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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

WASHINGTON — In thinking about inequality, we tend to focus on practical remedies such as raising minimum wages or supplementing the incomes of the working poor. We have far more trouble affecting that ineffable thing we call luck.

You do not get to choose your parents or where you are born, and no government program can guarantee that you’ll benefit from acts of kindness and generosity that you do nothing to earn.

These thoughts are inspired by the death on Monday of one of the best human beings I will ever know. Bert Yaffe, 93, was a businessman and a decorated Marine combat veteran — he was a tank commander in Guam, Bougainville and Iwo Jima — who carried shrapnel in his body to his last day. He was also a citizen-politician who ran for Congress in 1970 because, having fought proudly in a war he considered absolutely necessary, he came to oppose a war in Vietnam that he saw as a terrible mistake.

A native of Sparta, GA, who never lost the soft Southern inflection in his speech, he moved after he left the service to my hometown of Fall River, MA. He had married his beloved Erna and taken over a family business. He lost her to cancer in 1977, and her death deepened his engagement with the cause of health care reform and disease prevention. This passion was an integral part of his commitments to civil rights, social justice and peace.

I got to know Bert when I was 16, shortly after my father died. I was already fortunate because he had been a very loving father, and I also had a godfather and uncles looking out for me. Bert was a life-changing bonus.

He had been the local organizer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 anti-war campaign and was a prime force behind what became the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protests. We met when I interviewed him for a high school project on the reform movement in the Democratic Party, and it happened almost instantly: He decided to take me on as an extra son — and, bless them, his own children, Eric, Cheryl and Rob, welcomed me as part of the family.

  • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

    The world needs more Bert Yaffes and Sarah Palins.

    • FredAppell

      “The world needs more Bert Yaffes and Sarah Palins”. The former, absolutely,
      the latter, only as an example of how not to be.

  • Allan Richardson

    Bert Yaffe is in a totally different league than Sarah Palin. He never preached hatred, and he never implied that “freedom” means the right to bully others by politics OR by economics. You know, like that Frenchman who said “the King and the peasant have an EQUAL right to sleep under bridges?”

    I am afraid that Sarah would have become one of Bert’s NOT so gratuituous enemies because of her efforts against the 98 percent of Americans.

    Or did you mean the world needs both, one to emulate and one to inspire laughter?

  • rustacus21

    This is the reason I enjoy Mr. Dionne’s writing so MUCH!!! What he does didn’t start as some job that guaranteed a steady, healthy paycheck. The different aspects & situations in life he comes across, give us ALL the necessary reflection space needed to consider the world from many different perspectives & like both he & the heroic Mr. Yaffe, we all could do well to try modeling behaviors/beliefs after them both… Not taking them as Gospel, mind U, but simply considering other, more ‘balanced’, coherent points of view. God Bless you E.J….