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A Touch of Gray

by on June 18, 2015 6:30 AM

This summer the remaining members of the Grateful Dead will re-unite and play a series of concerts.

Hearing the news reminded me of their 1980s song "Touch of Grey".

Gray is a color that gets short shrift -- gray areas, gray hair or gray skies generally carry negative connotations.

One hair color ad features a man with a gray mustache getting turned down by a younger woman as an announcer says "No play for Mr. Gray".

In cowboy movies we cheer for the guys in the white hats and boo the guys in the black hats. If guys in gray hats showed up we'd likely be confused.

In politics we stake out black or white positions on the issues. Gray gets a bad rap but it is really the color of progress.

The extreme media on both sides of the aisle and issues demands politicians take black or white stances. Thoughtful public discussion and playing the devil's advocate in a public forum will get you into real hot water because creative editing and lack of context will be used against those who think aloud.

Both sides take stands on issues that they know have no future in the Congress or state legislatures where many voices represent vast constituencies. But we, the voters, tend to bestow honor upon those who always seem to stand their ground.

We cheer politicians who would rather engage in Pyrrhic victories -- winning the battle while losing the war and getting nothing done. They hold out for their 100 percent solution holding possible compromises as hostages. When nothing is accomplished they later use the inactivity for the next election's attack ads.

Those who take black or white stands are praised as tough, principled and decisive. What have they accomplished and most importantly who have they helped? They have accomplished nothing and have only helped themselves by elevating their own profile with their own political base.

We live in the age of the ideologue. Ideologues motivate their extreme base, making them more likely to not only support a particular candidate but also show up and actually vote for that candidate. The lower turnout of less-motivated, less-pandered-to and less-engaged centrists has a polarizing effect on primary elections.

That is a factor that can cripple bipartisan progress in modern politics.

I think we all can agree that Abraham Lincoln was an able leader. He worked in the gray areas on vital issues. He balanced abolitionists' demands with people in his own party and the other party who abhorred the idea of emancipation. He had to keep the slave states of Maryland and Kentucky in the union while mobilizing a divided nation -- to save the very existence of our country. He even violated some parts of the Constitution he had sworn to uphold.

His time as president was filled with compromise after compromise.

Today he'd be hounded from both extremes, yet Lincoln would welcome that. In his book Lincoln on Leadership, Donald T. Phillips lists principles we should learn from Lincoln. Among them is this:

"If both factions or neither shall harass you, you will probably be about right. Beware of being assailed by one and praised by the other."

There is no question that while we profess admiration for those who always stand on principle, some of the most admired people in our nation's history worked in the greyest areas.

The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, adding a Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, and more recently Civil Rights legislation were all completed because all sides yielded long-held ground to make them happen. Even locating our nation's capital on a swampy piece of uninhabited ground was a compromise. You can't get much grayer than that.

In our day of 24/7 instant outraged reaction to every perceived slight or easing of principled stands would we allow ourselves to honor those leaders now?

In a recent discussion about a modern-day politician, friends who differ with me politically argued the merits of today's politicians. When I mentioned that the true value and performance of any politician could not be known for many years after they left office the response was to dismiss my argument. They already knew all they needed to know.

Without knowing it, they were making my point for me.

In our debates we may have become conditioned by hyper-active politicization of every story. Perhaps we have lost the ability to appreciate even a slight touch of gray in our discourse.

The most complex challenges facing our country all contain at least fifty shades of gray. We need to recognize this and regain that sense of mutual sacrifice even if we don't always get 100 percent of what we wanted.

That goes for politicians and citizens alike. Until we reward those who willingly engage and govern in the areas where progress can be made, we will not change the gridlock or pace of progress emanating from our elected leaders.

To quote a line from another band "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you'll get what you need."


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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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