Vail Daily column: Show class
February 11, 2017
Shoot-'em-up 1950s TV Westerns featured a common script. A decent cowboy hero prevailed against "despicable varmints," the bad guys who lost gun fights against law and order sheriffs.
"The Lone Ranger" pitted decency against decadence. The mysterious masked-man entered a saloon tended by a trembling bar-tender who feared gunslingers. Tough-talking deplorable cowpokes spit on the floor and forced floozies to sit on their laps. Then the Lone Ranger came to the rescue. Either a gunfight erupted in which masked man's silver bullets smoked desperadoes, or his decent words won over bad guys' curses.
A bread company was located near my boyhood home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. On a Saturday morning in the 1950s the Lone Ranger visited there. On the main steps he spoke to an admiring crowd and challenged boys and girls to devour a "whole loaf" of decent conduct. This masked marvel asked us to elevate life by working for "truth, justice and the American Way."
That morning the Lone Ranger cinched first place as my hero. A University of Michigan football star turned politician, 5th District Congressman Gerald R. Ford, ran a close second.
My Dad idolized "Jerry," who everybody in Grand Rapids knew on a first-name basis. Dad said Jerry acted decently because he crossed party lines and worked with Democrats, unlike Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg who tried to keep America First by supporting isolationism before World War II. Vandenberg detested building alliances with political enemies.
The Lone Ranger came to life twice for me: once in front of the bread factory long ago, and recently during Barack Obama's presidency.
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Barack Obama is decent. Some differ with his politics, but Obama loves his wife, raises his daughters right, supports solid family values and shows class. When unfairly attacked, he refrains from lashing back. He meets scowls with a smile.
Obama doesn't tweet insults. Nor does he hit back nastier with Orwellian "alternative facts," contrived "newspeak" — foggy political propaganda — that George Orwell debunked in his novel "1984." Obama left office, vying with Ronald Reagan as America's most popular president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
What's the source from which Barack Obama's decency flowed? He and wife Michelle repeatedly expressed: "When they go low, we go high."
Even former Reagan speech-writer and The Wall Street Journal pundit Peggy Noonan, no fan of Obama's politics, begrudgingly admired him for practicing decency. "Barack Obama had dignity in his personal sphere," she wrote soon after a coarser regime took his place. "He carried himself with confidence, like someone with self-respect. You gathered, as you watched over eight years, that he did what a man does, taking care of his family, his wife and children. He didn't talk about it, but he modeled it, represented it in his actions. This, in an increasingly less parented country, was valuable."
Americans on both sides of the political aisle miss what haunts Peggy Noonan: a decent president who doesn't sound bellicose, like despicable cowpokes do in 1950s TV Westerns.
What legacy does Obama's decent conduct and distinguished conversation leave us?
His basic decency served as a parenthesis that punctuated his presidency, from beginning to end. "Yes! We can!" he convinced us. If a white guy recites this mantra, it falls flat, lacking poetic charm. But this credo soared with President Obama whose people received racist insults. But they sprung back and didn't cower. "Yes! We can!" peals like a church bell when a black president declares it and then acts decently.
Decent presidents expect the best from our nation rather than rehearsing its worst traits. "Law and order" Richard Nixon exploited white hate against blacks. He spoke in dark language of the carnage ripping off whites who were forced to share power with people of other skin colors.
Contrast such diatribes with what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt uttered. He didn't wallow in the carnage of the Great Depression or World War II. He appealed to Americans' decency.
On a raw, cloudy January 20, 1945, Americans huddled on a snow packed White House lawn where FDR delivered his fourth inaugural address. He didn't sound dreary as the weather. Frail in body, with death lurking, a resilient sounding Roosevelt affirmed, "The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward … " History sometimes stutters, but regains its verbal footing when decency marks speech and future action.
Tony Kushner expressed what the Lone Ranger, Gerald R. Ford, Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt share: a confidence that Americans can do better. Yes! We can! We don't have to bully or use vulgarity or besmirch the presidential office with coarse tweets. Kushner wrote in his play Angels in America, "The world only spins forward. However long it takes, life for most citizens will be better in the long run." If decency accompanies its progress.
It will when "Yes! We can! Americans" get off of their duffs.
When the Lone Ranger left that bread factory, a ten-year-old boy felt recharged, cleansed and optimistic. My hero didn't hide his decency behind a mask. He taught me to be and do what Jerry Ford was good at, what FDR exuded and what Barack Obama practices.
Time to reclaim this legacy, isn't it? Let decency trump demagoguery.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries.
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