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665: Before Things Went to Hell

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

At one level, my Grandma Frieda's college records are utterly ordinary-- don't tell much of a story. She's a good student, and teachers say the nice things that they say about bright students. They talk about her sense of social responsibility. They talk about her, quote, excellent and well-trained mind. This is 1931, that they would say such a thing. Goucher College, then an all girls' school in Baltimore.

I got these records a few years back when I was invited to give a commencement address at Goucher. I asked if I could get a copy of her school records. And there's such a different picture of this person I knew. It's my grandma as a college kid. Grandma Frieda was training to be a teacher, and her evaluations say that she has a lot of promise.

Quote, "She did her practice teaching with great success, making unusually varied, interesting, and well organized lesson plans, presenting her material with force and vigor, showing great accuracy in all details." I like that one. "She has a forceful as well as a very pleasant personality," which I can say is true. She is very smart, always let you know what she thought.

There's four of these evaluations. They list her traits. There's like a checklist with some energy, reliability, perseverance, resourcefulness. She's 21 years old, poised on the verge of a great future, which is what is so hard about reading these things today. It's a future she never got to live.

Barry

It's not a pleasurable thing to read.

Lenny

Well, she had a lot of potential, but I don't think it really got realized.

Ira Glass

Those are two kids, my dad and my uncle, Barry and Lenny, now in their 80s. I asked them to read through this stuff and talk to me about it. And there were so many things that stopped her from realizing her potential. After she graduated, Frieda taught junior high school for a year and then she married and very quickly, like amazingly quickly, her marriage fell apart.

By her late 20s, she was a single mom with two kids. This is back in the 1930s. This is during the depression. And to help support her whole extended family, she apparently got drafted to work in the family business, which was this little corner grocery store in downtown Baltimore where they lived.

Barry

Yeah, it was a drag. And it was dragging her down.

Ira Glass

Did she talk about wanting to teach during those years when she was running the store?

Lenny

Yes.

Barry

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And when did you guys start to work in the store?

Lenny

Oh, we always did, from the time we were a little kids.

Barry

Yeah, we always did.

Ira Glass

Like, you were like, five or six years old and you're working in the store?

Lenny

Yep. Well, seven or eight.

Ira Glass

What would you do?

Barry

Stock the shelves, open up--

Ira Glass

Yeah, stocking.

Lenny

Even wait on people, I think, as I remember.

Ira Glass

Frieda's parents and other relatives lived above and next door to the store. It was run by Frieda's dad, Isidore. He was kind of a soft touch and would lose a lot of money by extending credit to customers who'd never pay it back. I'm named for Isidore. I have his Hebrew name, Yitzchak.

They didn't name me Isidore because they realized at some point that Isidore Glass is a parsable sentence in English, is a door glass. Also, I was told years ago by my mom that they wanted a name that was less Jew-y. The fact that with that mission they ended up at Ira just shows how little the whole family knew about the world of non-Jews at the time.

Anyway, Frieda's college file also includes all the alumni questionnaires that she sent into Goucher in the decades after she graduated. And in those, in the formal language of somebody filling out a form, she describes first helping in the store in the 1930s-- doing the books, waiting on customers, bringing her kids to help work-- and then finally taking the store over when her dad got sick in 1950, trying to keep the store afloat as it slowly went bankrupt. There was another thing that shaped her life in ways that nobody could foresee back when she was 21, getting those glowing evaluations from her teachers.

Lenny

Her health affliction was the dominating component of her life, and determined a lot of what eventually happened to her. I don't know how much you know, Ira, about how she got cancer.

Ira Glass

Actually, I know that story well. When she was a teenager, Frieda got acne. And the doctor treated it-- this is the early 1920s-- with this new miracle treatment, x-rays. He bombarded her face with x-rays. Nobody would do this today, because we now understand that gives you cancer, and that's exactly what it did to her.

She got skin cancer when she was 32, which back then, doctors had a hard time treating. Uncle Lenny, I should say, as a doctor who was also her kid, remembers chapter and verse of all the operations and procedures and what went wrong and how it would recur. And it just, it slowly took over most of her face and her nose.

Lenny

Well, eventually that became something which is never seen today, which is called a rodent ulcer. It got that name because it looked as though some rodent had eaten someone's face away.

Ira Glass

How many surgeries did she have on her face, Lenny?

Lenny

Oh, god, I would say-- 25 or 30.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god.

Lenny

Yeah.

Ira Glass

In the time I knew her, Grandma Frieda's face was made of these pale white rectangular sheets of grafted flesh sewn together around an easy to imagine skull. Her nose was a misshapen bulb that was somewhere between human nose and pig nose. But of course, you know, the family that you're born into is the very definition of what seems normal.

And my sisters and cousins and I-- like, she made Jell-O for us, you know? She played Scrabble. Like, we loved her. We didn't think anything of it.

In the late '50s, finally, after her father died and the corner store went broke at last, Frieda did get to teach again full time. It was a quarter century after she graduated from Goucher. She taught high school French. Apparently the first day of class she would always tell the students to take a good long stare at her face right now, just get it out of their systems.

Grandma Frieda's years at Goucher college, she would bring them up a lot. She wore her Phi Beta Kappa honor society key from Goucher, and then she would explain to strangers what it was. At holiday dinners, if one of us brought somebody new around, she would work Goucher into the conversation. But also, I swear, I remember her bringing it up with cashiers at the grocery store on Green Spring Avenue, and with nurses in the hospital, which I know makes her sound like a crank or something, though really she was not.

Lenny

Well, she talked about it because that was the only positive thing--

Barry

That's all she had to talk about.

Lenny

That's-- thank you, Barry. That's what I was trying to say.

Ira Glass

Do you think that was one of the happiest times, or maybe the happiest time, of her life, when she was at Goucher?

Barry

Yes, I do.

Lenny

Oh, I would say probably.

Ira Glass

There's a page in her Goucher file that I guess was filled out when she first entered the school, typed on an old manual typewriter. It lists her name, her childhood address, her age-- which is 17. 17. I've stared at that number for a long while. Like, OK, when this was written down, that number was accurate.

She was 17. And honestly, like, I'd never pictured her at 17 before this. A kid with pretty skin-- the acne treatment apparently worked like a charm-- looking forward to so many things. I knew her in her last 20 years. But her first 20, I don't know, it was comforting to think that she got those too.

That that was just as real a part of her life as the part that I knew. I think it's easy to decide that what's happening like, right now, right this second, is the most important thing. But in fact, the moments before are just as real as the moments right now. And it all looks so much more complicated if you take them into account.

Well, today on our show we have stories like the moment that's documented in my Grandma Frieda's college file, the moment before things went to hell. We have two very different stories. In one, politicians nearly solved something that today is so deeply unsolved that we have shut down our government over it. In the other, post divorce time travels for 90 minutes into pre-divorce. WBEZ Chicago, I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Where Have You Gone, Barbara Jordan? Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You

Ira Glass

Act One, Where Have You Gone, Barbara Jordan? Our Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You. OK, so government gets shut down over a border wall. President says there's a national emergency. Democrats say there isn't one.

But there is a moment before all this, before this whole conversation went into the divisive, nobody is listening to anybody hell that it seems to be in today. There was a moment back in the '90s when Congress had a bunch of people with completely opposing points of view on this sit down, hash it out, and come up with a solution to the whole thing. And they came up with one, a comprehensive one that would have fixed so many of the things that we're arguing about today. We wouldn't even be talking about this today this way. All of this would've played out differently.

And at the center of the whole thing was this one woman-- charismatic, principled, beloved by Democrats and Republicans, and so different from anybody we can think of in politics today. Her whole mission and philosophy of politics was so different from anything you see today. One of our producers, Miki Meek, like me and a few others here on our staff has become kind of obsessed with immigration these last few years. She has the story. And we start with a little context.

Miki Meek

In the 90s when all this happens, immigration hadn't become this nationally charged partisan issue. It was a topic that made most people's eyes glaze over. Most of the country didn't even know that a historic migration from Mexico to the US was underway. That is, unless you live in a state like Florida, Texas, or California where most of the undocumented immigrants were settling. In those states, voters were getting angry.

So the politics of immigration started to change. And the big bang that really launched everyone into this new world happened in California in 1994-- a ballot measure called Prop 187.

They keep coming-- two million illegal immigrants in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet requires us to pay billions to take care of them.

Miki Meek

Prop 187 banned undocumented immigrants and their kids from getting public benefits or going to schools, and made teachers and doctors turn over the names of anyone they knew or even suspected was undocumented. Huge parts of it were unconstitutional. The Californians voted for it by an overwhelming margin. For Democrats in the state, this was a wake up call.

And one of the things that's so interesting when you listen back to all this stuff now is that they do not sound like the Democrats today. For instance, here's Senator Diane Feinstein from California. She was against the harsh restrictions of Prop 187, but at the same time she wanted to crack down on illegal immigration and she called for it on the Senate floor.

Diane Feinstein

There is simply no time to lose. Too many people are still able to illegally cross our borders and too few states, most notably California, carry the burden of having to support, educate, and often incarcerate, the hundreds of thousands who enter this country illegally each year.

Miki Meek

This is her in the mid '90s, and this next thing she says is eerily prophetic.

Diane Feinstein

Ladies and gentlemen, let me say to you what I, honest to God, believe is the truth. If we cannot affect sound, just, and moderate controls, the people of America will rise to stop all immigration. I am as sure as that as I am that I'm standing here now.

Miki Meek

You can almost picture her putting her hands up at the border of California, trying to prevent xenophobia from spreading. These were very different times and both sides moved quickly to figure out a solution. So Congress put together a team, a blue ribbon commission, to come up with proposals that Congress could turn into laws. I know how boring this sounds. Commissions are the joke of government, the place politicians send issues to die-- bureaucratic, ineffective.

But I promise, the story I'm going to tell you is not that. For starters, they packed this commission with people who are so different from each other that it's almost comical. On one side there was the guy who co-wrote Prop 187 and on the other side, a Democrat who helped almost three million undocumented immigrants get amnesty here. I spoke with all the commission members who are still alive. There's five of them.

Michael Teitelbaum

I told my wife that this commission will not be able to agree on whether it's Monday or Tuesday.

Miki Meek

This is Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer that Republicans appointed.

Michael Teitelbaum

I didn't know all of the appointees but I knew some of them. And my conclusion was that there was such a wide range of opinion on this very contentious set of issues that there would be no way this commission could reach a consensus on anything.

Miki Meek

That's where this remarkable woman came in, the hero of our story. Her name was Barbara Jordan, and she was a civil rights icon, a democratic representative from Texas who also incidentally was black and gay. She's been dead for more than 20 years now. And to understand the unique spot she held in American politics, some background.

She grew up in Houston, went to segregated schools and then law school. Started running for office in her 20s and broke a bunch of barriers. In the '60s she became the first black woman elected to the Texas legislature. And then in 1972, the first to serve in the US Congress from the south. She became this breakout national star during the Watergate hearings in 1974.

At the time, she was just a 30 something newcomer on the House Judiciary Committee that was deciding whether or not they were really going to impeach the President of the United States. And it's pretty much what you'd expect, a bunch of older white men on live TV sounding like your typical politician, giving their opening statements.

Until it came time for Jordan, who wore this big boxy orange suit, bright camera lights glaring off her black rimmed glasses-- a freshman Congresswoman, and at that point one of four black woman ever to serve in Congress. And when she opened her mouth, she spoke in this style that was grand, but also personal.

Barbara Jordan

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Mr. Chairman, you are a strong man. And it has not been easy, but we have tried as best we can to give you as much assistance as possible. Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States-- we the people. It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the 17th of September in 1787, I was not included in that we the people. I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake.

Miki Meek

When I first heard this, I put it on repeat. I love how she sounds. Even then, her voice was considered unusual, like JFK or Churchill, with maybe a little Katherine Hepburn thrown in there, which turns out is just how she spoke, whether she was on a stage or not. And at that moment during Watergate, millions of Americans heard her for the very first time and lots of them were like, wow, who is this woman talking this way?

Barbara Jordan

--but through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in we the people. Today, I am an inquisitor. And hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution. A president is impeachable if he attempts to subvert the Constitution.

Miki Meek

She explained, the president is not above the law. He is not above the Constitution. It was a galvanizing moment. People remarked how fair minded and serious she was. Dan Rather, who covered the Watergate hearings, said later that when Jordan finished there was no doubt in his mind that the president would be impeached or have to resign. He said she created this feeling of, as hard as it seems we have to go on with this. We don't have a choice.

Jordan's office was immediately swarming with camera crews and flooded with fan mail from all over the country. Her appeal cut across party lines. One man even put up 25 billboards that said, "Thank you Barbara Jordan for explaining our Constitution." She had suddenly been catapulted into this spot where people looked at her as a moral authority at a particularly cynical moment in politics.

In Congress her colleagues like to joke that Jordan had the voice of God, which is kind of true. Her mom and dad were Baptist. Dad did some preaching. Her mom gave a lot of speeches, too. That's just how she grew up talking.

Jordan was a champion debater in college. She says that's where she picked up the style of speech. Two years after Watergate, Barbara got asked to give the big speech at the Democratic National Convention-- the keynote. The other keynote speaker that year was John Glenn, senator and astronaut. The crowd barely paid attention to him. Then Barbara Jordan took the stage.

Man

This is by far the biggest ovation anyone has received here in this opening session of the Democratic Convention. This time the convention has really come alive.

Miki Meek

This video is totally electrifying to watch. The clapping went on for three minutes straight before Jordan could speak.

Barbara Jordan

Thank you. Thank you. There is something different about tonight. There is something special about tonight. What is different, what is special? I, Barbara Jordan, am a keynote speaker.

Miki Meek

She was the first African-American to give the convention's keynote. Afterward, there was a movement to make her Jimmy Carter's Vice President, though she quickly swatted that down. She issued a press release saying, he'd never pick someone who's both black and a woman.

Cut to 1992, 16 years later. Jordan's retired, leading a quiet life in Austin with her partner and teaching at a university, but the government needs someone to head its bipartisan immigration team. Susan Martin, a veteran of immigration policy fights on Capitol Hill, leads the search. Jordan had never worked on the issue, but she was Martin's first pick.

Susan Martin

I had never met her but I thought that she stood for integrity, and balance, and fairness. And she started off saying she was just too busy. She thought it was an important issue, it wasn't that at all, but she couldn't do it.

Miki Meek

At that time, Jordan had multiple sclerosis, sometimes needed a wheelchair and walker to get around. But Susan said she kept trying to convince her, telling her anti-immigrant views were spreading. The rhetoric was getting more racist, and starting to divide the country. Jordan was alarmed by all that. She didn't want immigrants to become scapegoats. So she said yes.

As someone who's been watching this immigration debate play out for the past few years it was incredible to hear what Barbara Jordan pulled off, how she managed to get people who didn't think they could agree to agree. She brought them to unanimous consensus on nearly everything. She forced them to stake out a middle ground on stuff that was controversial then and still is today.

I asked all the commissioners how exactly she got this thing to work. They told me that Jordan first set up a bunch of ground rules for how they could make decisions together, all nine of them. Again, here's Michael Teitelbaum, one of the Republican appointees to the commission.

Michael Teitelbaum

I remember her saying, we are nine in number but we are not the Supreme Court. If we vote 5 to 4, on something that is a meaningless set of recommendations. So I don't think we should be seeking small majorities for opinion A or B, but we should be seeking instead broad consensus. And everybody agreed on that.

Miki Meek

For Barbara, this approach was bigger than just the commission. She didn't see compromise as a sign of weakness. She saw it as a moral imperative. She taught this in her college ethics and political values classes. She believed it was actually immoral to not compromise if your job was to legislate.

When she was still a politician, she had a reputation as a pragmatist who despised ideologues and party purists. She liked drinking and playing guitar with conservatives after hours and she had no problems cutting deals or making friends with her polar opposites. In fact, in the Texas Senate, she thought it was the only way she could get any change to happen.

She'd take opportunities where she could find them, which is how she later got West Virginian Senator Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan member, to help her get enough votes to expand the Voting Rights Act to Mexican Americans.

On the commission, Jordan also worked with everyone to come up with language that would establish tone which was just as important as the actual policies themselves. The tone would be respectful, send a message that they were listening to both sides. So on one hand, she was tough on illegal immigration.

Barbara Jordan

We've got to have the strength to say no to the people who are not supposed to get in. We need to make deportation a part of a credible immigration policy.

Miki Meek

But at the same time, she was pro immigration.

Barbara Jordan

The commission believes that legal immigration has strengthened the country and it continue to do so. We strongly denounce-- denounce on our commission-- the hostility which seems to be developing around immigrants. That is not healthy when we seek to blame immigrants for all of our social ills. We cannot sustain ourselves as a nation if we condone divisiveness in this society of immigrants.

Miki Meek

To me, one of the most impressive things I learned about this bipartisan commission is just how all out they went for five years. Early on they were constantly on the road because they wanted input from the rest of the country. In El Paso, Chicago, Seattle, San Diego, Nogales, and a bunch of other places. They held public hearings that were basically open mic sessions, that lasted for hours. They also did ride alongs with border patrol, toured refugee camps in Kenya, and met with government officials in Mexico.

While they were there, one of the commissioners told me this poignant detail. When they got to buildings that didn't have ramps, they just picked Jordan up in her wheelchair and carried her in. When you compare today to back then, the single biggest difference is that it was possible for the two sides to just sit down and talk about how to cut down on illegal immigration, mainly because politicians were still all over the map on the issue. Positions hadn't hardened along predictable party lines.

Yes, Republicans were generally more skeptical about immigration, and Democrats were more in favor of it. But there were also lots of pro-business Republicans who wanted cheap labor, and pro-union Democrats who did not. They wanted to protect American workers. So this was a moment when things were more malleable, before immigration became such a loaded symbolic issue. It was a moment before so many families moved here.

Most of the undocumented were young single men coming for jobs. And it was a moment when, unlike today, both sides, Democrats and Republicans, agreed that illegal immigration was an urgent problem. Here's Bill Clinton giving his State of the Union in 1995. At that point, the undocumented population had grown to around five million, less than half of what it is now.

Bill Clinton

All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants.

Miki Meek

In case this isn't clear, at the time protecting the working class from an influx of cheap labor was still a central part of the Democratic Party's platform. And the way to protect American workers and stop people from entering the country seemed obvious to the commission-- make it impossible for undocumented workers to get jobs. This was the easiest point of agreement for the commission. They voted to hit businesses with big fines and even jail time if they were caught hiring undocumented workers, and to create a mandatory electronic system that employers would use to check if job applicants were legal to work. This eventually became known as E-Verify.

A thornier issue was birthright citizenship, the thing that President Trump said he wanted to end just before the midterms. This is the law that says if you enter the country illegally and have a child here, that child is a citizen. Jordan settled this really quickly. She flexed her moral authority because birthright citizenship is in the Constitution. Here's one of the commissioners, Bruce Morrison.

Bruce Morrison

There were members, I won't name a particular members, but there were members who had the anchor baby line. And Barbara made clear where she stood on the 14th Amendment, and that was one of the few examples where she just put her foot down and basically said, you know, over my dead body.

Barbara Jordan

The 14th Amendment reads all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens.

Miki Meek

The 14th Amendment overturned the Dred Scott decision which said black people born in America could never be citizens.

Barbara Jordan

I am not about to advocate changing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Those parents are not citizens but that child is a citizen. And as a citizen of this country, that child is entitled to benefits and they are not to be taken away.

Miki Meek

The most explosive issue the commission faced, the most difficult question Jordan guided them through, had to do with immigrant families arriving in the US. Specifically, should people be allowed to bring their whole extended families over-- parents and brothers and sisters, and once they get green cards their spouses and kids? President Trump calls this chain migration. He thinks it's unfair and dangerous, foreigners taking advantage of the system.

But Jordan's commission came up with a totally different way to frame this issue. She talked about it in a way that's much more humane than how we hear it talked about today, with no fear mongering. Though it took them a year to figure this out the commission said, let's just be practical about the situation. They said, look at how things are going now with family visas. It's a total backed up mess.

At the time, if you were a US citizen with a sibling in the Philippines, the wait time to get into the US was 18 years. The commissioners felt the US was making promises it couldn't keep. Again, here's former commissioner Bruce Morrison.

Bruce Morrison

This, to me, was the number one issue facing our immigration system, that we were dividing families, that we were making people choose whether they should break the rules by being here illegally to live with their spouse, or whether they should be exiled. And that's a choice no family should make.

Miki Meek

They said, let's prioritize. Most people can agree that the most important thing is for parents to be together with their kids as quickly as possible. So they said, let's only give visas to parents and minor children, and not admit anyone else. This would knock lots of people off the waiting list.

Say for instance, you are an adult citizen and your brother and two sisters had been waiting for a decade. Suddenly, sorry, there's no space for them. Also, if your kids were adults, they'd be out of luck, too. So it was a tough policy, but it was generous, too. Doing this would cut the long backlogs, free up more visas. And they agreed to temporarily give out even more to bring in all the kids and spouses on the waiting list as quickly as possible.

Then once that list was cleared, they'd make sure new applicants got reunited with their families in the US within a year. They also built in special exceptions to allow in adult kids with disabilities and kids who put in applications as children but aged out because of long wait times. Of course, there was no getting around the fact that this approach would leave more than a million siblings and others out in the cold, unable to move to the US. And not surprisingly, this upset a lot of people, including Republicans.

Representative Dick Armey told The New York Times that the commission's proposal was a quote, "misguided attempt to make legal immigrants the scapegoats for America's problems." Protesters picketed the commission at public hearings. Here's a reporter pushing Barbara Jordan during a press conference in DC.

Reporter

Many of the critics of these recommendations have qualified them as anti family and inhumane. How do you respond to that?

Barbara Jordan

These recommendations are not anti family. Our recommendations make it easier for spouses and minor children to unite and not remain apart for such extended periods of time. And we had testimony from people, immigrants, who said I would love to have my wife with me, or my young son or daughter. And how do you say to, that person, but we've got to get somebody else's brother or sister? It was a matter of reinforcing a priority in the nuclear family.

Miki Meek

In 1995, President Clinton came out strong backing the commission saying their recommendations were consistent with his own views which were quote, "pro family, pro work, pro naturalization." The commission's report waded into the most controversial issues and made big, tough recommendations. They'd eliminate the diversity visa lottery and shrink the number of visas for low wage, unskilled workers. They called for harsh sanctions against businesses that hire undocumented workers.

They'd gradually moved from an immigration system that brings in mostly family members to one that brings in workers who have skills the US lacks. They said every few years, Congress should review how many people should be admitted into the country based on what the economy needs. And for the short term, they propose cutting overall legal immigration by a third. But at the same time, there was another side to their recommendations.

The commission wanted to keep refugees flowing into the country. They wanted protections and due process for people who get caught up in the immigration system and alternatives to detention for them. They insisted that legal immigrants were entitled to public benefits and welfare. They called for stricter enforcement of hate crime laws. They wanted to fund job training for American workers who were displaced by immigrants and to give money and advice to communities with new large immigrant populations, hoping this would make the whole transition less fraught and resentful.

By late 1995, it's clear that getting all this passed won't be easy but they have the president and the immigration subcommittees in the House and Senate on their side. And at that critical moment, Barbara Jordan got sick because of complications from leukemia which she'd had for a while but kept secret. She died within weeks. She was 59 years old. Again, here's Susan Martin, the woman who first hired Jordan for the commission.

Susan Martin

I found out because I got a call from her partner. And all of the commissioners and all of the staff were just, you know, they can't believe it's happened. But it was also a very serious political loss because she had the stature and the voice to be able to make sure that the commission's recommendations were heard.

Miki Meek

That kind of authority, that's what was missing when Congress finally took up the commission's recommendations in 1996, without Jordan there to guide the debate. An astonishing variety of people came out and rallied against them. Immigrant rights groups teamed up with agribusiness and manufacturing to water down the sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers. High tech firms opposed the cuts to worker visas. Religious groups didn't want any changes to family visas. And they won.

Alan Simpson

Because she wasn't there to push them. It's that simple. She wasn't there.

Miki Meek

This is Senator Alan Simpson. He was the chair of the Senate immigration subcommittee and had a front row seat as the proposals fell apart.

Alan Simpson

And when she disappeared, then the interest groups came in and said, boy, she's gone now. We'll just get in and chop this baby to bits, which they did.

Miki Meek

Soon enough, President Clinton backed away from his earlier endorsement of the commission and ended up signing some of the most punitive legislation against legal permanent residents. It restricted their access to food stamps and Medicaid and made it easier to deport them. Barbara Jordan's vision of a grand compromise was dead. The commissioners and Senator Simpson all told me, if she'd lived--

Alan Simpson

We'd have something better than whatever they got now, that's all I can tell you. I don't know what aspect it would be, whether it would be enforcement or border enforcement or legalization or whatever, whatever, whatever. But it would be a hell of a lot better than whatever you've got now.

Miki Meek

Today when Barbara Jordan's name comes up in politics, it's mainly from Republicans. That's one of the things that got me interested in her in the first place. These immigration hardliners waving around the name of a liberal black woman, a civil rights icon, saying she's with us. Here's former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, one of her biggest fans.

Jeff Sessions

The late civil rights pioneer Barbara Jordan found that quote, "immigration of unskilled immigrants comes at a cost to unskilled US workers." I don't think there's any doubt about that.

Miki Meek

Here's Laura Ingraham on Fox News with Bill O'Reilly.

Laura Ingraham

Well, I think Barbara Jordan had it right back in 1995. She was a Democrat Congresswoman, African-American, head of the Commission on Immigration Reform. And she said, look, deportation is crucial, right? Because--

Miki Meek

Even President Trump released a statement dedicated to Barbara Jordan, crediting her with his whole America first approach to immigration. The group that's been responsible for making Jordan this darling of immigration hardliners is called Numbers USA. They've even put her on TV again. This ad ran during the last presidential campaign.

Barbara Jordan

The commission finds no national interest in continuing to import lesser skilled and unskilled workers to compete in the most vulnerable parts of our labor force. Many American workers do not have adequate job prospects. We should make their task easier to find employment, not harder.

Announcer

Paid for by Numbers USA.

Bruce Morrison

I was shocked.

Miki Meek

I asked all the former commissioners what Jordan would think of her name being used this way. Some weren't that offended by it, but one of the Democratic appointees, Bruce Morrison, remembers the first time he saw it.

Bruce Morrison

I mean, I was shocked because if she were alive, somehow you can imagine the volcano going off and burying these people under its eruption of outrage, because she always engaged in things in absolute open good faith. She didn't mis-characterize what people said. She didn't play these games of taking people's statements out of context, and sort of try to make her a symbol of something she did not represent and did not support. That's a kind of theft of a precious commodity.

Miki Meek

I get why Republicans cite her so much. They're saying, these ideas we're advocating, they're not crazy. Reasonable people thought these were reasonable solutions. Though Bruce Morrison points out, when the commission proposed these things they were part of a bigger package which also included things these Republicans don't support. And beyond that, Barbara Jordan's whole political vision was proudly about compromise and finding common ground. It's jarring to see her being cited by partisans as part of a bitter political war.

Meanwhile on immigration, the Democrats seem to have left the playing field. In the midterms, a common strategy for lots of candidates was to stick to the stuff that wasn't controversial like the Dreamers and then change the subject to health care.

Ann Richards

The truth is, I'd counted on Barbara preaching my funeral. She always did make things sound a lot better than they were.

Miki Meek

This is one of her good friends, former Texas Governor Ann Richards, speaking at her funeral in Houston. They used to go to Lady Longhorns basketball games together.

Ann Richards

And now if we're going to be honest we have to say that there were some people who managed to resist Barbara's persuasive manner. When I was a county commissioner, Barbara was building her house out in the country down at the end of a narrow little tree-shaded lane. And it was about--

Miki Meek

Richards said it was about a mile long, and there was a woman who owned some property in the middle of it. And this woman, she put a gate across the lane and padlocked it.

Ann Richards

And it may be hard to imagine Barbara really hopping mad but she was. And she called me up and she said, Ann! Ann! This old woman has put a gate across my lane and the lane is used by everyone. And I want that gate down.

And years later I was going out to the house for a party and I thought about that old woman. And so I said Barbara, whatever happened to that old woman? And Barbara suppressed a smile and got that voice of the Lord inflection in her speech, and she said, well, Ann, that old woman died and went to hell. And that's pretty much how it went with Barbara. If reasoning didn't work, and prodding didn't work, and the law didn't work, divine intervention was bound to just overcome whatever.

Miki Meek

To fix the situation we are in now with immigration feels like it might actually require divine intervention. Things are way more complicated now than they were in the '90s. For starters, the undocumented population has gotten a lot bigger. It's gone from 3 million to 11 million.

It's no longer mostly single young men crossing back and forth across the border. We now have families who've been living here for a full generation, who've raised children. And as Barbara Jordan always feared, immigrants now get blamed for all sorts of problems. We're now in a situation she never anticipated.

The problem today is much worse than anything she'd ever imagined. And the two parties are so much further apart. They listen to each other so much less. It's hard to picture how even Barbara Jordan could get much done.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show. Thanks to the other members of the Jordan commission we talked to, Bob Hill, Lindsey Lowell, Nelson Merced, Warren Leiden, and Paul Donnelly.

Barbara Jordan

Many fear the future, many are distrustful of their leaders, and believe that their voices are never heard.

Ira Glass

This is Barbara Jordan speaking in a very divisive time just a couple of years after President Nixon's impeachment hearings and Vietnam at the Democratic National Convention.

Barbara Jordan

But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny, if each of us remembers when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny. We are a generous people, so why can't we be generous with each other?

But this is the great danger America faces, that we will cease to be one nation, and become instead a collection of interest groups-- city against suburb, region against region, individual against individual, each seeking to satisfy private wants. If that happens, who then will speak for America? Who then will speak for the common good?

Ira Glass

Coming up, your ex-wife has a few thoughts about your marriage and she makes a movie about it. That does not sound like that's going to be a good experience for you. That's in a minute on Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Director’s Cut

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, Before Things Went To Hell, stories of the moment before things went terribly wrong back when things could've turned out differently, but of course they didn't. We've arrived at Act Two of our program-- Act Two, Director's Cut.

So the person in this next story finds himself in a situation that not many of us are ever going to be in. His ex-wife decided to revisit the part of their lives before their marriage went to hell and make a movie about it-- or anyway, about a couple whose life seems very, very parallel to theirs in lots of ways.

This fictional couple gets married real young, they're trying to make it in LA, the woman gets a big break, she leaves the husband at that point. This all happened in real life, too. The guy's name is Will Weldon. Elna Baker explains what happened next.

Elna Baker

Will heard about the movie from some friends when his ex-wife started working on it. The very thought of it made him anxious. His ex, Rebecca, eventually brought it up with him. She said the film was only loosely based on their marriage, which definitely did not help. He tried to put it out of his head. A year and a half later, he was scrolling around on-line.

Will

And I saw on Facebook people posting the trailer for the movie and being like, hey, go see this movie if it's in a theater near you because it's made by Rebecca Adelman, and she's great, and so funny. And I saw those popping up. And then I just had this moment where I was like, oh, the moment is here. And that was when I was filled with the most dread.

Elna Baker

What were those thoughts?

Will

For me I was-- the thing I was the most afraid of is that the movie would portray me accurately.

Elna Baker

Will's candid about his flaws, admits he was kind of a dud as a husband. Will and Rebecca met when she was 23. He was just 19. They were together for eight years, married for almost five. During that time he was mostly unemployed, though he eventually started doing part time work, walking dogs and house sitting. He did some stand-up, but not very often. Mostly he'd spend his time--

Will

Like refreshing Gawker, or I was playing Playstation, or I was like, literally just sitting there thinking about how I should be doing something. I wasn't really-- I had no actual goals and I wasn't striving for anything. That was, like, I think the defining quality that, like, ended our marriage.

Elna Baker

Because she was the ambitious one and disciplined. She wanted to be a TV writer. She'd wake up early to work on scripts and when he watched the trailer, that was in it.

Will

And she is the harder worker and, like, actually wants things.

Franny

I got the job.

Dan

What?

Franny

They just hired me as a writer.

Dan

Woo! My wife is the smartest woman in the world! Look how awesome she is! We're going to be rich. Can I get a Nintendo?

Elna Baker

Seeing the trailer made it so much worse. Now he realized the film would probably return him to some very painful times he'd rather not relive, like the way their marriage ended.

Will

To me at the time, it really felt like it came out of nowhere. She got home from work, and she just had, like, a very, very strange-- like, you know the way people will start-- like, they'll be like, so. And then she sat me down, and she was just telling me about how she was unhappy in the relationship, and she had been for a long time. And then me being like, gee, I just-- I don't know why this hasn't-- why none of this has come up before.

I just loved her and I didn't-- I really felt like we should try and give it another chance. And she was like, mm, I don't know. And at a certain point we were talking and I was like, who are we fooling here? It really seems like you're done, and this is done. And she was like, OK.

Elna Baker

Will moved out after just a week, started crashing on friends' couches. He was devastated, didn't understand what went wrong. And there were other scenes from their lives that he'd hate to see in a movie.

Will

I'm sure there will be conversations with like, her mom, or her sister, and her friends. I don't know if they were like, come on, girl, you got to dump him. Those will probably be the toughest parts, because I imagine those will be things that will be very based in reality.

Elna Baker

The film, which is called Paper Year, came out in early 2018. It's got 71% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics comment on how authentic the couple's love coming undone feels. For a while, Will couldn't bring himself to see it but a month ago he suggested we watch it together, and I was into the idea. I'm going through a divorce right now.

It's a very strange time of life. I go on a lot of long walks. I stopped watching television for a year so I wouldn't avoid my feelings. All I read are self-help books. And when I go to parties, I corner divorced people and badger them for details about what this was like for them and how they got through it.

Divorce is like my own personal disaster porn. So, watching a movie about a divorce with the person who it happened to, it's all I want to do. And Will thought it would make it easier for him to see it for the first time.

Will

Like, this is a better way to view it, with other people than just, like, it's 3:00 in the morning, I'm alone, the lights are off, I've gotten up in secret and I'm like, watching it in the middle of the night so I can just deny having ever seen it if I want to.

Elna Baker

Hi, puppy!

I met Will where he was staying. He's dog sitting at a sleek Los Angeles home overlooking a canyon-- Furry throw pillows, an open layout, pomegranate and lemon trees framing your view of the valley, all really expensive. Will is on high alert. Anytime I move anything, he is careful to put it back exactly where it had been.

Elna Baker

OK, are we ready?

Will

Sure.

Elna Baker

That was such a ominous laugh.

The movie opens with the couple, Dan and Franny, getting married in a courthouse, which Will and Rebecca also did. Dan lifts Franny and carries her out. The couple starts out really in love-- having lots of sex, laughing, kissing in bed.

Franny

Is your rash gone?

Dan

Yeah.

Franny

Really?

Dan

Yeah.

Will

I never had a rash. There's no rash. I don't know what they're talking about.

Elna Baker

The guy's job in the film? Dog sitter.

Dan

He's quite the rascal, aren't you? Yeah, he's a good boy.

Elna Baker

Wait, can I just point out the dog that you're house sitting in this movie is literally the same breed of dog that is sitting under the table right now?

Will

Yeah. It's like a Jack Russell chihuahua mix that he's dog sitting and I am also dog sitting a Jack Russell chihuahua mix.

Elna Baker

In fact, the house in the film where Dan and Franny do their dog sitting is a lot like the house Will and I are sitting in at this very moment-- similar layout and decor, same view.

Dan

This comes from--

Franny

No, I want to finish this.

Elna Baker

In another scene, Franny is sitting at her computer working on a script. Dan is trying to get her attention.

Dan

It's just you writing for your dumb job. Come on, swim. Swim.

Franny

Stop.

Dan

(SIGHS)

Franny

Later.

Elna Baker

The real life version of this would actually play out a little differently-- less fun and more sad. Will says he'd do everything he could to get out of her way when she was working.

Will

I would just, like, disappear. Like, I'd like, wheel the TV into the bedroom and watch it in there just so it wouldn't be distracting.

Elna Baker

The movie, which I'll admit I'm the target audience for, I liked it. Marriage made Franny unhappy in the same way it made me unhappy, like my life had ended. I spent so much time thinking about whether or not I wanted to be with my husband, but I couldn't tell him that. So we had nothing to talk about, because if he asked me what I was thinking, the real answer would have been, I'm not sure if I love you anymore.

The scene that Will feared of Franny confiding in her mom and friends about all her husband's terrible qualities, and everyone's saying what they really think of him-- that never happens. There's no scene where anyone badmouths him. None at all. No one tells anyone to dump the loser. Instead, what happens is much more interesting. Late in the film, Franny sits down to talk to her mom about her marriage. In the scene, she's trying to convince herself to stay with him.

Franny

I'm fine. I'm fine. Everything's fine.

Elna Baker

Will sits forward in his seat. The day his marriage fell apart, Will came home and Rebecca was on the couch crying. She said she'd been talking to her mom but he never knew what their conversation was about. He felt like he was getting to see it now. In the scene, Franny, played by Eve Hewson, talks to her mom, played by Andie MacDowell.

Franny

Maybe it's just like, the first year of marriage is the hardest, you know, like that old saying? And like, in a few years we'll look back on it and laugh.

Joanne

Baby, look at me. That saying's bullshit. The first year should be your best. It wasn't none of us will stick around, because it only gets harder. Much harder.

Will

It's-- it's just like seeing how upset she is, that like, sucks. She like, felt really bad. Like, this is just a bad feeling for someone to have to go through.

Elna Baker

You're seeing how hard it was for her.

Will

Well, it's just-- I don't think I was incorrect to focus on my own struggles during the whole process of splitting up. But it did kind of prevent me from like, thinking about hers as well. I just didn't have as much of an appreciation for like, the difficulty of it, the like, misery that goes into that choice.

It also is a little bit of a relief that it was hard for her. If it had been very easy for her to end things, I would've felt like such absolute trash. If just one day she'd come home and been like, you know what? Not for me. Bye, pal.

Elna Baker

But that's the story you've kind of been telling yourself.

Will

Yeah, yeah.

Elna Baker

For years, Will had been telling himself the same version of their breakup, something he'd sandpapered down into this. Rebecca got her big break and then she dumped him out of the blue. He was heartbroken, she was happy and thriving. Moving on was easy for her. But watching this, it came flooding back-- at least a year, maybe more, when Rebecca was sad before their breakup. It was like time traveling through all this pain that he'd deleted from his memory.

We asked Rebecca to come talk about her movie with Will. She met us at the house where Will was house sitting. It's a little awkward. They talk about the weather and traffic. In the six years since their marriage ended, they've never had a conversation about it. And for her, understandably, this did not seem like the best way to begin one, by talking about her movie.

Rebecca

You know it has-- and I mean this in a certain sense, it has nothing to do with Will. It's its own movie. And it's not a documentary. So I kind of object to the idea that we're going to read into this movie and we're going to use it as some kind of, like, secret code to understand this real life relationship that existed.

Elna Baker

But also, I feel like, the way you're saying it, it's like, oh, I just made a movie. It was just a movie. Why are you reading into this movie? But I feel like there are-- it's more specifically related to an experience that you had.

Rebecca

Sure. But I'm not, you know-- I'm not the first person to do such a thing.

Will

He had to be a dog walker.

Rebecca

Well, but--

Will

I said that's why I knew. I was like, he's going to dog sit and he's going to have no ambition.

Rebecca

Yeah. I also, I guess I always thought of that character as not someone without ambition, but someone who is afraid. And I'm not-- that's not me, like, looking at you going like, that's really who you are.

Elna Baker

Will tells Rebecca what he told me, how the most emotional part of the movie was seeing her side of things, how hard it was for her to decide to break apart and then to finally do it.

Will

It felt bad because it was just her trying to justify not ending it, or trying to convince herself, like, it'll get better. And that was like, a very emotional thing for me, and the most affecting part of the movie, like hard to watch.

Rebecca

Is it because it reminded you of that last sort of big conversation we had that was emotional?

Will

It felt bad because it reminded me of like, you having to do, yourself, kind of all of the recognizing of the problems in the relationship. I just hadn't ever considered the like, journey to coming to that point, and that conclusion, and like, how difficult it is to do that. That's clear, right? That make sense?

Rebecca

I think so. I mean, is this now like, the part of the show where we just talk about our break up? Do you want me to respond?

Yeah, I mean, I don't really want to get into it, but that was a really tough period, and those were really, kind of like, weirdly dark, confusing times. And I think that's why I wrote this. It wasn't like I was trying to write this so you would understand something.

Will

Oh, yeah.

Rebecca

I was doing it so that I could understand something.

Elna Baker

I feel like-- so, I mean, I obviously relate to this because I'm going through a divorce. I left my husband a year ago and--

Oh, more personal info. My marriage seems really similar to theirs. My husband was mostly unemployed. I was the one who is working all the time. Neither of us were happy and I had to be the one to call

Elna Baker

--I sort of knew. And I have to say, I wish he would give me credit, you know? Like, it was really awful and hard and heartbreaking and I was tormented by it and it was the hardest decision I've ever made.

And I would just-- like, this is my dream realization that my partner could ever have, which is to say, like, oh, my god. It was hard for you, too. Like, are you getting that? Are you getting-- am I like, projecting? No, I mean--

Rebecca

It's just, we've been broken up for how long now?

Will

It's over six years.

Rebecca

Yeah. I mean, and I haven't been spending much of that time going, thinking, oh, I hope Will understands my perspective some day. You know, I think I've just-- I think it's really nice that maybe there is some kind of mutual middle ground that we're seeing it from. But I think that I've just-- it was OK for me to let Will have his own path through it.

Elna Baker

Will had a story of how things ended that was cemented in his mind, and without the film he would have gone on thinking it, cherry picking the moments that made him feel the worst. Rebecca says if you want your ex to understand your breakup, the best way probably isn't to make a movie about it. It's way too much work and money and the most likely outcome is that they'll hate you for it.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show.

(SINGING) There must be a way to feel like I used to feel before, before it all went wrong.

Ira Glass

Our show was produced today by Elna Baker. People who worked on the show include Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Stephanie Foo, Damien Gray, Michelle Harris, David Kestenbaum, Seth Lind, Anna Martin, Miki Meeks, Stone Nelson, Nadia Raymond, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

Special thanks today Bud Meyers and Alvin Melathe. Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia.

You know, I was short on money for lunch the other day. And I said, Torey, you have any cash? Do you have cash? He got really defensive.

Will

I never had a rash. There's no rash. I don't know what they're talking about.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories at This American Life.