12-21-11: Remembering Ron Smith
[audio http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wypr/local-wypr-997844.mp3] In the spring of 1991, I appeared on the Ron Smith Show with Christopher Leighton, the Director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. We spoke about a concert and symposium we were producing on the topic of religious intolerance in the arts. It was, to say the least, an unlikely topic of conversation for an AM talk show that usually took -up issues related to politics and whatever was in the news on any given day.
I remember I had the feeling that Ron’s producer wasn’t particularly thrilled with the idea of a religious scholar and a classical musician holding forth on the vagaries of the Gospel of Matthew, the music of Bach, and how anti-Jewish polemics often found their way into the great masterpieces of western civilization. I imagine that this producer, whose job it was to draw an audience, had visions of listeners tuning away in droves.
But it was clear to me that what Ron’s producer thought on that day was ultimately of little import. Ron was interested in the nuanced and perplexing intersection of art and society, and how great art could make a better society. Ron was also interested in drawing an audience, and he saw no inherent conflict between that topic, and that goal. Because that topic was one of a million things that Ron was interested in, and one of Ron’s many gifts was his ability to show his listeners why we should be interested too.
Our conversation that afternoon was informed by Ron’s sophisticated understanding of music, his erudite comprehension of history, religion, and art, and his welcoming charm. I suppose that if you had to give a one-line summation of Ron Smith’s public posture, the ones I’ve been hearing since he passed away Monday night are pretty accurate: He was a political conservative, a libertarian, and a skeptic of government’s ability to work effectively. But I will also remember him as really smart, and attracted to people with persuasive arguments. I will remember his keen ear for where a conversation was heading, and how his experience and talent gave him the skills to move it forward in often unexpected ways. I will remember the delight he took in the music of Bach, and the intellectual rigor that guided him to explore all sorts of ideas.
We live in a time when liberals dismiss the Ron Smiths of the world as rigid ideologues, and conservatives don’t give the time of day to those on the other side of the political spectrum. We’ve had times like this before — times of unproductive political polarization, and public discourse loaded with vitriol and premised on an assumption that the world is made up just two kinds of people, us, and our opponents.
But politics is only part of what animates us, and as I witnessed on that sunny spring afternoon 20 years ago, it was only part of what animated Ron. He told the Baltimore Sun in an interview just a few weeks ago, that as he lived his final days, politics didn’t animate him at all. Ron was a public figure, and it’s easy to lump him into that trough of people who represent all that is divisive and even corrosive about the body politic. But for me, Ron is a reminder that there are places where we can come together. There is music to love together. There are traditions to examine together. There are ideas to explore and delight in together. I admired Ron as a broadcaster. Anyone in this business will tell you, that regardless of his political perspective, when the red light came on, that guy was good.
But I admired him even more for his expansive and all-embracing gusto for what makes life so precious. And I wish for him the lines in the final chorale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The chorus sings, in German, “Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh.” Rest softly, softly rest.