In the late 1990s and early 2000s, in one standard part of an optimistic speech I gave about the modern economy and the effect of the Internet, I told a story from a 1977 Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall, that I could reasonably assume about half of my audience had seen.

It’s the scene in which Woody Allen gets in an argument in a movie line about what Marshall McLuhan believed. Woody cinches the argument. Here’s the dialogue:

Woody: I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So here, let me, come over here for a second (pulling the real Marshall McLuhan out from behind a poster.) Tell him.
McLuhan (to guy Woody is arguing with): I heard what you’re saying. You know nothing of my work. You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.
Woody (staring at the camera): Boy, if life were only like this.

I told the story briefly and then pointed out that, indeed, the Internet means that life is like this. You sometimes have to dig a little but you can find facts quickly. We all, I said, can bring into the discussion our own version of Marshall McLuhan. Sometimes you might have to email someone who knows, but emailing is so much faster than sending a letter, both in the sending and in the work the other person has to do to respond. I should have added, in my talk, that life is like this if you want it to be.

What I have found, unfortunately, is that people typically go with their priors and aren’t willing to ask tough questions when the apparent facts support their priors.

Which brings me to something that happened yesterday.

A “friend” on Facebook (I put “friend” in quotation marks because it’s someone I don’t know who friended me–if we met, he might indeed be a friend) had a link to this video of something that happened on the floor of the California State Senate. In the video, State Senator Janet Nguyen, a Republican from Orange County went after the late Senator Tom Hayden for his support of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war. After she switched from speaking Vietnamese to speaking English, two of the Democratic Senators tried to shut her down and she ended up being forcefully removed from the Senate floor.

This was awful, I thought. How could they justify making her stop when all she was doing was expressing her opinion about somebody? One of the two Senators who tried to shut her down was my Senator, Bill Monning, who is also Majority Leader of the Senate.

Bill and I first met when we were on a panel at Robert Louis Stevenson school in which the topic was the Iraq War. The U.S. government had invaded Iraq the previous month and RLS held a forum. Morning, then a professor at the Monterey (now Middlebury) Institute of International Studies, Richard Hoffman, a military faculty member and an Army officer from the Naval Postgraduate School, Kip Hawley, a local Republican who later became head of the TSA, and I were invited. I don’t think Bill or I surprised anyone because our antiwar views were well-known locally. The big surprise was Richard Hoffman, who was very critical of the war. Hawley was the only supporter.

A few years later, Bill and I both spoke at an antiwar rally during the Bush administration. In both cases we hit it off.

I had one run-in with him in a restaurant around that time in which he made a false accusation. But when I persisted in challenging him, he apologized. So my bottom line was that he was a fair-minded man.

So I thought I would write him about this latest incident. Here’s my letter that I wrote to him late Friday afternoon:

Dear Bill,

It has been a long time since we’ve spoken. I hope this finds you well.

I saw a segment on line today in which you, on the Senate floor, objected to the state senator from Orange County criticizing Tom Hayden. I’m not familiar with Senate rules. Is it not allowed for someone on the Senate floor to criticize a fellow Senator even if that Senator is no longer a Senator?



P.S. My best to your wife and daughter.

Less than 4 hours later he responded:

Hi David,
The situation was unfortunate, but the member did not follow Senate rules… The Adjourn in Memory for Hayden was on Tuesday with tributes from colleagues, etc. Sen. Nguyen wanted to offer criticism of Sen Hayden on Thursday when the Adjourn in Memory motion was not on the floor. She asked to do so as matter of personal privilege but that is reserved for a member to defend him/herself if attacked by another member. That was not the case.
I sought to make a Point of Order which would have allowed for us to discuss her desire to speak and determine the parliamentary procedure that would apply. I was not allowed to make the point of order as Sen Nguyen continued to talk without pause. When she refused to acknowledge the request of the presiding officer to stop talking so that the point of order could be discussed, he asked sergeants to remove her from the chamber.
. . .
There were many other options available to her as we pointed out to the minority leader… She could have submitted a letter to the file (an official procedural option) and could have released that to the media or held a press conference to share it. She could have spoken to the media and/or issued her own press statement. Instead she chose to make her statement on the floor and refused to listen to the presiding officer who had a motion before him.
. . .
Hope you and your family are all doing well.
Thanks for your outreach and for the opportunity to offer a perspective from the lens of someone who sought to bring some order to this situation.

I replied:

Dear Bill,

I very much appreciate your getting back to me so quickly.

I have always thought you are a fair-minded person and it’s nice to see that I have no reason to revise that view.

We are doing well. Thanks.



I got his permission to quote from his letter.