‘Fierce” isn’t the first word that would spring to mind upon meeting Harriet Hausman. Diminutive, maybe. Courteous, civil, refined, and kind for sure. You could easily mistake her for the president of the Ladies Auxiliary of some civic organization in long-ago mythological America.
But contrary to type, I will always remember her as a fierce defender of democracy.
There was nothing small-d about democracy in Harriet’s lexicon. She always capitalized the word in her columns although, as her stickler editor, I would change it, which I now regret. She was a big-D Democrat because Democracy was too big and too important to relegate to lowercase.
And she was fiercely protective of it, more than anyone I’ve ever met.
Harriet was an anomaly — as prim, proper and polite as she was fierce. Her politeness masked steely determination within. Which is how I now define “civility,” just one of many things I learned from Harriet Hausman, Defender of Democracy. She would disagree with you without ever being disagreeable, yet she took down Donald Trump in her columns on a regular basis with surgical precision and without ever ruffling her refinement. Maybe that’s why no red-faced, right-wing reader ever responded to her columns with the usual toxic mix of sneering ad hominem attacks and dismissals. It would be like screaming at your grandmother. I never received impolite rebuttals, which is to their credit — and Harriet’s as well. She was, first, last, and always, a class act.
It’s interesting that “polite,” “politics,” and “polity” all derive from the same root. “Politicians,” on the other hand, could learn much from Harriet Hausman, Master of Civil Discourse.
She certainly had plenty to say. Many tell me they feel helpless in the face of the Right’s onslaught against Democracy. Other than donating to campaigns and voting, some say, they’re not sure what we can really do.
Harriet had the answer: Speak up and speak out. She submitted essays to Viewpoints regularly before Trump soiled the White House, but starting in 2017, she went into overdrive and didn’t stop until her heart did, on Nov. 7, the consequence of a torn aorta. Her heart didn’t break, it tore. Being 99½ years old probably had something to do with it.
She was determined to reach her centennial next April, but life had other plans. It would have been quite some celebration, even grander than the ones she held the last few years at Maya del Sol. On April 9, 2022, her 98th birthday, I announced to those assembled that, as her longtime editor, I was promoting her to the heady heights of full-time columnist in Wednesday Journal. Her double-take was priceless.
It wasn’t so much a promotion as acquiescence. She was writing every week anyway. But she earned that official designation, which made her, as far as we know, the oldest weekly newspaper columnist in the United States, and probably the world. This was no gift on our part. Her columns were excellent, not just for someone writing (longhand) in her late-90s. They were flat-out good.
Was she up to the task? Ha! She was a machine. I was the one struggling to keep up with her. She paid attention, informed herself, didn’t pull her punches, and never aimed a low blow. She was, to the end, a class act.
Many people are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be branded “partisan.” They want to remain above the fray. We are understandably repulsed by the mud wrestling pit of the culture war. But Harriet Hausman spoke up and spoke out without ever losing her dignity. She was a longtime member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and the most important of our civil liberties is free speech, which she practiced until she perfected it.
Her main message never wavered: Democracy is endangered. We need to defend it. That means opposing those actively working to weaken, subvert and overthrow it. One of the best ways to do that is to speak out. Don’t be shy. You can speak out, clearly and with conviction, and still be polite.
She showed us how to do it. That is Harriet’s legacy.
And if a 99½-year-old with a torn aorta could do it, then goddammit, so can we. In fact, we must do it if we hope to Defend our Democracy from the anti-Democrats who want to undermine it.
Harriet Hausman, fierce Defender of Democracy, just completed a century-long clinic on the subject. The final exam is scheduled for Nov. 5, 2024. A passing grade is “D” … for Democracy.
But her best writing was reserved for her personal notes. She has, I think, single-handedly kept the U.S. Postal Service afloat. After reading my column about the death of my ex-wife, she wrote, “I felt a kinship with your column today, and I extend my sincere, empathetic thoughts. Time often helps us remember pleasant hours in our lives, and helps us diminish those unpleasant ones. Wishing you my best always.”
This past Sunday evening when I came in to work to get a head start on Monday’s many tasks, I found an envelope on my desk containing a photocopy of a letter she wrote welcoming our new managing editor, Erika Hobbs, and praising me for my work. It had to be one of the last things she set her mind to, and, true to form, she set her mind to a kind and encouraging message.
Classy, to the very end.
Thanks, Harriet, for your remarkable grace, your inclusive humanity, your fierce determination, and your deep commitment to citizenship.
The only thing you apparently didn’t consider is how we’re supposed to fill the expansive hole you just left behind.
Oak Park Temple (with notation for the Hausman Social Justice Fund)
1235 N. Harlem
Oak Park, IL. 60305
Roger Baldwin Foundation of ACLU
150 North Michigan, Suite 600