In the summer of 2010, left-leaning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and right-leaning Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson both wrote about Wes Moore and his best-selling book.

Kristof’s column suggested that “The Other Wes Moore,” a juxtaposition of Moore’s own high-achieving life with that of a convicted felon with the same name and background, demonstrates how profoundly circumstances such as poverty can affect individual outcomes. Gerson’s column suggested that the book was an example of personal responsibility and how people control their own destinies.

Moore, who spoke at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday as part of the Yakima Town Hall Speaker Series, said they’re both right: The book speaks to the influence of society and circumstance in shaping people, as Kristof argued; but, it also speaks to the importance of personal responsibility as Gerson argued.

“It’s an intriguing marriage of both,” Moore said in an interview before his speech.

The thrust of the book, and a primary theme of Wednesday’s speech, was that the difference between success and failure is often wire-thin. The author rose above his poor, single-parent upbringing to become a Rhodes Scholar and a White House fellow. The other Wes Moore, born into similar circumstances, never escaped the street and ended up being sentenced to life without parole for his involvement in the murder of an off-duty police officer during a bank robbery gone wrong.

Having corresponded and met with the convict Wes Moore extensively over the years — he initially wrote him out of curiosity — Moore believes it easily could have been the other way around. The pivotal difference was that the author’s mother refused to give up on him as a trouble-making adolescent. She sent him to military school, where, after a rough start, he began to recognize his potential.

“Had it not been for people who fought for me, had it not been for my mom, had it not been for people who saw something in me before I even saw it in myself, things could have been very different,” he said.

More said it’s chilling to think of what his life might have become. But it’s more instructive to think of how the other Wes Moore’s might have turned out if he’d had a stronger support system. The Moore behind bars is a bright, highly articulate writer and a thoughtful man, he said.

“The tragedy really, is that my story could have been his,” Moore said.

That’s why he gives speeches like the one Wednesday, he said; he wants to inspire people to make positive change in their communities.

“I’m a true believer that potential in this country is universal,” he told the Capitol Theatre audience. “Opportunity is not.”

• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or