On Wednesday, April 19, 1995, terror struck America. Driven by anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and antigovernment sentiment, Timothy McVeigh bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168, including 19 children in the facility’s daycare center. In the dark weeks that followed, the National Rifle Association dispatched a fundraising letter that targeted not the murderers of innocents but federal agents whom the gun lobby’s leadership derided as “jackbooted thugs.”
Reading the missive, former president George H.W. Bush, a life member, resigned from the group. “To attack Secret Service agents or ATF people or any government law enforcement people as ‘wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms’ wanting to ‘attack law abiding citizens’ is a vicious slander on good people,” Bush wrote, adding that “your broadside against Federal agents deeply offends my own sense of decency and honor; and it offends my concept of service to country.”
Bush’s words could seem sweetly remote even then, and they strike the reader of the autumn of 2020 as positively antiquated. Decency is drawn from the Latin decentia, meaning “being fitting,” a definition that presupposes that there is a widely shared set of values against which we can judge the fittingness of certain behaviors. Put another way, decency has to be sufficiently prevalent that we notice when things—or presidents—are indecent, for such conduct stands out to us as beyond the norms of the acceptable.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that the norms that tended to govern American life from, say, the age of Franklin Roosevelt to our own time have given way. Twitter has been weaponized, not least by the 45th president. From Charlottesville to Kenosha, white supremacists have been emboldened. We live in a nation riven by tribal partisan disputes, by chasms of race, gender, and identity, and by starkly different views of the nobility and efficacy of the American experiment. Faith in the future is ebbing, and President Bush’s vision of the country—that we could be guided by invisible but tangible values of mutual respect, universal dignity, and a sense of generosity—is more ideal than real.
How did we get here? And how do we get back to a national ethos in which such sentiments are more ambient than aspirational? The answers to these questions are rooted, I believe, in a renewed appreciation of history and of human nature. We live in a fallen, frail, and fallible world. Our imperfections of character (selfishness, greed, ambition) are in constant conflict with our better impulses (kindness, sacrifice, love), and this tension in our individual lives finds expression in our political life, which is, after all, the public manifestation of our private temperaments. Politics, therefore, is a human, not a clinical, undertaking.
Our current deficit of decency can be traced to the rise of a structural partisanship that began to be clear in the years George H.W. Bush was in the White House. The spread of talk radio in the late 1980s played a role, as did the technological advances—if we can call them that—that enabled state legislatures to draw ever more precise, and ever more partisan, districts that put a premium on turning out a base of voters rather than privileging conciliation. The emergence of Newt Gingrich, the firebrand conservative Republican, solidified many of these trends, as his uncompromising rhetoric and refusal to compromise became the means to electoral success.
It is one of the ironies of American history that a climate of division took shape during the senior Bush’s reign. A child of Greenwich, Andover, the U.S. Navy, and Yale, George H.W. Bush was a model of a patrician style that, for all its shortcomings, included a personal grace that brought decency to the fore.
The 19th-century English clergyman John Henry Newman left us a revealing definition of a gentleman that, when broadened to include all people, offers a useful guide to decent conduct. “The true gentleman,” Newman wrote, “carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd… He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out.”
Easier said than done, of course, but Newman’s insights illuminate a path forward—or a path back, at least, to a more common national habit of heart and mind that might emphasize the good over the self-centered. This is about more than a single president or a single election; it is about who we are in the daily struggle with the devices and desires of our own hearts. And we know this: From Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, the best of the American story is one of liberation, not captivity—and the wellspring of liberation comes from the powerless.
“One thing I believe profoundly: We make our own history,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote shortly before her death in 1962. “The course of history is directed by the choices we make, and our choices grow out of the ideas, the beliefs, the values, the dreams of the people. It is not so much the powerful leaders that determine our destiny as the much more powerful influence of the combined voices of the people themselves.”
The past and the present tell us that decency is in danger when a substantial portion of the demos—the people—fail to meet the challenge of loving one’s neighbor at least a bit. Lord Bryce, a writer and diplomat who was a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt’s, warned of the dangers of a renegade president. His view, however, was not that the individual himself, from the White House, could overthrow the Constitution. Disaster would come, Bryce believed, at the hands of a demagogic president with an enthusiastic public base. “A bold President who knew himself to be supported by a majority in the country, might be tempted to override the law, and deprive the minority of the protection which the law affords it,” Bryce wrote. “He might be a tyrant, not against the masses, but with the masses.” The cheering news is that hope is not lost. “The people have often made mistakes,” Harry Truman said, “but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections.”
Truman is the key figure in a story I often think of when contemplating decency and democracy. In the first months of 1948, Truman dispatched his 10-point civil rights program to Congress. It was a revolutionary call for a new day of fairness and equality, and the president framed his proposals as part and parcel of what he called “our American faith.”
It was a faith—a creed—that could be stated simply: “We believe that all men are created equal and that they have the right to equal justice under law,” Truman wrote. “We believe that all men have the right to freedom of thought and of expression and the right to worship as they please. We believe that all men are entitled to equal opportunities for jobs, for homes, for good health, and for education. We believe that all men should have a voice in their government and that government should protect, not usurp, the rights of the people.”
Hence the need for sweeping federal legislation to fulfill the nation’s promise on voting, employment, housing, criminal justice, and public accommodations. Southerners, in particular, were aghast. The speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, Walter Sillers, said Truman was proposing “damnable, communistic, unconstitutional, anti-American, anti-Southern legislation.”
At a White House luncheon for the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, a representative from Alabama, Mrs. Leonard Thomas, confronted the president over civil rights. “I want to take a message back to the South,” Mrs. Thomas said to Truman. “Can I tell them you’re not ramming miscegenation down our throats? That you’re for all the people, not just the North?”
The president thought the moment right for a bit of a history lesson. Then and there, Truman reached for American scripture—the Bill of Rights.
In his flat Missouri accent, the president began to read. “ ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,’ ” Truman said, then moved on from amendment to amendment, enumerating the liberties of the people—all of the people. When he finished, he declared himself immovable on civil rights.
“I’m everybody’s president,” Truman told Mrs. Thomas. “I take back nothing of what I propose and make no excuses for it.” A White House waiter, an African-American, was said to have become so animated by the tense exchange that he inadvertently knocked a cup of coffee out of Truman’s hands.
“Those—the Bill of Rights—applies to everybody in this country,” Truman said, still addressing his visitor from Alabama, and “don’t you ever forget it.” Recalling the moment years later, Truman laughed. “I was just thinking of that old woman’s face when I started reading her the Bill of Rights,” he said. “It was quite a sight… But you know something? It’s not a bad idea to read those 10 amendments every once in a while. Not enough people do, and that’s one of the reasons we’re in the trouble we’re in.”
And we are in trouble now. Truman’s insight—that the Bill of Rights, with its emphasis on liberty under law, was a sort of secular Sermon on the Mount—is important, and it offers us a common framework against which we can measure that which is decent or indecent. We won’t always get it right—we haven’t since the Garden of Eden, and won’t until what William Faulkner called “the last red and dying evening”—but at our best we’ve done better than we have of late.
A few decades after Truman a remarkable thing happened. At a Democratic National Convention—in 1976, the year of America’s Bicentennial—Barbara Jordan, the first Southern Black woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, delivered the keynote address. With a deep and unique voice, Jordan embodied the decency of a people that could, at their best, judge others on what Martin Luther King Jr. had described as the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
“A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good,” Jordan told the delegates at Madison Square Garden. “A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the common good and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.”
It was the kind of American creed shared by many people of good will. In a letter to his mother, George H.W. Bush once outlined a life code: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course. All that kind of thing.” The path back to a decent America won’t be short or smooth. But it can, and should, begin with those words.
This story will appear in the November 2020 issue of Town & Country. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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