The Value of Unexpected Friendships

America has weathered the most divisive presidential election in recent memory, and the first round of family gatherings since then, with many Thanksgiving meals expected to have been free-for-all food fights, with turkey drumsticks flying, no doubt. But we are getting along in the new reality, for the most part, and most friendships and family relationships are intact. The nation is resilient and will survive.

The great political debate leads one to wonder: Are we able to have and maintain real friendships with those who don’t always agree with us, especially on matters of substance?

Having just finished reading A Torch Kept Lit, a collection of reflections and reminiscences by William F. Buckley, Jr., on famous personages of the twentieth century, I was struck by some of the friendships he had with people usually found on the opposite side of the ideological trench, such as Norman Mailer and John Kenneth Galbraith. There was even a book published in 2015 about his relationship with the former of these, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties, by Kevin M. Schultz.

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The British writer G.K. Chesterton was a man with friendships as broad as he was. George Bernard Shaw was one of those, despite many philosophical differences, and here’s how he described their relationship in his autobiography: “I have argued with him on almost every subject in the world, and we have always been on opposite sides, without affectation or animosity. It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

Friendships such as these are found in general politics outside of journalism as well. President Ronald Reagan was a master of them, counting such across-the-aisle friends as House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy. Peggy Noonan once recounted a speech Reagan was asked to give at a 1985 fundraiser for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, an event that sealed the friendship between the Reagans and Kennedys. After highly praising JFK’s patriotism and inspiration to public service for so many, he turned the tables a little:

“Which is not to say I supported John Kennedy when he ran for president, because I didn’t,” Reagan said. “I was for the other fellow. But you know, it’s true: When the battle’s over and the ground is cooled, well, it’s then that you see the opposing general’s valor.”

But nothing has come close to a more recent political friendship.

When Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia passed away unexpectedly in February 2016, perhaps the colleague who mourned the most was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While they differed greatly in their day jobs, they formed a surprisingly deep friendship based on mutual respect and interests. Their friendship even inspired a widely praised comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang. Out of court, the two loved opera together, rode on the back of an elephant together in India, and rang in the New Year together for more than two decades with their spouses and other close friends.

“From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies,” Justice Ginsburg’s statement reads, in part. “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

Ginsburg’s statement seems to recall a principle espoused by Cicero, who wrote what is perhaps one of the greatest classical tracts defining friendship: “The rule of friendship means there should be mutual sympathy between them, each supplying what the other lacks and trying to benefit the other, always using friendly and sincere words.”

One of Scalia’s more famous quotes, shared often in social media these days, was given in a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes: “I attack ideas, I don’t attack people—and some very good people have some very bad ideas.” In this, he seems to echo a quote widely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, but connected to an earlier source: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

Separating ideas from people, like hating the sin but not the sinner, is a challenging act, but it is one that is ultimately valuable. Taking the time to get to know someone—even the person we battle with—opens doors that help us understand not only the debated issue, but also ourselves, better.

There’s a throwaway line in a first-season episode of Sherlock, where the detective is told by Watson that, in real life, people don’t have archenemies. Holmes is saddened by the revelation. “That sounds a bit dull,” he responds.

I could not picture Holmes and Moriarty singing Auld Lang Syne together after the ball drops on Times Square, but I can definitely see how much more dull all these lives would have been without the peculiar, unexpected friendships that formed and challenged them.

(Photo credit: U.S. Supreme Court)


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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