Paul Ryan’s Test Of Character–And Gerald Ford’s Lesson
On Saturday as the mushroom cloud was being constructed over the Republican Party I walked into my closet to get shorts and a shirt for a sunny October day. On the wall hangs a plaque given to me by my parents when I turned thirteen. Over the decades the not so fancy writing of a teenage creed has followed me from various apartments to finally hanging in our home. The last line again caught my eye, and with the major political story in the country dominating every newscast, and House Speaker Paul Ryan being a central part of the drama, there was no way not to have it resonate.
“Stand for something or you will fall for anything.”
Over the months on this blog I have commented regularly about the way Ryan has navigated a most difficult and unbelievable election cycle. I have given him some knocks along the way but also have tried to understand his role as a Republican leader, third in line to the presidency, and the one who needs to herd a most raucous house caucus. There are more than enough reasons as to why Ryan was ambivalent to take the role he now holds.
But then came Friday, October 7th and one of our nation’s most intrepid reporters, David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post, broke the story of a vulgar series of comments about women made by Donald Trump. (I strongly suspect Fahrenthold will get a Pulitzer for his on-going reporting on the vetting of Trump–a job that is required of all reporters.) That story changed this election.
It not only defined a nominee of a national party but also brought attention to the scores of Republicans who have in various ways tried to dodge, duck, or half-heartedly embrace a severely deficient person. None were pressed to respond, however, with the level of interest or degree of intensity than what Ryan has had to deal with this weekend. His conundrum is more than just a partisan point from which to either praise him or beat him. What Ryan now confronts is one of those rare American moments where leadership and character can combine to make a politician taller in the eyes his fellow citizens.
With that high hope in mind–and with really appalling headlines everywhere I turned this weekend– I pulled from my bookshelves Robert Wilson’s Character Above All to again read the essay on Gerald Ford. He was another mid-westerner, who like Ryan, shares some of the same values and traits. James Cannon writes the essay in easy conversational tones but it was the resolve which Ford demonstrated with his decision to pardon former President Nixon that I needed to sense again in light of all that is happening.
Ford heard the dissenting views of those close to him about the pardon but felt deeply that for the good of the nation his action was required. The blowback from some parts of the populace was intense. Even after that decision was polled to show it being a part of the reason he lost a very close election in 1976–and some have argued the main reason he lost by a small margin–he never doubted the importance of taking the stand shortly after becoming president. If anything, he said later in life, it was the lack of an explanation of his action which was what he wished would have been done better. He never second-guessed his actual decision.
Which brings me back to Speaker Ryan.
The vast majority of Americans know that Trump is not a man suited to lead this nation. The crude, vulgar comments from Trump which have played endlessly this weekend–with surely more to come which might be even more trashy–means that there is but one path a national leader can take.
At this point Ryan needs to strongly consider placing his role as an American ahead of his party. Like Ford, Ryan needs to play for the pages of history so that in some generation down the road, in another uncertain time in our national story, a person will reflect back and use the speaker’s story from Election 2016 as an example of political character and courage.
What better legacy could any politician desire?