Shaking hands with a foe
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Kindness in the world of politics? 7 uplifting examples from 2013

Shaking hands with a foe
In 1993, the long-imprisoned Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the man who had released him, then-South African President F.W. de Klerk. As The Times wrote: “A year later, Mandela, the son of a tribal chief, succeeded De Klerk after a historic, peaceful election, the images of which were seared into the memory of a global audience: millions of blacks cast the first votes of their lifetimes.”

And then, even in death, he brought together unlikely bedfellows.

At Mandela’s memorial Dec. 10, President Obama shook hands with Raul Castro, president of the long-estranged communist Cuba and brother of Fidel. The administration assigned no meaning to the gesture. Still, as The Times said: “A handshake with the leader of a nation that’s been a foe for half a century is never just a handshake.”

Above: Obama shakes hands with Castro during the official memorial service for Mandela.

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10 tips for a better life from The Times’ Op-Ed pages in 2013  (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Winning with kindness
Certainly political, sometimes New-Jersey-in-your-face blunt but occasionally, yes, kind.

During a fall debate with Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, the usually boisterous Republican Gov. Chris Christie killed his opponent with kindness.

At one point, the moderator asked the opponents to say something one liked about the other. Buono quipped: “Well, he’s good on late-night TV, he’s just not so good in New Jersey.”

Unfazed, Christie responded: “She’s obviously a good and caring mother and someone who cares deeply about public service in this state because she’s dedicated a lot of her life to it.

“And while we have policy disagreements, I would never denigrate her service. And I think we need more people who care enough about our communities to be able to stand up and do the job that she’s done over the last 20 years.”

The debate deflated, the hall exhaled. Wrote one political commentator about the knockout punch: “This was pretty skillful.... I’ve been covering politicians for years ... but even I think he might be at least partially sincere.”

Christie cruised to reelection as governor of New Jersey this fall.

Above: Christie, left, and Buono at a different debate in New Jersey.

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Dreaming of an equitable future
President Obama, perhaps feeling a bit defensive about his policies and his critics, told a Hollywood audience in November that “kindness” was his driving motivation.

Quoting his friend (and fellow Chicagoan) Roger Ebert, the late film reviewer, he said: “I was fortunate enough to get to know Roger, and was always inspired by how he handled some really tough stuff,” Obama said. “He said, ‘Kindness covers all of my political beliefs.’

"... And when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it,” the president continued.

“Kindness; empathy -- that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because Malia and Sasha are doing well, that’s not enough -- I want your kids to do well also ... that’s what binds us together, and that’s how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success. And that’s what drives me.” He declared: “And, yes, we decided to fix a broken healthcare system.”

So maybe it was empathy, maybe it was practical politics, but doesn’t working to extend affordable healthcare to millions of uninsured Americans count?

Anove: Obama speaks at DreamWorks Animation facility on Nov. 26.

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Releasing detained activists -- with love
In what it called an act of “loving kindness,” the nation of Burma said in November it was releasing 69 political prisoners. The amnesty was part of a promise by the military-backed civilian government to release all prisoners of conscience by the end of the year.

The official statement said the action would allow the former prisoners to “contribute in nation-building after realizing the loving kindness and goodwill of the state.”

According to the BBC, the country also known as Myanmar has freed scores of political prisoners since it began steps toward reform a few years ago. The move coincided with visits by high-profile guests, including officials from the European Union, ex-President Bill Clinton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Amnesty International, however, warned: “Today’s release is of course welcome, but the fact remains that there are many imprisoned for peaceful activism still behind bars in Myanmar.”

Still, steps in the right direction, no?

Above: A political prisoner walks out of a prison after his release in Kalay.

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10 tips for a better life from The Times’ Op-Ed pages in 2013  (AFP/Getty Images)
Noting a notable woman
Somewhat fittingly, another act of -- well, if not kindness, at least civility -- involves Jane Austen, a genteel author who wrote anonymously because women in the England of her time simply did not bring public attention to themselves.

Last spring, the Bank of England set off a bit of a tempest when it announced it would drop one of the few women -- social reformer Elizabeth Fry -- on its currency.

In a stiff-upper-lip type protest, tens of thousands of people signed a petition questioning the message that lack of representation would send to young women (only the indefatigable Queen Elizabeth II would remain on official currency).

British lawmakers, in turn, asked the bank to reflect upon its decision. Judiciously, the venerable institution agreed that the critically acclaimed Jane Austen “certainly merits a place in the select group of historical figures to appear on our banknotes.”

Austen, who kept a very private profile as a novelist -- she used the byline “By a Lady” -- might have nodded demurely. But her comments on money and fortune remain sharp 200 years later. In “Mansfield Park,” she wrote: “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

Above: Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney speaks at the presentation of the concept design for the new 10-pound banknote featuring author Jane Austen.

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Cleaning up -- because of our lawmakers’ mess
Chris Cox, a colorful South Carolina native, took it upon himself to clean parts of the Washington Mall during the 16-day government shutdown in the fall.

“These are our memorials. Do they think that we’re just going to let them go to hell?” asked Cox, after he was spotted mowing the grass outside the Lincoln Memorial. “The building behind me serves as a moral compass, not only for our country but for the world.”

With many park maintenance services idled, Cox stepped in: “Over my dead body are we going to find trash pouring out of these trash cans. At the end of the day, we are the stewards of these buildings.”

Others, inspired by his message, came to a cleanup rally to help. Said Cox of all the attention: “It’s humbling and it’s flattering.”

Whatever his motivation, it feels like political kindness.

Above: A U.S. Park Police officer stands guard in front of the closed Lincoln Memorial on Oct. 1.

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Putting kids before politics
Another instance of politics and kindness, also prompted by the government shutdown in October, came from philanthropists Laura and John Arnold of Texas.

The couple, who made their money in the hedge fund and oil and gas industries, pledged to donate millions of dollars in emergency funds to the Head Start program so that 7,000 kids from low-income families wouldn’t face closed doors. The Arnolds told interviewers that they believed it was “especially unfair that young children from underprivileged communities and working families pay the price for the legislature’s collective failures.”

Of course, some saw it as PR. As one critic observed: “If you are a billionaire former Enron trader, you manufacture a self-congratulatory spectacle by offering a bit of pocket change to low-income kids.”

Above: Preschoolers in “toy sharing” learning exercise at PACE (Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment) Early Childhood Education program in Los Angeles.

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