Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Obama, Reagan share common decency
May 21, 2012
Though politically light years apart, presidents Obama and Reagan share a common decency. Both have concisely expressed convictions without sanctimonious overtones or compulsive pleasantries.
When conversing with friend or foe, Obama and Reagan have exuded likability. They have shown affection toward their wives.
Onerous presidential tasks didn’t make them jumpy or short-tempered. These presidents personified the biblical instruction to do “whatever is gracious” (Philippians 4:8).
Their deportment mirrors colonial artist Thomas Sully’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson. Novelist James Fennimore Cooper wrote that he sensed “a dignity, a repose” in Jefferson he found missing in other portraits. “I saw nothing but Jefferson standing before me, a gentleman … in all republican simplicity with grace and ease on the canvas.”
These gracious presidents’ demeanor is similar to the gardens Frederick Olmstead designed for the 1893 World Fair’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
He served as landscape architect for Manhattan’s Central Park. When Olmstead first saw the undeveloped site alongside Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Jackson Park, he became depressed. The World Fair’s builders left huge refuse heaps, polluted lagoons and scrubby wild vegetation.
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To acquire new inspiration for his task, in 1892 Olmstead toured formal English gardens. Ornamental flower beds appeared “childish, vulgar, flaunting, or impertinent, out of place and discordant.” He wouldn’t replicate them for the Columbian Exposition.
The personalities of presidents Reagan and Obama aren’t churlish or plastic, as these English gardens appeared to Olmstead.
Instead, Olmstead designed vegetation that “created the loveliest scenes,” which as he described, “were comprised of the simplest, natural juxtaposition of native plants.”
Reagan’s and Obama’s personalities reflect these gardens.
President Obama’s personality is unaffected — a straight-talker whose speech is unpretentious.
He exemplifies what founding fathers termed “civic virtue.”
That is, we are placed upon Earth to make it a better place. Family commitments, honesty, humility, self-discipline and restraint are marks of a person who is committed to creating a more just society.
Those who signed the founding documents believed our goal isn’t — in the first instance — to get ahead, achieve financial success or denigrate enemies with parody and sarcasm.
Our calling is to practice civic virtue without using recrimination or resorting to character assassination. We must leave this Earth more civil by sacrificing personal comfort for social good.
Before Barack Obama appeared in national politics, Reagan’s speechwriter Peggy Noonan in 1996 penned an essay on presidential leadership. It ran in the book “Character above All.”
“You can’t buy courage and decency; you can’t rent a strong moral sense,” declared Noonan. “A president must bring those things with him. If he does, they will give meaning and animation to the great practical requirement of the presidency: He must know why he’s there and what he wants to do. He has to have thought it through. He needs to have, in that much maligned world, but a good one nonetheless, a vision of the future he wishes to create. This is a function of thinking, of the mind, the brain.”
Though Noonan was describing Ronald Reagan who she much revered, such virtues aren’t reserved for Republicans.Reagan and Obama’s personalities thrive on courage, decency and a strong moral sense.
Reagan endeared himself to citizens when after merely two months and 10 days into his presidency, he was wounded on March 30, 1981, in an assassination attempt.
When placed on a gurney, his wit and grace didn’t desert him. Nancy Reagan raced to the hospital as her severely wounded husband quipped, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” When the operating team approached, he piped up, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”
Biographer Lou Cannon caught how courage and humor pulled Reagan through and left the nation applauding: “In the long run, Reagan’s grace under pressure destroyed forever any lingering doubts that the president was a cardboard man whose aspirations and emotions were as synthetic as a celluloid screen” (Reagan, p. 405).
He mastered a self-deprecating, aw-shucks manner of speaking. Using down-home metaphors referring to personal freedom, Reagan charmed the nation.
David Broder, dean of commentators during the Reagan era, expressed why the president’s sincerity and courage won over the majority in the nation. “When he displayed that same wit and grace in the hours after his own life was threatened, he elevated these appealing human qualities to the level of legend,” observed Broder.
We are enduring a long political season in which candidates snipe, register low blows, insult and act like juveniles. Decency is in short supply.
What our nation yearns for in its leaders is a basic human quality that commands respect, lowers political temperatures and advances civic virtue. Our nation deserves decency in the presidential race.
Presidents Reagan and Obama are such exemplary role models.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.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.