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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Ron Silver

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-28

As they left the restaurant, the reporter turned to his guest and said, "Well, Bruno, thanks for joining me at lunch."

He'd purposely called him "Bruno" because that's one of Ron Silver's best-known television characters, a skilled Democratic operative who surprisingly offers to help a Republican candidate in a messy presidential campaign. Bruno Gianelli's proposal was made to Alan Alda in last week's episode of "The West Wing," the popular NBC drama in which Mr. Silver has appeared many times; "Bruno" was even nominated for an Emmy.

If the thespian thought that the reporter had mistakenly addressed him by his fictional name, he didn't show it. Without missing a beat, Mr. Silver was gracious about the lunch invitation, and then said he was returning to his Park Avenue apartment to reread "The Education of Henry Adams." There was also a paper or two on public-policy issues he needed to peruse, and there were upcoming get-togethers with his children, Alexandra -- who's about to graduate from Princeton University -- and Adam, a Los Angeles-based writer.

The reporter hadn't called Mr. Silver "Bruno" only because he'd enjoyed his appearance on "The West Wing." He was also implicitly telegraphing his awareness that, in real life, the veteran actor of TV, films and the stage -- and a lifelong Democrat -- had indeed assisted a Republican candidate in a presidential race. Last year, Mr. Silver made a celebrated -- and in some circles, mainly Democratic, a roundly criticized -- appearance at the GOP convention in New York.

Mr. Silver has no regrets about his decision. "I find President Bush the right leader for our times," he said. "I am heartened by his response to Sept. 11, and by his emphasis on national security. I am heartened by his determination to spread the values of democracy and the free market -- it reminds me of the vigorous international liberalism that I thought our country had given up on. I've long felt that the advancement of our values and the projection of American power was a good force for the world. I'm heartened by the president's restructuring of our intelligence services."

"In many ways, I think that Mr. Bush's approach to the world parallels that of Harry Truman. President Truman's transformational politics set the stage for a bipartisan consensus on global issues for the next 50 years. President Bush has a similar opportunity," he said. "Like Truman, he's a down-to-earth sort of guy who can relate to everyday people and everyday issues."

With that last sentence, Mr. Silver could also have been referring to himself. His celebrity status -- limned by a Tony for his role in David Mamet's "Speed the Plow," and countless other artistic awards -- hasn't isolated him from what Mr. Silver calls "the full panoply" of local and national issues. He was chairman of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's millennium commission. He's a founding-member and director of New York City Public/Private Initiatives, Inc. He founded the Creative Coalition, which deals with First Amendment issues. He was president of Actors Equity for nearly a decade. He's a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, where he's especially active on issues concerning China; Mr. Silver, a polyglot who attended Yale Law School, also holds a master's degree in Chinese studies from St. John's University.

"Celebrity status simply gives you a bigger megaphone," Mr. Silver said. "I feel it's legitimate to use celebrity in pursuit of public policy. But I approach every issue in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin, who advised us not to be too certain that you're always right -- and to listen to the other side."

"But as an actor you're delivering lines from someone else's script," he said. "In being engaged with public-policy issues, you need to write your own script. And in New York, you can find your source material everywhere. There's no way that you could shut your eyes to humanity here. With such a richly cosmopolitan city, yet a city of dramatic contrasts in wealth and lifestyles, how could one not be engaged?"

That requires perspicacity. It requires pertinacity. And it requires a proclivity toward taking contrarian positions. For instance, Mr. Silver differed with his Hollywood colleagues during the Vietnam War, contending that American involvement in support of anti-Communism was justified. (As fate would have it, he eventually appeared in an acclaimed TNT movie, "Kissinger and Nixon" -- in the role of Henry A. Kissinger, a hawk who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping negotiate an end to that war.)

"In all my public-policy engagements, I bring to the table a passion to get to the truth," Mr. Silver said. "I'm always searching for the best available answers. I'm always aware how important the political environment is when it comes to determining the context of people's lives. And I've seen how context can make a difference in people's lives."

"Making a difference" is a phrase that surfaces several times during the lunch. "I do feel profoundly about certain values -- tolerance, pluralism, diversity," Mr. Silver said. "So maybe that's why I seem to have appointed myself as a tribune of the people. Maybe that's why I've fought battles that some others might not have fought. As an actor, I live in a world of illusion. As a New Yorker, I cannot delude myself. It takes a certain amount of vigor and strength to pursue the issues that one wants to pursue."

And what would those issues be now, the reporter asked?

"I'm distressed by the culture wars that are going on in our country," Mr. Silver said. "I'm discomfited by the fact that certain constitutional issues that have already been settled are being brought into play again. I feel that a full national discussion on the moral and secular implications of such issues is overdue. All sides need to fully respect others' positions. I worry that people are talking past one another."

"I do believe that in a post-Sept. 11 world, America's security truly depends on the creation of decent societies around the world," Mr. Silver continued. "And by that I mean societies that respect the rights of minorities, societies where women are fully integrated into the economy, societies where there's a strong judiciary, where health-care is assured for all, societies where there's a strong press. I often quote China's late Deng Xiaoping. He said, 'I don't care if the cat is black or white -- as long as it catches mice.' Republicans, Democrats -- we all need the common goal of creating decent societies, at home and abroad."

Then he reached into his repertoire of another Adams he admires -- President John Adams -- and said, "We also need to be a society that's capable of laughter and joy. As John Adams said, I like to close every day with humor and festivity. But you need a society that's fair to all."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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