Lessons in politics and empathy from one of New York’s elder statesmen
Robert Abrams: ‘If you can explain to your constituents what motivated you to vote that way ... even if they don’t agree with you, they’ll understand.’
Robert Abrams is all about building bridges. Now 84, the former New York attorney general devoted his career to public service and practicing the law, but he made it a lifelong habit to reach across aisles and mend fences. That’s what brought the influential Jewish leader to Salt Lake City this summer, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presented him with the Thomas L. Kane Award, honoring his work connecting the Jewish community and members of the church. Abrams, who goes by Bob, is not a large man, but he captivates a crowd with his jovial laugh and outsized energy, his arms windmilling as he tells a story, hands in near-constant motion.
As a young man, Abrams didn’t set out to become a politician, but his plans changed thanks to a government course at Columbia College in 1958. Assigned to interview his congressman, he made numerous efforts to reach out, but never got a response. You might say he never got over it, because years later, while he was in law school at NYU, he helped a reform campaign to unseat an incumbent who’d represented his district for three decades — who happened to be the man who couldn’t be bothered to return a call from a frustrated student. That experience sparked an interest in politics. In 1965, Abrams won a seat in the New York State Assembly. He was 27 years old.
That became the first step in a lifelong journey. Abrams later won the office of Bronx Borough president and eventually, in 1978, was elected as attorney general for the state of New York. The first Democrat to win that position in nearly four decades, he tackled consumer and civil rights, as well as environmental causes, holding onto the role until 1993. He won his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1992 but lost a close race to incumbent Al D’Amato. Even after going into private practice, he continued public service, sitting on boards, commissions and committees.
A die-hard liberal, Abrams still counts conservatives among his closest friends. Over his decades in office, he collaborated with A.G.s from other states — big and small, red and blue — in a quest to right corporate wrongs. In the foreword to his 2021 memoir, “The Luckiest Guy in the World,” New York Attorney General Letitia James writes: “Robert Abrams was larger than life. His legacy was manifest not only in New York but across the nation.” The Justice Building in Albany was renamed the Robert Abrams Building for Law and Justice in 2009.
Deseret asked Abrams about politics, legacy and what he hopes to teach young people about their role in America’s future.
Deseret News: You’ve had a long and storied career in public service. Do you ever think about how you’d like to be remembered?
Robert Abrams: At the end of your days, as you’re lying there, ready to meet your maker, you want to know that you made a difference, that your life was worthwhile. That you did everything you could. Not everybody can do titanic important things, but we can all do a little to help improve somebody’s life, or our community, or even the world. You want to look back and say: “I’m proud. I made the most of my life. I made the most of my days. I worked hard. I tried to be honest, to have a good reputation. I tried to raise my family with the proper values.” That’s what I hope might be my legacy. Hopefully, people will say, “He tried hard and he had a good name.” That I was a person of independence and integrity. I’m proud of my life and career as a lawyer, and it was a privilege to serve the public. To help people across the board has been a great honor.
DN: That’’s quite the ideal. Why does it seem so hard for politicians to live up to their principles?
RA: All too often what you see in the newspapers are the outliers, the people who abuse the public trust, who therefore get the headline. Not the bulk of the people who serve in government and in politics who are decent, who are honorable, who are there for the right reasons. But this is a tough business.
I’m a baseball fan. The Baseball Hall of Fame is in my state, in Cooperstown, New York. You can get inducted there if you get a batting average of around .300. That means you make an error — you get out — two out of three times. And you’re still one of the all-time greats. In politics, if somebody disagrees with one thing that you have to say, that may do you in. Especially with the internet and social media.
That said, I found that if you can explain to your constituents what motivated you to vote that way, what was on your mind, what was in your heart and conscience, that even if they don’t agree with you, they’ll understand.
DN: All that seems more difficult in 2022. If you were starting now, would you still go into politics?
RA: I don’t want to discourage anyone, but a campaign is a much more difficult crucible to enter today. The amount of money you have to raise to run for public office, the kinds of campaigns that are waged, the things that are said in the course of those campaigns, the stretching of the truth if not outright lies that are hurled against you — no one likes that. It’s hard to have your children, spouse and family hear all kinds of vile things about you. So you really have to be committed and want to do good and want to serve.
But nothing is easy in the world. We all know that. The bottom line of my message to young people is, don’t drop out. Roll up your sleeves and get into the fray because the world needs young people. It needs their energy, idealism and their commitment to appropriate values. We need people to help clean up the mess, to solve some of our problems. And creative, dynamic leaders are important to the health of our country and our world order.
DN: While we’re talking about big deals, if there was one single issue you could solve, what would it be?
RA: If there was one thing that I could wish for this world, it would be peace. There’s still too much war, too much conflict. There’s too much bloodshed, loss of life, loss of human values and caring for others. My wife and I were once fortunate enough to travel through Ukraine. We visited Crimea, Odessa, Nikolaev. We saw the beauty and the majesty of that country and we met the people. We connected with the Jewish community. What’s happening there now — the death and destruction I see on television — gets to my heart every day. As humans, we seem to be incapable of learning from all the wars that we’ve gone through, all the horror. We just don’t understand that, as George Santayana said, if you can’t learn the lessons of history you will repeat them.
DN: You’re a liberal person who recently accepted an award from a conservative church. Tell us about that unusual relationship.
RA: A friend who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints invited me to come here and bring some Jewish leaders from New York City to learn more about their faith and what the organization does. From that trip blossomed years of significant relationships and activities together. Much has been accomplished, much has been done to build those ties, but I think our efforts should even be further intensified.
We need bridge builders, and the leaders of this church feel very deeply about that. I quote them, men like President Russell M. Nelson and President Dallin H. Oaks, about the need for people who are different to respond to each other — indeed, to love one another. Those are admonitions and commitments to be found throughout the scriptures.
You should respect me for who I am, I should respect you for who you are. No two people are exactly alike. Spouses learn that they are not exactly alike. No two nations are alike, and no two faiths are totally alike, but there are broad similarities, and we can develop respect and love for one another. That’s what I think the world should be all about. Certainly, that’s been part of my relationship with the church, which is something that makes me feel lucky. Hopefully we’re only in the midst of that process, and we can extend these friendships between our two communities.
DN: Do you have a last word?
RA: The cup is always half-full. You’ve got to be optimistic. There’s enough going on in the world today that can turn you off — it can make you feel very depressed — but you’ve got to look at the other side of it. We can do better, we can enjoy more by way of achievement and benefit for humankind, as brothers and sisters living and learning together, sharing the bounty of the land, sharing the fruits of our ideas and the ideals. I hope others feel the same way.