The Need to Believe

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The following is excerpted from a speech delivered by Bernard Rapoport at his 90th birthday party on July 17, 2007.

Just a few hours and some 90 years ago, I came into this world. It was a time when there were more horses and buggies than cars. There was no air-conditioning. There were not any of the multitudes of inventions that have, on a personal basis, made life more comfortable, such as air-conditioning, the cell phone, and the computer. These have made life easier, but not necessarily fulfilling.

Since this is my birthday, it’s time for me to remember what I owe, and to whom, the many who have helped make possible what I have achieved.

I think the first sentence I ever heard (of course, I didn’t understand it then) was, “Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” The author was Karl Marx. Yes, I was born mixed up. My mother was a Hasidic Jew who spent lots of time in the synagogue. My father looked on this with disdain because he believed in the Marxist doctrine.

Despite these rifts, we were a closely knit family. My sister is three years younger than I. She leaned a little more toward what Mother believed, and I, a little more toward what Papa believed. But the important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that we were a believing family. How we believed and what we believed could differ, but what transcended that cul-de-sac was the respect each of us had for the other’s beliefs. We had many discussions that ended with each of us at rest.

Bernard Rapoport

I had the best teachers that anyone had a right to expect. By the time I received my B.A. degree from the University of Texas, I felt that I was educated, because I knew where to go to find the appropriate sources to sustain what I believed. That was a transition, though. Marx to John Dewey was a very big jump, but I made it, and with that jump I’ve had reinforcement in Dewey’s commitment to pragmatism. He was seminal in his thinking, and his syllogistic approach made it easy to accept his view of what is required for a democratic society.

Tonight is an evening to which I’ve looked forward because I have been blessed with so many friends. Many of you are in this room, and you are people I could not do without. I learned so much from you. I’ve learned about knowledge; I’ve learned about love; I’ve learned about politics; and you were my teachers. I only hope that I was as good a student as you are teachers.

My father used to tell me that everyone who had money was selfish and ignorant. He had no use for people with lots of resources. As I started in 1951 to build my company, I said, “Papa, I’m going to build a company, and we’re going to get rich!” He said, “Don’t tell me about it. Most people that are rich are selfish and ignorant.” He had that Marxist attitude that had permeated his thinking so deeply. Well, it is not unreasonable to expect this attitude, which resulted in his being imprisoned for his political beliefs.

We initiated the American Income Life Insurance Co., and there are many in this room who helped in building the company. They are the ones that made it work. I think the most idiotic people I’ve ever met are those that assume that they are self-made; that their success is a result of themselves. They give no credit to those that were involved in the process that produced the successful venture. So many of these marvelous people that did believe in what we were doing at American Income contributed to building a billion-dollar company and careers for so many who would never have dreamed that what they achieved would be possible. In this room are so many of these wonderful associates to whom I owe so much. Together we were believers. As someone reminded us, “Believing may be difficult, but the need for believing is inescapable.”

Also, in this room are many labor leaders who believed me when I said that American Income would be THE union company, and this was a major contribution to the growth of the company. The other day I was in Washington, and there was a full-page ad on why we shouldn’t have unions. It made me angry. Anti-unionism represents to me a desire by management to manage in the way that it would like, without regard for the interests or benefit of those who are contributing to the success of the company. I remember many times when we were in contract negotiations; we gave even more than what I had anticipated we would, and the success of American Income came because we did listen. The union was our partner; the unions of America want to be partners with American business, partners in the sense that their views are respected and that they will be listened to and that they will be given consideration. Like it or not, my feeling is that any company that fears the union does not have much confidence in its ability to lead.

Then there are also so many in this room that have been inspirational to me: great senators, great congressmen, plus some potential presidents. To all of these in public office, I owe a great deal. I learned a lot from them. I hope I learned how to be a better citizen. The reason that you are here, I know, is because you know the love I have for you, and I, in turn, know the love you have for me.

I also want to mention that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have been friends of mine for many years. I love both of them. This notwithstanding, when my secretary tells me it is Nancy or Harry on the phone, I pick up the phone and don’t wait for them to talk, I just say, “To whom and how much?” They’ve honored me this evening with their presence, and for this I am grateful. They are committed to making the U.S. greater today than it was yesterday!

Finally, one of the most important lessons in life, to wit, “Don’t Want it All.” When I was young, very young, 7 or 8 years old, my favorite game was playing marbles. Generally, my friend had 30 marbles, and I had 30 marbles. If I won all 30 of his, I gave him back 10, not because I was sweet or lovable or generous; even at that age I understood that if I had it all, I wouldn’t have anybody to play with. It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten. As I see a society where 1 percent of the population has more assets than the bottom 100 million, I think that 1 percent isn’t nearly as smart as they think they are.

I close with this admonition from David Hume about two farmers:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profit for us both, that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I shou’d in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

Yes, when we work separately, none of us benefits. When we work together, we can achieve the requisites for a better society.

Bernard Rapoport is head of the Bernard and Audre Rapoport Foundation, chairman emeritus of American Income Life Insurance Co., and a board member of The Texas Observer.