I never paid much attention to Richard Dreyfuss.
If anything, I found his screen characters annoying, though he did win me over at the end of “Jaws.” (“Mary Ellen Moffett — she broke my heart.” Great scene.)
But life is full of surprises, and on Sunday I improbably found myself seated in a living room armchair emailing the legendary actor on a glitchy Android tablet and pledging fidelity to his new cause. I even tried to send him $25, but either his site, thedreyfussinitiative.org, or my tablet wouldn’t hear of it.
I must try again.
It was a Friday night appearance by Dreyfuss on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show that caused the sudden interest. I was alerted to the episode on Twitter and watched it on YouTube. Such are the ways we now get news.
Dreyfuss went on the show to talk about sanctuary cities — and the federal circuit court injunction blocking the Trump administration from withholding funds to them — but the interview took a remarkable turn: Dreyfuss, in the six minutes and 24 seconds allotted him, laid out a crisp, impassioned argument for: intellectual diversity on college campuses; the primacy of the U.S. Constitution over partisan whims of the day; the return of a civics curriculum in public high schools (his cause), and a reaffirmation of shared American principles and values for every actual and aspiring U.S. citizen.
Carlson immediately sensed Dreyfuss was saying something special, so he did the smart thing: He let the actor-turned-Constitution-activist filibuster. It was great TV.
The essential viewpoint Dreyfuss argued was anything but new. That’s what was so striking about it actually. His words were achingly familiar to Americans of a certain age. They spoke to a forgotten national ethos, to elemental assumptions about our country we once held dearly, whether we were Democrats or Republicans — before many of us became brainwashed (or intellectually exhausted) by ubiquitous, 24-hour, professional political rhetoric. The punch of Dreyfuss’s words wasn’t “Eureka!” It was, “How did I ever forget that?”
The Dreyfuss interview didn’t happen in a vacuum. There are signs of nascent normalcy popping up all over. Normalcy, or a growing realization that America could spin out of control if it doesn’t start abiding by its basic Constitutional tenets, without which, as Dreyfuss rightly noted, we will have no basic framework or national identity going forward.
Liberals like HBO’s Bill Maher are supporting the right of conservatives like Ann Coulter to speak at college campuses without being threatened. Academics, a brave handful anyway, are throwing caution to the wind and speaking out about intellectual diversity and free speech. Anti-cop rhetoric has cooled. And everyday people are growing blind to protest signs and deaf to words like “hate,” which has been overused to the point of meaninglessness.
Could cooler heads be coming back into style?
Some of the visceral fascination with all things Trump seems to be ebbing, too, if social media is any measure. And it is. Of course we’re still interested in Trump — he’s the president — but his social media engagement, pro and con, has fallen 66 percent in recent weeks. That doesn’t mean Trump supporters are abandoning him, or that opponents now like him, it means the zeal and sting of 2016 is slowly but surely dissipating, as it invariably must. People can only fight so long.
I have no idea what Dreyfuss thinks about military spending, Planned Parenthood, corporate tax cuts or Trump’s wall. But what I do know is that he gets what it once meant to be an American and that he’s working to remind others of it.
“Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “The Goodbye Girl.” I’m going to give ’em another look.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.