I’ve been saving this story for my memoirs -Brad Pitt will play the author in the movie – but news of the retirement of SUNY New Paltz professor Gerry Benjamin reminded me of a long-ago personal exchange heretofore unreported.
I’ll change some of the details to protect the guilty (there’s a clue in that malaprop, as in “correct me if I’m right”).
Let’s call the subject Bill, which is close enough, the time frame about 30 years past.
There had been some bad blood between Bill, a Republican, and his neighbor, Jack, a Democrat, mostly over ward politics. Bill’s a white guy, Jack an African-American.
The two got to jawing over some neighborhood thing, during which Jack accused Bill – in the newspaper! – of using the N-word in the heat of argument. Bill was on the phone to me before the ink dried.
He didn’t necessarily deny the accusation. In what media calls “deflection,” he started with, “Have you ever heard me use that word?”
I had not, but didn’t add that most people are guarded with reporters whom they consider intrusive snoops intent only on “selling newspapers.”
“You know,” Bill went on, “I really don’t know what to call those people. When I was a kid (growing up in downtown Kingston), it was polite to call them Negroes or colored. Then it was black or African-Americans. What the hell do you call those people?”
“First,” I suggested, “don’t call them ‘those people.’ Anybody would resent that. How about just Jack?”
Flash forward to 2018 congressional campaign between incumbent Italian-Irish Republican John Faso and African-American Democratic challenger Antonio Delgado. Faso was a known quantity, a Kinderhook conservative Republican and a former assembly minority leader who had run twice for state office.
Delgado was the new guy, as yet undefined other than for his (then) mainstream liberal Democratic views. Naturally (in politics), the opposition got busy trying to define him to (their) best advantage. Delgado was depicted as “the outsider,” “the other,” the newcomer who had moved into the district the year before to run for congress. Why, he even made rap records in his youth. Jesus, Mary and Joseph!
Up stepped Professor Benjamin on behalf of his old friend Faso. Delgado (born in Schenectady) isn’t one of us, an upstater like us, Benjamin declared. And that rap music? (Benjamin, then 71, probably didn’t know rap from Reynolds Wrap.) Yikes!
It hit the fan almost immediately. Deeply chagrinned, Benjamin apologized profusely, albeit in that professorial convoluted manner common to academics. Delgado accepted the apology. Pointedly admonished by the college president where he had taught for some 50 years and held the coveted title of Distinguished Professor, Benjamin almost lost his job. For a man so respected, even revered, for most of his long public career, it had to be the worst of times.
There were some positives. “The other” strategy went out the window, its aftermath clearing the way for fairer and more objective consideration of Delgado’s candidacy. Delgado, a Harvard lawyer and Rhodes scholar, with some positive, progressive ideas, was different, five points better than Faso in the general election.
Gerry Benjamin, with no evidence of bias previously or since should not, and I think will not, be judged by an isolated thoughtlessness.
It is said that the good a man (or person) does is often interred with his bones. Space does not permit an examination of those artifacts in this installment, but we’ll try.
Next: Gerry Benjamin, boy professor, rising politician, author, sage and county charter founding father.