When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell treated domestic violence lightly, he was straying far from the path of his father’s footsteps. The contrasting behavior of son and father provides a prism through which we can see more clearly the distemper of our times.
Charles Goodell, Roger’s father, had been appointed to replace Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968, as Senator from New York. The following year, Senator Goodell spoke out against the war in Vietnam, which was then the stepchild of Richard Nixon’s White House. Goodell and the president were both Republicans, but Nixon, famous for his vindictiveness, opposed Goodell’s election campaign. Vice President Agnew weighed in with some of his typically scurrilous attacks. Charles Goodell lost his bid to return to the Senate, and the White House had one fewer critic.
If the contrast of Senator Goodell’s principled stand with his son’s attempted evasion is seen as primarily a personal difference, we overlook a significant cultural shift. Charles Goodell’s forthright and risky stand was memorable, but not unique in his day. Democratic senators criticized Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s policy in Vietnam, and incurred his wrath. In an action that would be unthinkable today, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a conservative Democrat, held televised hearings on the war, which included experts who strongly disagreed with President Johnson’s policy. Such fidelity to the Constitutional role of Congress seems almost quaint in the 21st century.
In American history, though certainly not recently, it has been accepted that some political leaders would dissent from their party on critical issues. The political world attracted people, particularly those inspired by John Kennedy’s leadership, who felt that public service was a calling. The country’s interest was better served, as partisanship gave way to principle at crucial times—as it did in Senator Goodell’s dissent. Ironically, four years after Goodell felt the White House’s ire, Republican Congressmen played a key role in impeaching Nixon for his misdeeds, including an overzealous targeting of his political “enemies.”
Today, the contagion of opportunism extends far beyond the offices of the NFL. As Roger Goodell put the NFL’s bottom line above principle, so our current crop of politicians put party loyalty above their Constitutional role. There are no Senator Goodells in Washington now, and the country is far poorer for it. Recent experience shows that our democracy cannot function without a contingent of men and women who will dissent from their party when they feel it necessary for the good of the country. By making the Senator Goodells of our political system an extinct species, the destructive partisanship of our times puts democracy itself at peril.