My parents liked Ike when Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president in 1952. They also lionized his protege, Gerald R. Ford, representative for the 5th Congressional District, which included my hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Ford lobbied hard as a key member of the Republican young guard, urging Eisenhower to exchange a military career for a presidential campaign. Raised in a strong Republican household, my dad hung Ike's picture above his bed. My father believed Eisenhower possessed an instinctive moderate backbone as he worked both sides of the political aisle.
Eisenhower and Ford drove their agenda down the middle of the political road. They avoided soft shoulders where those with narrow ideologies parked themselves. Ike warned, "Both extremes - left and right - are in the gutters."
Did Eisenhower and Ford fight Democrats on Capitol Hill? They engaged in vigorous debates. But neither allowed disagreements to demonize political foes.
Richard Norton Smith, former director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, caught the spirit of centrist Republicans who worked for the common good. He reflected on why so many considered Ford and his mentor President Eisenhower to be decent men.
"They saw in Ford," declared Smith, "a leader for whom differences of opinion were something to be bridged rather than exploited. Above all, he stands in reproach to those unable or unwilling to distinguish between campaigning and governing."
I grew up in a Republican home that respected moderation. We expected Republicans to work with Democrats, giving a little here and achieving something there. We prized the art of negotiation. To compromise didn't mean selling out.
Such centrist Republican thinking is rare today, as is the extinct Australian dodo bird.
As a political fighter, Gerard R. Ford bobbed and weaved. He superimposed the Apostle Paul's body analogy when he sparred against Democrats on Capitol Hill. "There are many parts, yet one body" (I Corinthians 12:20). Don't hack off an arm that weakens the body. Massage it until the arm works in concert with its twin. That's how Ford and Eisenhower got things done in Washington.
"I believe the basic Republican position we must regain is the high middle road of moderation," Ford declared. "We welcome into the party Republicans of every reasonable viewpoint. But we must firmly resist the takeover of our party by any elements that are not interested in building a party, but only in advancing their own narrow views."
Today, centrist Republicans who work together with Democrats are eclipsed. Economic wonks now shine, with tight control of GOP. They split the world into "producers" and "moochers," a distinction their favorite theorist, Ayn Rand, coined.
Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney segregate life into two camps - those liberated because they work hard, and leeches on Uncle Sam's dole (the 47 percent).
They denigrate government because Ryan and Romney allege it holds back entrepreneurs. They laud risk-takers, as if everyone has the potential to be another Bill Gates. They accuse government of excessive regulation. Freedom-loving Americans who get ahead financially without Uncle Sam's help are put on a pedestal. Horatio Alger's 19th century "rags-to-riches" tales inform the rhetoric Ryan and Romney use.
They refer to the Bible as if it's a motivational manual for best business practices. Ryan's and Romney's Jesus reminds listeners of a lone Western cowpoke who succeeds by personal skills, sweat and savvy.
Jesus knew nothing of this fabled individualism that Americans assume won the West. He was a Semitic ancient Jew who defined himself by tribe, clan and family. He didn't preach a gospel of self-reliance. Jesus taught we do best by building stronger communities, pooling our resources and not acting like action heroes who compete against each other.
In contrast, Mitt Romney champions a Mormon faith that accents a "can-do, take charge, get out of my way so I can succeed" spirit. He writes of it in his memoir "No Apology": "People from all over the world who prized freedom - the innovators, the pioneers, the dreamers - came to America and so they continue today. ... It is this love of liberty and the accompanying spirit of invention, creativity, derring-do and pioneering that have propelled America to become the most powerful nation in the history of the world."
Really? Do talented individuals magically succeed by dint of sunny minds and strong backs?
Where's a place in Mitt's world for the business person whose shop goes belly up, service workers who carry Mitt's luggage or hard-working immigrants searching for freedom to pursue opportunities long denied to them?
Centrist Republicans like Eisenhower and Ford believed in an American Dream that strengthens community rather than a stark individualism whose model for success is Donald Trump.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive. Van Ens' book, "How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes," is available in local bookstores for $7.95.