Wisdom seems a precious and rare commodity. And yet: We have a patrimony, as the late William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review, often put it, to call upon. Where we may be lacking, we’ve got a tradition to call upon. Even, as it happens, in newspaper columns from time to time.
The year was 1976, exactly 40 years ago. An incumbent congressman in Utah had “committed political suicide,” as one Salt Lake City attorney described it, having approached two women with the hopes of soliciting sex from them. Turned out they were policewomen with recording devices.
Bill’s commentary on the Mormon response — expecting the congressman to step down — should prod, today, the consciences of Trump surrogates wearing crosses on chains and heading movements about faith, family, and values, as well as anyone who considers himself Christian and a fan of mercy. What does that look like as a matter of politics? Is character king, or is it a relic, a matter for nostalgia?
“The Mormons, like other Christians, believe in forgiving a sinner seventy times seven times, Buckley wrote. “But their experience in forgiveness has not caused them to lose the very idea of wrongdoing.”
Contrasting the response in Utah to the reaction to another sex scandal of that era, he recounted how, “in what we choose to call the more cosmopolitan centers of America, everyone rushed forward to say, in the matter of Congressman Wayne Hays, that his ‘private’ life was entirely his own affair, that it mattered only whether he was using the taxpayers’ money to appease his lubricity.” Now doesn’t that sound familiar? Today we live in a world where even matters of basic and essential — existential, really — morals are manipulated for ideological convenience. Take, of course, abortion, where a Catholic Democratic vice-presidential nominee contends that being a person of integrity on abortion would mean imposing his supposed private values on a nation — making one wonder what value there is in his faith, if he is not willing to witness to it in his life — or to the law, for that matter, if it is not to reflect a moral code that is far from his private matter, but has to do with the common good of protecting life.
“The Mormon idea is that the political leader is also something of a moral leader,” Bill went on to say, “that praiseworthy men should be elected to positions of power.” But this wasn’t — isn’t — a idea exclusive to Mormons and not without history. He wrote that by “hanging on to this notion they cause to survive a great political tradition that traces to the Hellenic notion of the aristoi — men of singular quality, performing the necessary functions of the leaders.” These leaders were expected to “distinguish themselves not merely by giving great orations, let alone defining social justice,” but “by exhibiting a kind of temperance, a reverence for quality — a kind of cosmic piety that set them gently apart from the roisterers.” These qualities, he went on, “were as common in Athens as in Washington.”
So what about a “private life”? Is there really such a thing for integrated persons in a healthy society? Addressing the fact that the Mormons wanted the congressman, “as a gentleman,” to resign, Bill wrote that “the notion of a ‘private’ life that is entirely ‘private’ has gone, really, to quite extraordinary lengths.” As Bill put it: “It is one thing to say that no one should be permitted to peer into a man’s home. Another to say that a public should be unconcerned as to what in fact goes on there.” The word “privacy,” of course, has been butchered by ideologues in all branches of government, used as a bludgeon to assert a new morality of tolerance that is, in fact, a grave and tyrannical degradation of humanity.
Recent days have seen a flurry of shameful rewinds and accusations and, of course, indignant tweets — made possible by the archives of Access Hollywood and Howard Stern. It may have been an opportunity for the Republican party to do what it should have done all along and said: Donald Trump is not who we are or want to be. But that also demands the question: Who are you and what do you want to be? Who are we as Americans and who do we want to be? (It sure isn’t Hillary Clinton either.)
Speaking of Mormons, the other day I saw in my office a copy of a book by Hugh Hewitt from eight or so years back about Mitt Romney and the prospect of “a Mormon in the White House.” If only?
I’m not sure America is ever going to be great again unless Americans want to be decent again.
Bill Buckley proffers that in the case of a public servant caught in matters of indiscretion, “Christian reconciliation” looks something like this: “Affirm the ideal by dismissing the congressman. And then forgive the congressman his transgression – while insisting that that is what it was.”
I’m not sure America is ever going to be great again unless Americans want to be decent again. How do we get there? Restoring a sense of politics as a noble call and service rather than a reality show that votes anyone with the trace of politician — which in some cases means some experience and learned wisdom — off the island would help. But that’s going to require some humility and admission of sins. Right now we’re seeing a lot of doubling down to get to a win that might lead only to another cycle of denial and distraction, as our better angels are sacrificed for a dangerous power play with a strongman.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.