former U.S. Congressman Bruce Morrison of New Haven worked behind the scenes to get Great Britain, Ireland, and the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland to agree to work with a U.S. peace envoy and lay down their arms.
The result was 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. It ended the centuries-old conflict in Northern Ireland and the persistent violence that had characterized it since the 1960s, in what was known as the Troubles. The agreement has stuck to this day, suggesting that despite the deadly decades-old conflicts we read about daily in other parts of the world, generations-old ethnic or religious wars can indeed be resolved.
Rhodeen, who briefly worked as a New Haven Register reporter in the 1960s before launching his legal career, masterfully tells the never-before-revealed back story of how Bruce Morrison brought the sides together in the years after he left Congress in 1990. We watch Morrison use his friendship with President Bill Clinton to gain access to British and Irish government leaders, diplomats, and street-level fighters. We see minds slowly change, compromises made, precarious promises teeter toward collapse. Weaving historical research inside gripping narratives, Rhodeen brings the story to life.
In the process, Rhodeen presents a compelling brief for investing in the messy, unpredictable, humbling, imperfect, sometimes unattractive practice of politics.
“I call the book a valentine to politics,” Rhodeen said during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program.
“When you think about politics, and when we complain about politics, we have to remember: What is it the alternative to? It is the alternative to warfare. It is the alternative to settling matters through violence and oppression ...
“In anything other than outright dictatorships, you have two ways people can end wars. Soldiers can wipe out the other side totally. That will end a war. There may be bad stuff to come after that. The other way is you make a political deal. You work out the compromises. Every side sticks to what’s really really important to them. And they decide they can live to fight another day with words, not bullets, on the other issues.
“Everyone complains about politics and politicians. Of course some of them earn it richly. But that process is simply the alternative to warfare. Better to argue than to shoot,” Rhodeen argued. Every system is flawed. “Every system has its limitations. But you have to be mindful: What is the alternative?”
In between dramatic scenes of secret meetings and tense encounters with police, Bruce Morrison engaged in some of the most mundane forms of politics in Rhodeen’s book. He found out when his former Yale Law classmate Clinton was expected at a 1992 campaign rally, then positioned himself to make sure he would bump into him to deliver a key message. He met with Irish-American interest groups to make the case for supporting Clinton’s presidential campaign in return for support for a peace envoy initiative. He heard out grievances from people on both sides of the Northern Ireland dispute to fully understand the barriers to a resolution; he didn’t let the title “terrorist” exclude any party from the quest. He traded on relationships with people in power to gain entry and lobby for his position. And he kept grinding it out for years.
At one point Morrison got invited to a 1993 gathering of the elite British Irish Association, where elite policymakers debated Northern Ireland. The conference took place not in Ireland, not in Northern Ireland, but at Cambridge University.
In Rhodeen’s telling, Morrison came away recommitted to the idea that only “brick-by-brick politics on the ground” would “make real and lasting change in Northern Ireland” — rather than the approach favored by those at the conference, of “devising the solution first, followed by an earnest effort to explain to everybody else why this was what they should do.
“A lot of people believe that change works like this: You say the way the world should be and you wait for the world to do it. Which of course is a joke. Nothing ever happened this way. Change takes action at a granular level, really down and messy. Grunt work. Every important thing that’s ever been done was done one brick at a time.”
Visiting Northern Ireland years later, Rhodeen said in the WNHH interview, he found politics still in full swing. Complete with griping about politicians.
Which proved that politics worked.
“I met a guy named Pop Coogan who was an IRA fighter. He was merciless about [Sinn Fein’s] Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and the other politicians who helped bring this home,” he said.
“And part of me thought, ‘This is terrific. This is the way it ought to be.’”
A longtime friend of Rhodeen has been taking plenty of that bashing these days: Democratic presidential Hillary Clinton.
Rhodeen got to know her in 1971, back when she was Hillary Rodham and dating fellow Yale Law student Bill Clinton.
Rhodeen worked in the Congress Avenue office of New Haven Legal Aid Association at the time. Besides studying at Yale, Hillary Rodham did work for the Yale Child Study Center and was steered to Rhodeen, who specialized in cases involving children.
The two worked on cases together, including one seeking to keep a 2-year-old girl with the foster mother who’d so far raised her. The precursor agency to the state’s Department of Children and Families sought to place her with a different family for permanent adoption; the agency’s policy was to seek to avoid having foster parents become permanent adoptive parents.
“This girl had been there for two years with a woman who had complicated circumstances for sure, limitations for sure. But this woman was the girl’s mother was in all respects. The girl needed her mother. Two years is an eternity for a child. You destroy the child’s sense of the world, sense of safety, sense of continuity, and do real harm” by removing her, Rhodeen argued.
The state didn’t see it his and Rodham’s way. They lost that case.
But in working on cases like that one together, Rhodeen came to appreciate Rodham’s commitment to children’s issues. He became friends with both her and Bill Clinton. He saw Rodham as a “superstar”; he didn’t necessarily think of her becoming president one day. Bill Clinton was a different story: “It was clear back then. There was plenty of talk” about him one day becoming commander-in-chief.
Bruce Morrison also attended the law school at that time. He went on to head New Haven Legal Assistance. Rhodeen maintained his friendship with all three of them through the decades and supported their political campaigns. (Bill Clinton wrote the foreword to Peacerunner.)
In 2008, he said, he stayed in regular touch with Hillary Clinton as she sought the Democratic presidential nomination against Barack Obama. The day before the Super Tuesday primaries, Clinton held a campaign event in New Haven at her old stomping grounds, the Yale Child Study Center. Rhodeen was enlisted to introduce her.
Days before that, the big story in the press coverage of the campaign concerned Clinton shedding a tear at an event. The thrust of the coverage was that it showed her to be too girlie to serve as president. (As opposed to, say, former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, who was lauded as sensitive when breaking into tears.)
In the back of the room, cameramen from the networks aimed their lenses at the candidate, ready to catch the big political moment of the day. “If she cries,” one of them said to another, “she’s dead.”
Rhodeen proceeded to wax nostalgic about Clinton in his introduction, recalling the work she did in New Haven. “Welcome home, dear friend,” he said.
The comment caught Clinton off guard. You didn’t need a network TV lens to see her struggling to avoid shedding that tear.
She prevailed. The cheek stayed dry.
“I wondered if I had wrecked the campaign,” Rhodeen recalled in the WNHH interview. “As the day went on and people saw it and understood the context, it went away.
“It didn’t go away in the blogosphere. A guy named Big Dog on his blog described me as a ‘liberal pansy named Penn Rhodeen.’”
Rhodeen’s wife had “liberal pansy” T-shirts printed.
Not exactly as high-minded a “political” moment as the Good Friday Agreement.
Rhodeen spoke of the need to elevate politics so that it indeed serves as a useful, not a dirty, word.
“We need to get back to where people treat each other decently and with respect,” he argued. “People ought to be able to disagree and yet not regard the others as inhuman and horrible people.” The armed Loyalists and the IRA, once enemies to the death, learned to do it in Northern Ireland, after all. Can’t we?
Click on or download the above audio file to listen to the entire “Dateline New Haven” interview with Rhodeen.
Penn Rhodeen and Bruce Morrison are scheduled to attend a book-singing and reading for Peacerunner this coming Thursday, March 17, sponsored by at Giampietro Gallery at 1064 Chapel St., near the corner of High. Atticus is sponsoring the event.