Friends see past partisan labels

One of the pleasures of an earthly transition is that you can write nice things about a person while he is still around to read them.

And so, I rise to praise my friend and favorite newspaper writer, Frank Rich Jr., as he leaves The New York Times for New York magazine.

What, you say? You are a conservative and he is among the most politically liberal people in journalism. Or, as someone asked me one night when they heard I was going to dinner with former Sen. George McGovern, "How can you eat with a man like that?" "Easy," I replied. "He's my friend."

And so was Ted Kennedy, I am happy to say. After all, Jesus was "a friend to sinners" and if they were good enough for him, they are certainly good enough for me.

The point, though, is irrelevant, but it is indicative of our political discourse today.

It is not a cliche to say, "Some of my best friends are liberal Democrats." I write a biweekly USA Today column with Bob Beckel, whose liberal credentials are beyond reproach.

Why has our political discourse caused us to hate one another if we are of different parties or persuasions? Why must a member of another party or persuasion always be seen as being on "the other side"? The Taliban are on the other side. My fellow American is my fellow American, regardless of politics. There are many reasons for such divisions, none of them valid.

I first "met" Frank when he called me about a column he was working on. I was completely taken aback. After providing him with the information he requested, I do what I often do when meeting someone for the first time. I asked him where he was from.

"From Washington," he said. So am I.

It turned out we both played clarinet as kids and both owned a KLH stereo, the stereo of choice for teenagers at the time. And we both loved the theater. He was an usher at Washington's National Theatre. I was a frequent patron. We never met, though he might have handed me a program as I walked to my seat.

We would subsequently meet, attend Broadway shows and have meals together, learning about each other and what brought us to our points of view. As far as I know, Frank didn't "convert" to conservatism, or I to liberalism.

If you read his autobiography, "Ghost Light," you will understand more of Frank Rich, the man. And that is another point, made recently by President Obama in his Super Bowl Sunday interview with Bill O'Reilly. Asked, "Why do so many people hate you?" the president responded, "They don't know me."

Whether one thinks he might still hate the president if he got to know him is not the point. So many people see other people as labels and define them as such. Republican-Democrat-liberal-conservative-independent-religious-secular. None of these tell you anything about a person.

When you get to know someone, including their failures, insecurities, family dynamics and fears, you come to appreciate them on a level far above the political chatter. Politics come and go; friends are forever.

Contact Thomas, a syndicated columnist, at tmseditors@tribune.com.