Joan Baez Sr.: A Reminiscence
By David Henderson
Here’s a true story that illustrates two things I love in political discussions, two things that are all too rare.
In April 1980, while the Mariel boatlift was beginning, the fact that some, and possibly many, of the Cubans coming to America were criminals was starting to make President Jimmy Carter vulnerable. By that point in the presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan was starting to outpace the front runner for the Republican nomination, George H.W. Bush.
That’s what has happening nationally.
At the time, I was living in Oakland and was dating a woman in San Francisco. This woman, Tory, rented a room in a house in the Haight-Ashbury area of SF. The house was owned by the noted short story writer Kay Boyle. One evening, I went to pick up Tory to go out and she, Kay Boyle, and Joan Baez Sr. were just ending their local Amnesty International meeting. In those days (they possibly still do it now–I have lost track), Amnesty International members would get together and write letters to officials of oppressive governments in which they asked the officials to lighten up on various prisoners. It sounds implausible that this would work, but my impression–and this is why I joined AI later (although I later quit for this reason)–is that it sometimes did work.
I got talking to Joan Baez Sr. and the discussion shifted quickly to the issue of the day: the Mariel boatlift. We both agreed that the people should be let in to the United States. We discussed the issue of their potential criminality and I said “I like what Ronald Reagan said.” Joan Baez looked at me quizzically and asked “What did Reagan say?” I answered, “Reagan said that when people are jumping from a burning building, you don’t insist on checking their criminal record before putting out a net.” Ms. Baez looked surprised, probably that Reagan had said it, and said “I agree.”
So why do I like this story? Two reasons. First, for what it said about Reagan: he did not forget his principles even though speaking out against Carter’s policy might have helped his campaign. Second, for what it said about Ms. Baez: she didn’t judge the truth or importance of the statement by who said it.