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Vail Daily column: Leaders cope with a messy world

Jack Van Ens

Giving a late August fund-raising speech in Westchester County, N.Y., President Obama didn’t blink at a world gone mad. “The reason people are feeling anxious,” the president remarked, “is that if you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.”

And while “the world has always been messy,” he admitted, “we’re just noticing now because of social media.” Today, atrocities committed overseas, thousands of miles from our homes, are in our face with a click of the mouse. Facebook brings foreign affairs close-at-hand.

“The world has always been messy,” President Obama reminds us. One coping mechanism when the world swirls down the toilet bowl is to remember how our nation has persevered during previous tumultuous times. History doesn’t promise smooth sailing. The ride’s often rough.



Historian Rick Perlstein recounts the topsy-turvy 1973 Watergate era. He reports on how this Watergate mess exposes an unfolding pattern of political screw-ups. “A fog of crosscutting motives and narratives, a complexity that defies storybook simplicity: that is usually the way history happens,” writes Perlstein (“The Invisible Bridge”).

Four decades ago, I began parish ministry in a New Jersey church sandwiched between New York and Washington D.C. when ups and downs jangled history. It wasn’t a smooth flow of events.



In 1973, it felt as if the wheels had come off society. Cars lined up at gas pumps which ran dry. Middle East sheikhs cut supplies of crude oil. The Arab oil embargo choked our economy. Inflation shot up faster than at any time in the past two decades. The Vietnam War split our nation. Protests mounted. President Nixon’s “peace with honor” was neither peaceable nor conducted by an honorable Chief Executive.

Meat prices spiked. A cartoon depicted desperate housewives cutting deals with butchers to buy beef on installment plans. Johnny Carson in his monologue offered solace to viewers that we’re all together in this economic meat grinder. Beef prices skyrocketed so “Oscar Mayer had his wiener appraised,” cracked Carson.

Vice President Spiro Agnew prowled like Nixon’s pit bull, snarling to the Silent Majority about how strong “Law and Order” saves society from hippies. Then, Agnew was indicted for accepting financial kickbacks as Maryland’s county executive and taking bribes in his vice presidential office. Agnew resigned in October 1973 after being indicted and pleading guilty.



Watergate hovered over this mess like a menacing cloud. The Nixon administration tried to pass it off as a “third-rate burglary.” That sounded convincing to California’s governor Ronald Reagan. Returning to Sacramento from a month-long vacation, he comforted the nation, saying Sam Ervin’s Watergate proceedings amounted to a “lynching” and a “witch hunt.” Reagan didn’t smell bilge spewing from Watergate’s unethical sewer.

Because of the Watergate scandal, the New York Times July 4 editorial declared that never “has the nation been so shaken by doubt and uncertainty directly affecting its topmost leadership, its most revered institutions, and the very structure of democratic government.”

In 1973, political bedlam caused anxiety over our nation’s future. In short order, former 5th District House Representative from my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan — Gerald R. Ford — became vice-president and then occupied the Oval Office when President Nixon resigned.

The times were a mess but square-jawed “Jerry” relied on straight-forward values. Stumbling through boring speeches, he described himself “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” when appointed vice president. His colleagues gave him a standing ovation in the Capitol Rotunda when he admitted, “My addresses will never be as eloquent as Mr. Lincoln’s. But I will do my very best to equal his brevity and plain speaking.” Ford was an honest man who fit Jesus’s description of Nathaniel, “in whom there was no guile” (John 1:47).

Pundit Thomas M. DeFrank describes why Ford’s leadership granted the U.S. strength in messy times. “Jerry Ford is a human being cum laude, a down-to-earth, earnest, genuinely likeable guy with an infectious laugh and not the slightest hint of pretentiousness. He is a politician of great and genuine sincerity who feels far more comfortable with “Jerry” than “Mr. Vice President.” And in a time when virtuous pols (politicians) seem as scarce as gasoline, Jerry Ford sticks out as a man of abundant decency” (“Write It When I’m Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford”).

Today, when the world rattles like it’s falling apart, President Obama squares up to stern obstacles. He acts deliberately, doesn’t candy-coat brutal aggression and refuses to lead the nation into a nostalgic swoon over how wonderful life was during the Cold War as compared to now.

“Part of people’s concern,” he said outside Seattle in late August, “is just the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding, and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles, that’s based on a sense of common humanity, that’s based on economies that work for all people …”

The U.S. survived 1973. We shall surmount 2014’s messiness. President Obama, like Gerald R. Ford before him, measures up as a “good guy.” Such stability counts when history throws mud that makes life messy.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.


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