Van Ens: Some presidents’ manners elevate civility
Do you expect a president of the United States to practice manners rather than treating people meanly? Acting courteously rather than coarsely?
Nineteenth-century English novelist Jane Austen contrasted decent, mannerly characters with dolts who lacked these virtues. Their vulgarities made them seem as if they were raised in pigpens. Such scoundrels’ habitual deceit and rude behavior blocked their cultivation of well-bred etiquette.
In contrast, Austin’s heroines and heroes practiced refined manners. Their demeanor expressed solid, gracious inner values respecting women, children, refugees and travelers down-on-their-luck.
Mannerly Joe Biden, like presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, displays polished behavior that is not self-assuming. He does not break social norms as do habitual liars and fantasy spinners who glorify themselves. The president does not descend into verbal gutters, matching insult-for-insult against his opponent. Biden strives to reconcile rather than getting even. Like tasteful characters in Jane Austen’s novels, Biden appeals to citizens who desire decency, good-will and prior governing experience marked by dignity.
“What I got most criticized for was, I said we had to unite America,” Biden declared. “I never came off that message.” This credo governs how the president acts toward citizens. He echoes the Apostle Paul, who warned Christians not to surrender their manners by supporting liars who “delude you with beguiling speech” (Colossians 2:4).
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Biden’s mannerly deportment reminds voters of amiable President Ronald Reagan. He kept a jar of jellybeans on his desk in the Oval Office, which signaled his naturally sweet personality. Reagan spun his favorite yarn, a surreal barnyard parable about exercising an optimistic spirit during tough times. Reagan told listeners about a boy who found a pile of manure plopped in straw on a barn’s floor and exclaimed, “I just know there’s a pony in here somewhere!”
Listeners realized Reagan made-up this tale but recited it because he believed in its message: exude a resilient spirit when some days stink. Choose manners over hurling verbal manure at adversaries.
Reagan’s eyes twinkled as he winked at staff, affirming their value. These mannerisms functioned like powerlines surging with positive energy. Using a wink here and a twinkle of the eye there, Reagan charmed visitors by sending them joyful jolts.
Roosevelt joined Reagan and Biden in honing high manners. His staff scheduled 15-minute appointments when slump-shouldered visitors crushed by the Great Depression’s weight met with FDR. Some were tense; still more, weary of living battered lives.
Many visitors testified how Roosevelt did not dwell on their gripes. He bolstered dispirited folk by expressing witty asides and humorous stories. FDR jumped into the skins of those crest-fallen and disturbed. He envisioned what his visitors barely saw. Then he replaced these dark views with sunnier views of what might be achieved. By his upbeat manner and natural exuberance, Roosevelt lifted visitors crushed by an economic pandemic that defied being contained.
Presidents Biden, Reagan and Roosevelt have practiced resolute, encouraging manners, even though they did not lead easy, charmed lives. FDR had polio. Reagan endured a divorce and chilly relations with his children. Biden suffered the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972; later the death of son Beau from terminal cancer.
Cultivating manners saves us from our worst selves but not from the worst life brings. Our days are like a movie that makes us laugh with joyful tears and groan because of sadness.
Some days are solemn and sullen. Like a movie reel unwinding, setbacks are flashed on our life’s screen. Our life’s movie also features other days that inspire and soar with good news. Then our tears rise from sheer delight.
Some presidents have exhaled fiery threats, bashed opponents and habitually flung knock-out punches. They led lives marked by thin manners.
In contrast, Shakespeare tells of King Lear twisting in stern winds of fate, which made him “to feel what wretches feel.” Biden endured wretched days he did not deserve. But his mannerly coping skills gained from faith in the crucified Jesus and his resilient attitude saved him from buckling.
Lacking an easy life, Biden’s positive outlook connects with Americans in a story Jane Austen would have relished writing.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.