Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, I'm not one to talk about my social life, mainly because the one I currently enjoy revolves around pizza, face paint and moon bounces. But the other night I was invited to a dinner where I had a chance to listen to a man who had been one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's top lieutenants. He shared how LBJ went about finding out what was going on in the country once he was in the White House, how he went about diffusing tense situations, and how very hard he worked on the cause of civil rights.

This conversation reminded me of a time years ago when I had the chance to see the late Lady Bird Johnson up close. The visit was part of a campaign trip for some candidate I was covering - for the life of me, I can't remember which one. But I do remember that I was maybe five feet away from Lady Bird. I had this strong desire to say something to her. I wanted to thank her for everything her husband and also, in her own way, she had done for civil rights in this country.

I was thinking about how much her husband's work had done to bring me to that moment. Me, a little black girl from Brooklyn, New York from an ordinary family with no money and no connections, who then had a chance to get a great education, to work for one of the top newspapers in the country, and to be standing there with all these other big shots in the media in her front yard.

I wanted to thank her and tell her I appreciated her. But I didn't. I didn't utter a word. I didn't say anything, in part, because I thought it would be out of line. I was there as a reporter, representing my newspaper, not grateful black girls from Brooklyn. And frankly, I thought I would be perceived by my colleagues as out of place, as weird, even. So I stayed silent.

Can I just tell you? In the years since, my silence that day is one of my few regrets as a journalist. The self-help literature often talks about the value of clearing the air and how much better off we'd all be if we cleared up our differences with people before it's too late. But how much better off would we be if we also expressed our appreciation to the people we value while we're still around to hear it?

Lady Bird left this world in July 2007, but after that campaign stop, I was never anywhere close enough to her to wave at her, let alone say thank you on behalf of all the little black girls from Brooklyn and Birmingham and the Bay Area who got to be somebody in part because of what she and, of course, her husband did.

Which brings me to why I want to take a minute to say why I am grateful to Diane Rehm. We celebrated her 30th anniversary in public broadcasting last week. For those of you who don't know, Diane began her radio career in 1973 as a volunteer for WAMU's "The Home Show." In 1979, she took over as host of WAMU's morning talk show "Kaleidoscope," which was renamed "The Diane Rehm Show" in 1984.

People forget what a big deal this was and is, and just how much ferment there was - and I would argue is - about exactly what role women should have in public life. In 1973, for example, Phyllis Schlafly came to national prominence by organizing to stop the Equal Rights Amendment. That was, of course, also the year the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. A year later, the court ruled that teachers couldn't be forced to quit their jobs for getting pregnant. In 1976, NASA first accepted female trainees in the astronaut program, and so on, and so on.

Amid all this excitement and ferment, Diane began building a program where important issues are discussed in an intelligent and engaging way, where people are never patronized and never shouted down. Talk radio can be a very belligerent place, very loud, very male - need I say it, very white. But all along, Diane Rehm has been proving that one doesn't have to have the loudest voice to carry the biggest impact. Without her example, I don't know that I and others like me would have the space we do have to try to bring our voices to the stories of the day.

There was a very nice dinner for in Washington last week. She looked fabulous, as always. There were some very nice speeches. But none of them were from people who also might not be where they are today without her. So in their behalf, Diane Rehm, I just want to say thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues