Washington has been at its most Washington these past few days.
The ongoing, bitterly fought and talked impeachment, the president’s tweets and his 24-7 presence reflect the Washington that is all about politics and policy, a rarefied but also polluted atmosphere often described by rival parties as “the swamp.”
We are reminded of this gentle fact when honorable worthies among us pass on. We count those events as losses of people we recognize as part of the city’s history and daily life.
This past week, we lost two men; we lost the coach and we lost the newsman.
We lost, at age 88, a man who in the circles of the game of basketball, high school basketball in this city in particular, and even more particularly DeMatha Catholic High School, gained considerable fame and honor as a basketball coach for 46 years: Morgan Wootten.,
We lost, at 85, a newsman who, over time, without hysteria or over-punctuation, became a familiar figure for many of us, speaking into a camera, a reporter and commentator who spoke in plain, direct, unmistakable language — in slightly Southwest-accented undertones with an overtone of clarity — that could at times be affecting and even poetic: Jim Lehrer.
Wooten, who died among family members at his home in Hyattsville, Maryland, gained membership in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, only the third high school coach to achieve this honor, which wasn’t too bad for a man originally hired to be a coach, but also an athletic director and a history teacher.
He achieved a fame that transcended the idea of “basketball coach,” or even the best basketball coach, or even the notion of national championship. He helped lift up high school basketball into the limelight, where his players, and by connection, other players across the country could achieve honors, immortality and fame themselves.
With Wooten, you got the idea of how sports and athletics at a certain level could connect to both community and country in ways that were principled and understandable. With Wooten, you have a record, but you also were connected to notions of pride, honesty and hard work, and when high honors were achieved how that connected to game, school, neighborhood, city and at times country.
Wooten was appointed to be a coach at an orphanage in Washington, but was hired at DeMatha in 1951 primarily to teach world history, while also coaching basketball. He taught world history to freshmen until 1980. When he retired in 2002, he had won 1,274 games, won five mythical national championships and helped raise high school basketball to a level of national importance — not to mention having a huge impact on his players, many of whom offered up tributes and thanks in the wake of his death.
That kind of success not only earned him the respect of his peers at any level, but also showed him to be a man of values and integrity. In an arena where future stars are scouted at an early age, Wooten’s example is instructive. He told his players that he ranked basketball in importance in matters of living a life behind, in order, God, family and education. Reports have it that he almost cursed only once in his life and would not allow his players to do so.
Basketball took on an importance at the high school level in the District, and later the region. When you have a man like Wooten teaching — and he saw himself as a teacher — and coaching his players, from future NBA players to last guy on the bench, then you see why the community responded to him with respect and affection that was often not conferred on the surrounding political class.
Lehrer, on the other hand — founder of “The PBS NewsHour,” presidential debate overseer, novelist and even playwright — was an honored and identifiable member of the government and media class that so often dominates perceptions of Washington and its swampier areas. He was a trusted member of the media class, now so heavily under fire from sections of the governing class.
To many of us who are members in some standing, good or otherwise, of that class, Lehrer was an exemplary example of honesty, craftsmanship and professionalism. He was an outright gifted and talented writer, but his most famous admonition to journalists was: “It’s not about me.”
He was a reporter, true; he was a commentator, true; he was a moderator, true, but at heart he was, from everything he produced and worked at, a writer. He not only wrote news copy, presided over Watergate coverage, wrote stories, but also wrote numerous novels and plays, one of which was called “The Sooner Spy.” A play called “Chili Queen” was performed at the Kennedy Center.
His life seemed to be deflective and bare of the sour, exaggerated and migraine producing tone of the politics of the here and now.
In Washington, in his professional guise, he was an honored citizen, like Wooten. Their deaths are losses we can ill afford.