On friendship, and healing

The first time Ragan and I met in person. Photo credit: Phyllis Theroux

(This essay will run in the Lexington Herald-Leader over the Christmas holidays.)

“‘Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.’ ― Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness. Our president has zero compassion and, if he has any love at all, it is morally corrupt. John McCain was USNA 1958, a year ahead of me.”

Thus began an email I received after writing about President Trump’s disrespect of Senator McCain from Ragan Phillips—lifelong Republican, born 1936 in Anderson County, Kentucky, graduate of the Kentucky Military Institute and the U.S. Naval Academy—one of dozens of long, conversational emails we would exchange over the next three years.

“Dear Ms. Carter,” he first wrote in July 2017, “A friend of ours in California brought your work to my attention. There is an odd link between us. I grew up in Lawrenceburg and the Anderson News, in large part, influenced my career decisions. I now live in Ashland, Virginia, married to writer Phyllis Theroux. I think our political and social views have a strong positive correlation. You may find Edward Luce’s book ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism’ to be of interest. I am quite fond of large dogs, small towns, ice cream and honest people. I think we link on at least three of the four. If Phyllis and I should make it back to Kentucky, we would be delighted to take you to dinner.”

My friendship with Ragan runs contrary to everything we see and read. As the divisiveness and even hatefulness of the Trump presidency comes to an end, Ragan and I are proof that liberals and conservatives, even those of different generations, can get along, can find common ground, can even become the closest of friends, not through avoiding political conversation—which I would argue is and always has been a mistake—but by being willing to have the hard conversations regularly and honestly.

Like me, Ragan believed in the value of good journalism and local newspapers, and he could not understand the cult-like allegiance to Donald Trump, the rallies where crowds shouted inanities like “Lock her up!” and cheered when he called the press “enemy of the people.” This, he argued, had nothing to do with America or democracy or conservatism, and everything to do with the blind allegiance to and the worship of one cruel, wealthy, morally-bankrupt narcissist.

As one of Ragan’s emails stated, “Remember the old wisdom, “United We Stand. Divided We Fall?” Trump has turned that one on its ear to “United I Lose. Divided I Win.”

Which is exactly what we are seeing now as Trump continues to spread lies and conspiracy theories about an election he lost in order to keep us divided, in order to keeping bilking his followers for donations under the guise of needing money for “legal fees.”

Ragan and his wife, Phyllis, did make it back here to Kentucky. It was summer. I arranged for them to visit with the editor of The Anderson News, where Ragan had worked as a teenager, and we had dinner on our porch where we sat for hours after, in the dark, as he told stories about growing up here in Lawrenceburg and we talked politics. “I have a hard time thinking about $20B for a useless border wall,” I recall him saying, “when teachers in Kentucky, Virginia, and across the country are being so underpaid for doing the most important work in our economy.”

Sadly, it was also during this visit when Phyllis pulled me aside to tell me Ragan had a rare form of congestive heart failure. He died peacefully at home on March 26, 2020.

A couple years back, when his local newspaper went under, Ragan, in his early 80s and already ailing, started “The Ashland Hawk,” an online community newspaper, and we would often discuss his intentions and goals. He used every minute he had left to address inequity, school budgets, and racism.

I think about Ragan often. We were, as Phyllis called us, kindred spirits, a Republican man and a Democratic woman who crammed a lifetime of friendship into three short years. To paraphrase Forest Gump, I miss my great, good friend. And I am sad he did not live to see the end of the Trump presidency and the restoration of compassion, kindness, and decency to the Oval Office.

As we look ahead to 2021, may we learn from Ragan’s example in being willing to do the work, to have the hard conversations necessary to heal our divisions. Love and compassion—and friendship—are not luxuries. As the Dalai Lama said, we will not survive without them.