Sunday, December 31, 2006

Jerry Ford, Forgiveness, and Seventies Liberalism

In the mid-1970s, when Kathleen and I were students, we subscribed to the New Republic. We either got a really low rate, or, more likely, my dad paid for the subsciption. Before 1975 it had been THE magazine of American liberal politics. But when Martin Peretz took over the magazine that year, things began to change. In addition to becoming unquestioningly pro-Israel, the magazine often espoused a hard-edged liberalism that was difficult to distinguish from neoconservatism. Stephen Chapman, now on the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, wrote in its pages that we should scrap Amtrak. His solution to intercity ground transportation: what he called "the humble bus."

But the article that convinced us that the New Republic had abandoned its liberal heritage was a column about Gerald R. Ford. The columnist--I don't remember his name--lambasted Ford for something he did as a teenager. He forgave his father.

Ford's biological father, Leslie Lynch King, left the family 16 days after Gerald was born, and divorced Ford's mother a few months later. The future president, originally named Leslie King, jr., became Gerald R. Ford, after his stepfather. King visited Ford while the future president was working at a restaurant. One of the first things Ford told his father was that he forgave him. That one simple statement outraged the New Republic columnist. It was, I recall, couched in Jewish vs. Christian language, conveniently ignoring that Judaism has a tradition of forgiveness. My feeling was that the columnist was deeply into the pop psychology of "let it all out." You don't forgive someone until you've spilled out all your angry feelings. The columnist essentally called Ford a wimp for forgiving his father right away.

This was also the era of "The personal is political." Kathleen remembers being told by a strident Seventies feminist that she couldn't be a true feminist if she was Catholic or married. So Ford's forgiveness of his father was a political act which foretold his pardoning of Nixon. Maybe it did, but to me, it showed Ford's maturity. And while I still disagree with Ford's pardon of Nixon before he was ever charged with a crime, I can sympathize with him wanting to get the past out of the way.

The column was a sign that at least some liberals had strayed from their roots in the Social Gospel Movement of the early Twentieth Century. We liberals had dethroned Nixon and Americans had elected one of the most liberal Congresses ever. With power came arrogance. And perhaps that arrogance helped sour the American public on liberalism.

After years of arrogance and meanness by the Right, we liberals have at least a modicum of power. Let's hope we don't mess it up.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gerald R. Ford, R.I.P.

Last October, when I had a week of vacation, my wife Kathleen, my son Jim, and I took a day trip up to Grand Rapids to visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. We came away with a new respect for the nation's only unelected president. Kathleen and I had voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. We had both been angered when Ford had pardoned Richard Nixon in 1974. But we were reminded that this was a very decent man who came into office in extremely difficult circumstances.

I'm afraid I bought into myth of Ford as a not-so-bright guy--not so much from the Saturday Night Live routines about his supposed klutziness, but Lyndon Johnson's quip that he had played too much football without a helmet. And the only time we ever saw Ford, he was on the floor of the House, arguing against letting strikers get food stamps.

But the Ford we saw and heard at the museum was remarkably thoughtful and compassionate. Of course the museum isn't likely to show Ford in a bad light, but its curators had the integrity to include letters, both angry and reasoned, opposing Ford's Pardon of Nixon. And the recreation of the Cabinet room had an interesting interactive program which invited visitors to make decisions about major issues during Ford's presidency. We watched the video about New York's financial crisis. Yes, I voted to bail out New York, which Ford didn't do. New York survived and prospered in spite, or perhaps because of Ford's "tough love" approach.

The museum also pointed out that Ford was an internationalist, and a protege of Senator Arthur Vandenberg, also of Grand Rapids. Vandenberg's support for the Marshall Plan was critical to its passage.

The museum is certainly worth the modest admission fee. It's closed right now, of course, as its curators prepare for Ford's funeral.

I don't regret my vote for Carter in 1976, but I do respect the man he defeated.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


"Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people."
-Acts 6:8 (NRSV)

"He was a good Christian, and never enthusiastic in his religion."
-18th century English epitaph, possibly apocryphal

I was reminded of the supposed epitaph (the source is the late Laurence Lafore, who taught British history at the University of Iowa, and occasionally told some whoppers) when I attended Christmas Eve service at a local Episcopal Church. The service itself was beautiful--the music, the liturgy, and the elaborate ritual--what we sometimes call "smells and bells." But the sermon was another matter--a very intellectual but very dry talk about the oxymoronic nature of Christmas. There was nothing theologically wrong with what the rector said. But he wouldn't win any converts with it. In short, he showed no enthusiasm.

Before all the controversy over women priests and gay bishops, Episcopalians argued about churchmanship. Because the Anglican church is both Catholic and Protestant, there almost had to be a dispute between the two approaches to the liturgy. The Anglo-Catholics, or High Church, emphasized the sacraments, while the Evangelicals, or Low Church, stressed the Bible and conversion by the word. (In Britain the distinction between High and Low Church gets complicated, but here in the States, you can pretty much equate High with Anglo-Catholic and Low with Evangelical.)

And the High Church has triumphed, especially here in the Midwest. And as a Midwestern Episcopalian, I'm High Church. But it's unfortunate that that in adopting the High Church position, we've too often discarded the best of Evangelicalism. Especially its enthusiasm.

The Evangelicals included William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the movement to end slavery in the British Empire. And the Wesley brothers: Charles, who wrote some of the most beautiful hymns in the English language, and John, whose preaching converted thousands. (John Wesley died a member of the Church of England. Only after his death did his followers break with the church and become Methodists.)

But the enthusiasm of preachers like Wesley was too much for some staid Anglicans, who helped push Wesley's followers into breaking with the church. Thus the epitaph, which declared enthusiasm anathema.

We all know of situations where religious zeal has led to fanatacism of violence. But the word enthusiasm literally means "having God within." Martin Luther King, jr. was enthusiastic in the same sense as his fellow martyr St. Stephen, whose feast day is today.

Personally, I suspect that the decline in membership of the Episcopal Church has less to do with women and gays in the clergy than with a lack of the evangelical spirit in both the clergy and prominent laity. We can have the most awe-inspiring music, the most beautiful vestments, and the most elaborate ritual--but if the rector can't preach an inspiring sermon, we're not going to attract new members. That's right. We need some enthusiasm.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

My Advent Gift, or Return of the Exile

Sometime this month or next month, I'll be returning from my thirteen-year exile.

From 1989 through early December of 1993, I was an Amtrak ticket agent in Elkhart, Indiana. In the early 1990s, Amtrak management closed the ticket offices in dozens of stations, including the one in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was by then just an office in a strip mall from which buses to trains in nearby Waterloo, Indiana departed. I was "bumped," and I didn't have the seniority to hold a job in Elkhart or South Bend. But because I had transferred from Chicago, I still had seniority there.

From Pearl Harbor Day of 1993 to early December, 2003, I worked at the Chicago call center. I still lived in Elkhart, and did the long commute to Chicago every day. While I was home every night, I didn't see much of my family except on weekends. The Chicago call center closed at the beginning of 2004, so I followed my job to Philadelphia rather than risk bidding for the limited number of station jobs in Chicago. The original plan was for me to work lots of overtime so we could fix up the house in Elkhart, sell it, and all move to Philadelphia. But the post-9/11 recession was still on, and there was little overtime to be had.

By the time the recession was letting up, I had decided I was, in the words of Hamlin Garland, a "son of the middle border," who belonged in one of those three contiguous states beginning with I. In July of last year, I took the swing shift at the Bloomington-Normal station. I could usually get home every "weekend," which meant Wednesday and Thursday.

A few months ago, I learned that one of the station agents in South Bend would be retiring this November. So I put in for another transfer. After several weeks of anxious waiting, I was offered the job. I don't know exactly when I'll be leaving, but I'm looking forward to ending my years of exile. Appropriately, I received my good news during Advent, that season of hope and expectation